I came to beans later in life. As a young person, I never really liked them. I associated them entirely with overly sweet baked beans, or slimy three-bean salad at the deli counter. All of the beans at my house were canned. I was in my twenties when I was finally introduced to the magic that can happen when a dried bean is thoughtfully prepared.
I prefer a deeply savory bean to a sweet one. Baked beans full of molasses and brown sugar have their charms, but my appetite for them is limited: a small spoonful is plenty. And as a middle-aged type-2 diabetic, I can’t really amp them up with sugar, even if they are a terrific source of much-needed protein and fiber. I’m also notoriously bad at knowing I want to eat beans the day before so that I can soak them properly overnight. So, when I read about a technique for cooking dry beans with pork ribs slowly, with no soaking required and no sugar added, I was all over it.
This is a totally old-school country recipe, sustenance cooking for people with limited resources but lots of kitchen ingenuity. The ribs are used more as flavoring and added fat and body instead of as the primary source of protein. Think of the ribs as you would a ham hock in a pot of greens or a piece of salt pork in canned green beans. The biggest shock for me was that even though each portion of the beans contains only two ribs, it is plenty. I can take down nearly a whole slab of smoked ribs at my favorite barbecue places, but cooked this way, two is just fine.
Since the beans are the stars here, if you can, source them from someplace you trust to have them fairly fresh. All dried beans are not created equal, and the older they are, the longer they take to cook. Rancho Gordo is my go-to for extraordinary quality dried beans of seemingly infinite variety, but I also like Camellia and Bob’s Red Mill.
I make some version of this dish all fall and winter long, changing only the aromatic additions and garnishes and the beans based on what I have in my pantry. But the basics stay the same. I serve the ribs and beans with a salad, and maybe some crusty bread for sopping. It’s amazing that something this delicious and soul satisfying can actually be good for you.
- 8 St. Louis–style pork ribs, cut into individual ribs (I request them from the wider end of the rack)
- 1 pound dried large beans. I love Greek gigantes in this, but butter beans or large limas, light or dark red kidney beans, or other larger runner beans work great. Smaller beans break down too much and become more like refried beans with no definition.
- 1 dried bay leaf
- Salt and pepper
Note: If I have an onion or a couple of shallots hanging around, I chop them coarsely and toss them in. If I want it a little punchier, I might add a peeled garlic clove or two or a couple shakes of red pepper flakes, a twig or two of thyme. I might fancy it up when serving with some fresh chopped herbs, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, or add some croutons or buttered toasted breadcrumbs for some textural interest. But the recipe works great just as is.
Put the beans, ribs, and any optional ingredients into a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium high heat and add seven cups of water. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and let cook for two to four hours (this will depend on the size of the beans and how old they are). You want the ribs so tender that you can pull the bones out easily, removing them and leaving the meat behind, and the beans creamy on the inside but mostly still holding their shape. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Remove the bay leaf. If you want your beans creamier, you can mash up about a cup of the beans with a fork and then stir them back into the pot. Garnish however you like and serve hot.