Get your greens and beans without the mush-factor

This is the second in a four-part Back to the Kitchen Genius Series with Kitchen Arts & Letters. Managing Partner Matt Sartwell will share memorable recipes from his 20-plus years running the famed cookbook store; we get to revamp our weekday routines.

If you've ever paired beans with greens, you know that it's not only poetic but also smart. Together, they're inarguably good for us, and are easily made delicious in all kinds of friendly guises — soups, stews, curries, salads — so they're embraced by everyone from vegans to gluten-avoiders to people like me who eat Shake Shack on the way home from the gym. Beans and greens is the all-level yoga of dinners.

But what you may not yet know is that you can pan-fry your beans (and greens) like Heidi Swanson at 101 Cookbooks, and they'll be even better; that when you slip beans into hot oil for a few minutes, their skin ripples and blisters and browns. As Swanson wrote to me, "You get the extra good crust in an old cast iron skillet." (She followed this with a fist bump emoji and a winky face, and now we have another reason to love Heidi Swanson.)

The improvement in pan-frying, at its most obvious, is about texture. Beans are normally a soft, mushy comfort — here, we're giving them a crispy skin we didn't know they had in them, while the middles stay good and creamy. This is the equivalent of fried rice, or when I learned it was OK to fry toast in olive oil — take a staff of life, crisp it up in oil; life improves accordingly. Then you'll wilt in twists of kale, softened but not given the chance to get watery, plus toasted walnuts, and your plate now has very little in common with mush.

But this technique is just as much about flavor, which concentrates quickly in the hot pan: In the space of two minutes, you’ll add garlic, then lemon juice and zest, then grated nutmeg, and the beans and greens will take up all of it. What you end up with has the brightness of a salad, but the coziness of anything in the warming fall casserole oeuvre.

It might sound like a lot of work to cook beans start-to-finish, and then pan-fry them — one of those novelty recipes you bookmark but will never actually make. It’s not. Here’s why:

Once you cook a big pot of beans and keep them around all week, you'll want to do it every week. If you have that pot sitting in your fridge (and yes, I stick the whole thing in after it cools), you are never more than 15 minutes away from a big pile of crusty-creamy beans and greens.

The recipe calls for giant beans, because flipping them is easier, and you get more creamy to balance the crusty. Swanson uses beautiful corona beans from Rancho Gordo; I used a bag of dried limas, the only large beans I could find at the unpleasant grocery store nearby; you can use whatever you pull out of your pantry, even smaller cannellini or chickpeas, if that's all you've got — even canned.

Sure, home-cooked beans will keep their integrity and make this the best it can be. But this method is the simplest and most effective way I’ve found to make canned beans not taste like a can.

From whatever point you start, as Kitchen Arts & Letters' Matt Sartwell told me, "It's nearly impossible to make too much of this, and the basic idea is a great place to begin improvising. I've used beet greens with the fibrous stems chopped finely. I've substituted chickpeas and leftover sautéed kale. And no matter what combination I have tried, it disappears at parties."

“Someday I will make enough to try it as a leftover. Hasn’t happened yet, but I bet it would be great.” (I tried it for him — he’s right.)

Heidi Swanson’s Pan-Fried Giant White Beans with Kale

Adapted slightly from 101 Cookbooks

Serves 2 to 4

1/2 bunch (6 oz.) dinosaur or lacinato kale, stems removed

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 to 3 big handfuls of cooked large white beans (like corona, lima or gigante beans)

1/4 tsp. fine grain sea salt

1/3 cup (1 1/2 oz.) walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

Scant 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon

1/3 cup (1/2 oz.) freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

1/2 bunch (6 oz.) dinosaur kale or lacinato kale, remove stems

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

2 to 3 big handfuls of cooked large white beans (like coronas, limas, or gigante beans)

1/4 tsp. fine grain sea salt

1/3 cup (1 1/2 oz.) walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

Scant 1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

Zest of 1 lemon

1/3 cup (1/2 oz.) freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)

Chop the kale, wash it, and shake off as much water as you can. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in the widest skillet you own. Add the beans in a single layer. Stir to coat the beans, then let them sit long enough to brown lightly on one side, about 3 or 4 minutes, before turning to brown the other side, also about 3 or 4 minutes. The beans should be golden and a bit crunchy on the outside.

Add the kale and salt to the pan and cook for less than a minute, just long enough for the kale to lose a bit of its structure. Stir in the walnuts and garlic, wait 10 seconds, then stir in the nutmeg. Wait ten seconds and stir in the lemon juice and zest. Remove from heat and serve dusted with Parmesan cheese.

This article originally appeared on Food52.com: http://food52.com/blog/11251-heidi-swanson-s-pan-fried-giant-white-beans-with-kale

Food52 is a community for people who want to eat well and live better. Follow them at Food52.com, and check out their kitchen and home shop, Provisions.