Magic Beans

We all know the story. Jack went to sell his cow but was convinced to trade it for a handful of “magic” beans. His mother, angry at his blatant stupidity, throws the beans out the window into the dirt. Overnight, an enormous beanstalk grows higher than the eye could see. Jack climbs it, finds some giants, and the female giant helps him steal amazing treasures from the male giant, until the male giant chases him down the beanstalk. He then chops down the beanstalk, letting the giant fall to his death.

It is a classic fairy tale, one we were all told in our youth. Thinking about it now, though, I’m not really sure what the purpose of the tale is. Jack was rewarded for making a number of, quite frankly, terrible decisions. Not to mention the whole theft and murder with no consequences part of the story.

The moral of Jack and the Beanstalk does seem to be that blind naivety and amoral opportunism will lead to prosperity, which isn’t really what we should be telling kids.

Regardless, there is one very clear message that comes out of the story.  It’s a message about beans.

They’re magic.

I don’t mean that beans will really create staircases to castles in the sky, of course. My blind naivety is of a very different sort. In fact, my innocent belief that a job would suddenly appear for me is exactly what forced me to rediscover the beauty of the bean. No, beans are magic because of the way a few of these small, dried legumes can feed a man for a whole week.

As my last post told you, many months into my adventures over here I am still lacking an income, so my spending has been constrained. Meals out and food delivered have been replaced by large cook-ups that last as long as I can make them.

So, down at the supermarket, I turned to the beans aisle. For a little over four pounds I bought a kilo and a half of beans. Some were berlotti, some haricot, and some pinto. All were thrown in my basket. Other than that, an onion, a carrot, a baby fennel and some olive oil was all that I needed. My total spend? A mere £5.60.

I have spent enough time in London to know that £5.60 doesn’t get you a lot. It’s more than most coffees, but less than a lot of sandwiches. It is, really, an incredibly minor amount of money.

But this minor spending, when thrown together in a pot with a few other odds and ends (such as the end of a piece of parmesan cheese), can feed a kingdom. My pot of beans stretched to an amazing 12 meals. I ate them nearly every lunch and dinner from Saturday night through Thursday night, and gave some away. And it always tasted great.

Of course, I made some changes each meal. Sometimes I mixed it with some pasta, mashing a bit up to thicken the sauce. Other times, I just spooned it cold into a buttered bread roll and topped it with a dash of hot sauce. On my last day I even used the beans as the filling for a lasagne, uping the luxury of it with a decadent white sauce, all made from the hostel’s free ingredients. It was enough variety to stave off the boredom that could come from 6 days of beans.

But even by themselves, the beans were exceptional. I used to be a little afraid of cooking beans. Actually, afraid might be the wrong word. I was drastically uninspired by cooking beans. Far too often they were too tough or too mealy, lacking any real flavour. I would love them in something like chilli con carne, but just a large bowl of beans would send me running.

This changed when I read one article. It was a ‘How to live well’ by Tamar E. Adler, reproduced in the ‘Best Food Writing 2012’ compilation. A treatise on how cooking beans is one of the great pleasures of life, it inspired me to put the pulses in the pot and try it for myself.

Few articles have so revolutionised my thinking of an ingredient in the way this piece did. Every tip Tamar included, from how much fennel and parmesan rinds enhance the broth, to the way you can test a bean’s readiness by seeing if you can blow the skin off it, has helped me make outstanding beans ever since.

It helped me recognise that the broth the beans are cooked in, like a slightly thickened, insanely rich stock, is one of the most pleasing things to come out of a kitchen. For that alone, Tamar should be celebrated.

So find the article, read it, learn from it, and buy some beans. If you are travelling and have a pot, but not a lot of cash, it is all that you need.

You will never eat so much, so well, for so little. And if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Treat yourself: An anthropological study of the dining habits of hostel dwellers

Sometimes, things just fall into place. You meet someone who happens to have a room available for a steal. Your first job application gets met with a rousing approval and a decent wage. Everything moves smoothly and, within a week, your life is up and running.

Though, of course, that never really happens. Getting a house and a job both take serious work, and while some people do get lucky, for most of us it takes weeks or more to get settled. Which means experiencing one thing:

Hostel living.

For the plague of Aussies and Kiwis that swarm into London every year, the first real experience of the place is through the lens of dorm rooms and relative poverty. Some stay for a few weeks, while others use it as home for a longer term, but either way most will experience the unique lifestyle.

The hostel diet can be dangerous. Similar to the diet of university students and any other groups of people at the intersection of youth, low income, and lack of responsibilities, it isn’t known for its nutritional content.

It is, first of all, largely liquid based. The hostel dweller is a thirsty creature, especially after dark. Developing a close relationship with their local off license, they are able to keep well stocked with large cans of Fosters, Stella and Carlsberg, or perhaps some strangely potent cider. While this does not supply much sustenance, it does form a major part of hostel entertainment, particularly when drunk as part of a game. Beer pong and Kings Cup seem to be the main favourites, though there is something to be said for “riding the bus”.

Following alcohol, the main food group seems to be carbs. Regularly appearing are large piles of pasta with very basic sauces, about as cheap as food can be. Cooked using rudimentary tools, these vast plates of simple starches often provide the sustenance for the aforementioned drinking.

Pizza is the other main option, usually of the delivered type. These allow reasonable flavour and laziness to combine, with delivery people arriving at the door all hours of the day.

If a hostel dweller is really in the mood to treat themselves, they might head out for a meal. It seems that most hostels have a nearby restaurant that is reasonably cheap and provides decent food for these special occasions. In the hostel I am staying in here in Kensington, this is Da Mario, the Italian joint around the corner that was reportedly Princess Diana’s favourite.

It seems that the Queen of Hearts had some taste, as this is some surprisingly good Italian, considering it’s served amongst the most out-of-date, op-shop chic jumble of pictures and knickknacks that I’ve seen in years. The whole place is ridiculous, but it doesn’t matter when the pizza comes out, unsliced and topped with quality ingredients. The cheese in particular, flown in from Naples, is spectacular. Although they need a rethink on how they serve desserts.

The hostel dweller life is a good one, and the rotating door of new friends that come from around the world is wonderful. But it takes its toll. There are only so many days in your life you can live on just booze and carbohydrates, and I used most of mine up at university.

I am making sure to supplement my hostel living with some other dining habits. It may cost a little more to do your research and eat out at a few more interesting places, but I know my body appreciates the variety.

Soon, with a little luck, I will find somewhere else to live, somewhere where the kitchen is a little better and beer pong is not a weekday activity. But until then, it’s time for a trip to the off license. I’m going to treat myself.