Burn the Beans, Please

I don't know how much of this is a facet of my fascination with cooking, and my ever-geekening desire to explore new (to me) ideas, and how much of it is an artifact of my cheap-assery. Regardless, I've been on a big kick lately (if lately is the past five years) searching after "full utilization," whatever that means. To me, it's the equivalent of "nose-to-tail," but extended to the totality of my cooking. These days, given my increased focus on vegetables, I've been on a quest to use every last scrap of every last vegetable I use.

Carrot tops go into pesto or gremolata; squash peel gets roasted, dehydrated and employed in a variety of ways (more on that later); melon rinds get pickled or salt-preserved (an ongoing project whose success is still an unknown); bean and pea-shells get burned. That's right. I burn my beans. On purpose.

It started because I had some snow peas left over from a produce basket, and no real plan on what to do with them. I'd employed a raw handful as a crunchy and fresh element on a dish of carrots (pan roasted and oven roasted in a crust of chicory and coffee), roasted cauliflower, torpedo onions, and a sweet potato and ponzu puree. They served their purpose admirably, and were my kids' favorite part of the whole dish. Trying to take them in a new direction, I decided to treat them in exactly the opposite way I usually do, and see what happened.

Since I usually focus on the freshness and vibrancy of snow peas, burning them seemed like the right way to go if I wanted to explore a new way of thinking about snow peas. I threw them in a pan under the broiler and let them get nicely blistered and charred. The smell was smoky, rich and herbal, while still retaining the sweet, slightly grassy elements of the fresh peas. The flavor was much the same.

Again trying to explore a new direction, I steered away from the crisp texture I usually prize in snow peas, choosing to capture the combination of smoky, herbal and fresh flavors in a quick broth. I submerged the charred peas in a few cups of water, put them over a low flame and let them steep for an hour or so. When I tasted the broth, it was limpid in both appearance and flavor, not at all what I was hoping for. At first, I thought my experiment a failure. Then I reached for my immersion blender.

After thoroughly obliterating the charred peas, blending them into the water to form a thin-yet-chunky puree of sorts, I strained the mess through a chinois. The earthy tint of the resulting broth, flecked with a few bits of char that made their way through the sieve, was beguiling. The flavor was everything I'd wanted, like a distilled form of the aromas I'd smelled after charring.

To mirror the interplay of flavors in the broth, I composed a dish of earthy-sweet kabocha squash, roasted with togarashi and lavender salt, simple pan fried zucchini, sliced thin and lightly coated with panko for crispness, and a sort of gremolata made with a bruinoise of raw zucchini, zipped up with lemon juice and zest, salt and just a bit of fresh rosemary. It was comforting, intriguing, deeply flavored and quite nuanced. It's had me obsessed with burning bean and pea shells and hulls, so frequently cast off in the process of getting to the meat of the matter, figuratively speaking, of course.

Since then, I've done similar things with favas and plain old green beans. For the former, I grilled the favas in their pods, eating the tender beans with a dinner of grilled rib eyes and endive dressed in a fish-sauce vinaigrette.

The next night, I made a broth of the cast-off pods, following the method described above, and served it with pan-seared scallops and sunchokes (an idea driven by the potential for an interesting visual similarity), roasted shiitakes and sweet corn, dressed with another version of zucchini gremolata, a dice of peaches adding an interesting twist. It was fantastic, too. The broth brought the lush texture of favas in flavor form, with the added inflection of the grill, and really rounded out and complemented the other elements.

Now, I'm sitting on some green bean trimmings, saved from a simple roast chicken dinner, that I blackened in a pan. I've got it in my head to freeze a batch of charred green bean broth, and keep saving up more until I can turn it into a spin on minestrone.

I don't want to be a one-trick pony, though, so I'm thinking of other things to do with the pods left after shelling, say, English peas. I threw a whole mess of them in the compost last year for Shiftwork Bites, and don't intend to repeat what I now see as a tragic waste. Perhaps an English pea panna cotta, with the pea shells steeped gently into milk? Dehydrated and ground pea shells turned into a smoky, slightly vegetal finishing salt? The possibilities are endless, and it all started when I burned the beans.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall