So much of my cooking revolves around the seasons and the fresh vegetables and fruits my team and I find at farmers' markets. We frequent so many of them, from those practically in my backyard, like the renowned Santa Monica Farmers' Market, to the stand on the northern San Diego County family farm run by three generations of the Chinos, who have become so close to me that they make me feel like I'm their adopted, Austrian-born family member. And that's not to mention all the other local growers who supply the kitchens at my many restaurants from Dallas to Chicago and beyond.
So I take Earth Day, celebrated on April 22 each year since 1970, very seriously. We have only one planet. So we had better take good care of it.
Everyone in my restaurants is serious about making a commitment to helping the planet when it comes to the products we buy and the way we cook them. We do our best to source fresh, in-season, organic ingredients. We celebrate local farmers whenever we can. We promote the use of sustainable seafood and humanely treated animals, including serving eggs that come only from cage-free hens. Understanding that fresh produce offers one of the healthiest ways to eat both for human beings and the environment, we are also looking to expand the vegetarian selections on our menus.
But this philosophy isn't something new for me. I grew up in a humble home where a lot of the food we ate came from the garden my mother and grandmother tended. Meat was more of a luxury than the centerpiece of our table. In my restaurants, I've always thought of plant-based foods as star players on our menus, rather than boiled or steamed side dish afterthoughts.
Let me share with you here a perfect example: a recipe I've been making for more than 30 years. It's a ragout, or stew, of black beans, flavored not with the chilies most people expect to season with, but with more Mediterranean touches: fresh thyme leaves, basil and tomato, along with onion and garlic. It makes a great accompaniment to roast or grilled meat, poultry or even seafood; or, if you make it with vegetable stock or water, you can serve it as a vegetarian main dish together with steamed rice. Feel free to substitute other dried beans you like, such as white, red or pinto beans. And vary the seasonings to your taste, too.
However you cook them, you'll find this plant-based dish deeply satisfying, with a flavor and texture that can best be described at earthy. And that's the perfect adjective for a dish to celebrate this day.
Classic Black Bean Ragout
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups (500 mL), about 3/4 pound (375 g) dried black beans, picked over and rinsed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, about 6 ounces (185 g), minced
1 garlic clove, minced
Leaves from 3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme
7 to 8 cups (1.75 to 2 L) organic chicken broth, water, or half broth and half water
1 tablespoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup (125 mL) peeled, seeded, and diced fresh organic tomato
8 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
In a large bowl, put the sorted and rinsed beans. Add enough water to cover them by 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm). Leave the beans at cool room temperature to soak overnight.
The next day, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic and thyme and saute, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Scrape the onion mixture into a 2 1/2-quart (2.5-L) saucepan.
Drain the beans and add them to the saucepan. Stir briefly to combine the beans and onion mixture evenly.
Pour in 6 cups (1.5 L) of the broth, water, or broth-and-water mixture, season with salt, and add pepper to taste. Bring to a boil over high heat. Then, reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer and cook, stirring often to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pan and scorching, until the beans are tender, about 2 hours; as necessary, add more of the liquid to keep the beans surrounded by liquid. By the time the beans are fully cooked, most of the liquid will have been absorbed.
Remove 1 cup (250 mL) of the beans and puree them in a blender or a food processor fitted with the stainless-steel blade. Return them to the saucepan and add the tomato, basil and remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Stir thoroughly. Add more salt and pepper to taste, as necessary. Keep warm until serving time.
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