Southwestern Corn & Bean Salad

Sunday, September 23, 2007

I was walking through Central Market the other day and for some reason glanced at the poblano peppers and it occurred to me that I hadn't had fresh corn in a long time. Of course I've got my Rancho Gordo beans around, too, that I'm always looking for an excuse to cook up, so I whipped up this quick Southwestern / Mexican influenced salad.

Southwestern Corn & Bean Salad

When I work on tricky things like macarons these posts might be interesting reads and hopefully inspire people to try their hand at more technically challenging stuff, but obviously most of my day-to-day cooking is not like that. Most of what I cook, since I am single and don't have a ton of free time, is designed to keep well in the fridge, or freeze, and be easily repurposed for other dishes, transforming its way through the week. This salad is a good example of that. When you have leftovers?
  • Mix a cup of whole milk or light cream and 2 tablespoons of butter together in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add 2c of the salad and turn the heat down to medium; simmer it all together until everything softens and flavors and colors mix a bit into a hearty chowder.
  • Flatten a chicken breast by pounding it between layers of plastic wrap, and layer some of the salad on top. Roll it up and tie it with kitchen twine. Coat with panko or some other coating, and roast at 350F until the chicken is cooked through and juices run clear when cut, roughly 20-30 minutes.
  • Puree a can of tomatoes and mix with the salad to make a thick salsa; serve with chips.
  • Mix some salad with chopped cooked chicken, some reduced chicken stock, and a bit of flour and spread in a prepared pie crust for an impromptu chicken pot pie.
The only remotely "technical" things about this salad are the removal of the corn kernels from the cobs and then the cooking of the beans. Getting the corn kernels off is easy; just use a knife and run it down the side. It's easy to tell if you're cutting into the cob (because it's about ten times tougher than the kernels!) so get as far in as you can to try to get the kernels intact without cutting into the cob.

Slicing Corn Kernels

Then, flip the knife over and run the back of the blade down the ear to get out the corn scrapings, the bits of kernel still left in the sockets and a lot of juice from the ear itself.

Scraping Corn

You can do that in advance of making the salad. Then leave the corn in a bowl in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.

I cooked the beans very simply in this; I just sweated the shallots and poblano and garlic in some oil to soften them up a bit, added the corn kernels for a few minutes, then dumped them out of the pot and cooked the beans in their soaking liquid in the same pot without washing it (so some of the garlic and pepper made its way into the beans as they cooked.) If you're not comfortable cooking a pot of beans, I recommend starting with the Rancho Gordo cooking page; about halfway down where it says "Master Recipe List", they have their basic instructions, and now a video, too!

The only modification there is that there's no explicit mirepoix here because the beans are going into the salad. The flavored oil left in the pot should be enough.

Many people will tell you various things about cooking beans with or without salt, acids, calcium, or sugar, saying that all of those things can keep the beans from becoming fully tender. In my experience, beans come out much more tender when soaked and cooked in filtered water (I use the soaking water as the cooking water, another controversial topic -- it has never caused me any problems.) And I don't often make sweetened bean dishes (like baked beans with molasses, although they are delicious) so I can't say for certain what sugar does to the beans.

As for acids and salt, though, I have not found any substantial difference in cooking beans with or without salt, and when I cook beans with acid like tomatoes, they still become tender but the skins tend to stay more intact. For this recipe, if you're concerned about appearances, you might add some acid to the beans halfway through cooking to help keep the skins from splitting and keep the beans cohesive in the salad. I liked the idea of them getting a little mushy and adding some creaminess to the salad, so I just cooked them in plain, unadulterated water.

I used the Rancho Gordo Vaquero beans, handsome black-and-white beans, the skins reminiscent of the RG Calypso beans I fondly remember cooking several times in San Francisco. The Vaqueros are warm, meaty and assertive, with mostly deeper flavors, not a lot of green taste, a nice hearty addition to this salad, offsetting the light sweetness of the corn and slight bitterness of the barely-cooked peppers.

Here's the full spread of ingredients for the salad. Except I forgot to put in the ham. If you're so inclined, chop up a slice and throw it in with the beans as they cook. My current favorite ham is the Vande Rose Farms artisan ham; as you can see in the image, it's nicely marbled, a good slightly-cured pink color, and the texture wonderful; just fibrous enough to pull apart but elastic enough to be nicely chewy. And it's from happy, well-cared-for pigs.

Note that this photo is for a double batch of the recipe; it made an enormous amount, so in the recipe I've halved everything to make it a more reasonable yield.

Corn & Bean Salad Ingredients

I'm in love with queso fresco these days, too; Central Market has a panela barra white cheese that fries without melting; it slumps a bit but never liquefies, and it browns nicely and has a good, dense, chewy texture. (McGee observes that fresh cheeses were historically known as peasant meat, having a similar dense chewiness and with good protein and fat, but much less expensive, since the cheese is quick and easy to make.) I fried a bit, either in little slices as garnish or as cubes to mix in with the salad. It's not as salty as the more crumbly fresh cheeses, and primarily adds some welcome texture and creaminess.

Southwestern Corn & Bean Salad

Serves 8, as a salad
1/2lb dried hearty beans (black, pinto, or similar), cooked (or about 2 cans)
2T olive oil
1 small shallot, medium dice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 poblano pepper, chopped
Kernels and scrapings from 3 medium-sized ears of corn
pinch of cumin seed
large pinch of epazote (optional; said to reduce gas from the beans)
1 small heirloom tomato, large dice
soft Mexican fresh cheese such as panela barra

Soak the beans for at least 2 hours, and up to 6 if they are older. Pour the olive oil in the bottom of a large stock pot over medium heat, and add the shallot, garlic, and chopped poblano pepper and sweat them for a minute or two, until the shallot is translucent. Add the corn kernels and cumin seed and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes, until the corn kernels soften a bit.

Pour the veggie mixture into a bowl, but leave the oil in the pan. Add the beans with their soaking liquid and enough extra water to cover them by 2", stir in the epazote (if using) and turn the heat to high, and bring the pot to a strong boil for 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium-low, low enough that the pan is still simmering, but barely. Cook until the beans are tender. This will depend strongly on the variety and age of the beans and length of soaking time. Taste a bean after 45 minutes and then every 15 minutes thereafter until its flesh is pleasantly tender but the skin has not disintegrated. Remove the pot from the heat and drain off most but not all of the remaining cooking liquid (don't strain the beans, you want some liquid left to mix into the salad.) Salt the beans to taste.

Mix the diced tomato with the veggie mixture, and then toss in the beans gently, trying not to smash anything in the process.

Fry slices or 1/2" dice of the cheese in a dry, non-stick skillet over high heat, flipping to get all the sides nicely browned.

Serve the salad in bowls, garnished with the fried cheese.

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