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Braised lamb shanks with cannellini, cranberry and garbanzo beans. (Credit: John Ross)

Braised lamb shanks with cannellini, cranberry and garbanzo beans. (Credit: John Ross)

Dried beans, a member of the legume family, have all the characteristics of a monumental food: They have been cultivated for some 9,000 years; the many varieties are identified with culturally significant dishes throughout the world; and they have unusual potential for improving human health.

We often pass by that long row of dried legumes in the supermarket, thinking that they are not very exciting, are hard to cook and don’t taste very good. I have discovered that using dried instead of canned beans and cooking them at low temperature for a long time produces a delicious result. Here are two recipes that will warm you up on a cold winter day.

Great Northern Beans Cassoulet Made With Chicken and Kielbasa
Sprinkle about 3 pounds of bone-in chicken thighs with kosher salt and ground pepper, then lay them in the bottom of a Dutch oven. Add 1 cup olive oil, 1 head of garlic cut in half, 4 small peeled shallots, 6 sprigs of thyme, 2 bay leaves and 6 juniper berries.

Bring this mixture to a boil on the stove, then place, covered, in a 225-degree oven. Cook for 3 hours and remove.

Chill this chicken “confit” overnight.

At the same time, soak 1 pound of great northern beans in cold water overnight.

The next day, drain the beans and place them in a soup pot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until tender, about 30 minutes. Strain, reserving the cooking water.

Remove the chicken, garlic and shallots from the Dutch oven. Heat the fat and drippings just enough so that you can strain them into a bowl. The fat will rise to the top.

Heat a large sauté pan and add 1/4 cup of the chicken fat. Stir in 1 chopped onion, 1 chopped stalk of celery, 1 peeled and chopped carrot and a tablespoon of minced garlic. Cook until vegetables are soft, then add 1 can of good-quality tomatoes crushed with your hands. Add 1 cup of the reserved bean liquid and continue cooking until it begins to thicken, about 20 minutes.

Place the cooked beans in the bottom of the Dutch oven. Slice a 1-pound package of smoked kielbasa into 1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange the chicken and kielbasa on top of the beans. Pour the tomato mixture over the chicken, leaving the chicken skin exposed.

Place, uncovered, in a 350-degree oven and cook for 1 hour. Sprinkle 1 cup panko crumbs over the chicken thighs and continue cooking until they brown, about 30 minutes.

Serves 4-6.

Cannellini, Cranberry and Garbanzo Beans with Braised Lamb Shanks
Purchase 4 American lamb shanks of about 1 pound each.

Measure out 1 cup each of the dried cannellini, cranberry (also called Roman or borlotti) and garbanzo beans. Rinse them under cold water and place them in a soup pot. Cover them with water and let soak overnight. (It’s OK to mix them in one pot.)

Heat a large sauté pan and add 1 tablespoon olive oil. Using high heat, brown the lamb shanks, being careful not to crowd or burn them. Brown them on both sides, about 10 minutes, and set them aside. Pour off excess lamb fat and reduce the heat to low.

Add 1 tablespoon butter along with 1 chopped onion, 2 chopped stalks of celery and 2 peeled and chopped carrots. Let the vegetables simmer for 5 minutes, then add 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 tablespoon thyme, 1 bay leaf and 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary. Continue to cook for another 3 minutes, then transfer the contents to a large, deep, roasting pan.

Drain the soaked beans and add them to the roasting pan along with 1 small can of diced tomatoes. Deglaze the sauté pan with 1 cup red wine and add it to the pan.

Nestle the browned lamb shanks into the bean mixture and pour 3 cups of chicken stock over all. Place the roasting pan on the stove and bring the contents to a boil.

Remove from the stove and cover with a piece of parchment paper then aluminum foil. Place in a 275-degree oven and cook for 4 hours, or until both the beans and the lamb are very tender.

While the bean mixture is cooking, trim and wash 1 head of kale, tearing the leaves into bite-sized pieces and removing the stems. Blanch the kale in 2 quarts of boiling salted water for 3 minutes, then rinse under cold water and squeeze out as much moisture as possible.

Form the kale into a tight ball and place on the cutting board. Chop coarsely and set aside.

Toward the end of cooking time, stir the kale into the bean mixture. Check the beans for seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.

At service time, make a gremolata garnish by combining 1/4 cup chopped parsley, 1 teaspoon finely minced garlic and the zest of 1 lemon. Place a generous portion of the beans on a plate, lay the lamb shank on top and garnish with the gremolata.

Serves 4-6.

John Ross