Les Haricots Tarbais

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Back in my intrepid youth, when my hair dipped below my ears (when I had hair, that is…), I flirted with vegetarianism. I should probably say it was more than a passing fancy; I was a vegetarian for about six years and even worked in a vegetarian restaurant. At Cabbagetown Café in Ithaca, New York, we’d ladle up bowls of Cashew Chili or curious soups, like the one that a co-worker would insist on enriching with generous -and nutrictious – dollop of peanut butter.

And don’t get me started on the bizarre customers we’d get. We had one regular, whose name we didn’t know (so we just called her ‘Beyond’) who would sit in the dining room and order only a bowl of brown rice. Then she’d spend hours in the dining room writing in her journal, in the teeny-tiniest letters imaginable, eating her rice grain-by-grain.

Eventually I started eating meat again because I got tired of being served pizza smothered with soggy vegetables and was constantly dreaming about diving into a big, soft, overstuffed corned beef sandwich. When I told my ‘alternative’ doctor about that, he said, “You know, if you’re craving something, that means your body needs it. So you should probably go ahead and have it.”

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With that advice, I left his office and made a beeline to the nearest Jewish deli, and ordered a big, honkin’ mound of hot corned beef barely contained by two sharp-crusted pieces of caraway-flecked rye bread with a smear of hot mustard. And from that day on, my vegetarianism was kaput.

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But you don’t need to be a vegetarian to love beans as much as I do. The top bean for bean-lovers, the holy grail of beans, are the haricots Tarbais, grown in the southwest region of France near the Spanish border. Planted in May, then harvested between August and October, haricots Tarbais are hand-picked and commonly used in cassoulet, that rich casserole baked with confit de canard, meaty Toulouse sausage, sometimes mutton, and topped with oily-crisp breadcrumbs, then baked until dense, rich, and savory.

There are lots of variations on cassoulet, of course, but I often cook beans just as a simple side dish. And since it was time to kick out my roommate, the drunken French sailor, I picked up a sack of beans and headed towards the kitchen. Although I was sorry to see him go, he wore out his welcome (and everything I owned was starting to smell like pork.) So I figured I’d give him one last hurrah before he got the heave-ho, and I used him to flavor a pot of delectable haricots Tarbais.

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Haricots Tarbais
Four servings

Although many say these beans will cook in one hour, I often find they’ll take longer, especially if yours aren’t as fresh. In Paris, the water is very mineralized, so cooks add a pinch of baking soda to the water or use bottled. You’ll have to be the judge; just cook them until tender and to your liking, adding more liquid if necessary.

When cooking any dried beans, salt should be added after they’re pretty well cooked, since it can inhibit the bean’s ability to soften and absorb water. Since haricots Tarbais might not be easily found where you are, use any good-quality dried white beans (haricots blancs), adjusting the cooking time accordingly.

8 ounces (225 g) Haricots Tarbais, picked through and soaked overnight.
6 cups (1.5 liters) water
pinch of baking soda (see headnote)

Plus any of the following:

  • 1 bay leaf
  • a few branches fresh thyme or savory (or a pinch of dried)
  • 1 small onion, peeled and halved
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1-2 whole cloves
  • 1 carrot, peeled and diced
  • 1-2 pieces of thick-cut bacon (potrine fumée), diced in big pieces
  • (or add a big 'ol ham bone, if you've got one)

-Put the beans in a big pot with the water, and other ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook partially-covered for about 1 hour, or up to 2 hours, until the beans are tender. Add salt to taste during the last 30 minutes of cooking.

-If using a ham bone, as I did, pull any bits of meat off the bone and add them to the beans. The beans will turn a darker shade as they’re cooked, as mine did.

-Serve warm, drained of most of their liquid (which makes a nice base for soup), alongside braised or roasted meats, or poultry.

Or drain, and use to make a bean salad. To avoid the thin, papery skin peeling off the cooked beans, toss them while warm in a decent-sized spoonful of olive oil right after they’re drained.


Note: Haricots Tarbais aren’t easily available in the US (they’re available on Amazon) but Rancho Gordo has started growing and drying the beans.

28 comments

  • Dear Dave,

    I was a vegetarian for seven years, and had been a cook at a vegetarian restaurant in Worcester, MA. It was a pastrami sandwich which broke my fast. Great minds (or stomachs)?

  • The bf and I were in Paris this past November and I fell in love with cassoulet. I don’t know why I hadn’t ordered it on previous visits….maybe because my history with beans was limited to chili and “pork and beans”. This one included duck confit and three different kinds of sausage. Now, I’m hooked.

    ps: I did the vegetarian thing for about 8 months. My mom tried to accomodate me by making fried rice and egg rolls (from the freezer section)….both of which were made with pork. Gotta love ‘em.

  • I had my first taste of cassoulet in Toulouse. Need I say more?

  • I did the vegetarian thing (for about 6 months) when living in Austin, TX of all places. But when I was served a disgusting meal of vegetarian bbq (big, thick cold slabs of tofu drowning in cloying, sweet bbq sauce), I just knew that vegetarianism and I were not meant to be. I love that photo of that big ol’ hambone sticking out of the pot. Wow!

  • I had a genuine “Oooo Nooo Mr. Bill!” moment at that photo. I thought someone had cooked you with your devilish hoof in a pot.

  • Cabbagetown was gone by the time I got to Ithaca (although we still had Moosewood, of course). Wouldn’t have mattered if it was, though, as I need my bacon.

  • Judith: If that was my foot, think of how the rest of me would be feeling!

    Joy: Too bad about having to go to Moosewood. Those were some mean-ass waiters!

    Last time I ate there, they brought us our wine just as they were clearing our dinner plates. When I told our waiter the we were done (obiviously) and didn’t want it anymore, he looked at me, turned to the other waiter, and said (intentionally loud enough for me to hear), “Oh great, now he doesn’t want it anymore!”

    H.T.: Eww. Why live in Texas if you don’t eat BBQ? What’s the point? ; )

    What a bunch of losers. Next time I’m in Ithaca, I’m bringing in bacon and scattering it over everything.

    Ross: Funny how people ‘interpret’ being a vegetarian. My mother thought it was that we only ate a little meat.

    Katie: I know…it was torture going without. Now if I could only find a good corned beef sandwich in Paris…

    Bob: I love Toulouse! This winter I’m going to make Paula Wolfert’s cassoulet that calls for, like, 8 cups of peeled fava beans. Yum!

  • The first picture made me snort. Still giggling. I love beans in any way, shape or form (except lima beans, which I just can’t stand).

  • I didn’t know that you can get ham bones…where did you find it? Can I get it in normal supermarkets?

  • I remember Cabbagetown well…it was in that space on College Avenue, across from Fontana’s Shoes? I thought the food was pretty good…and the advantage was that it was much less pricey than Moosewood’s (which, by the way, is really coasting on its reputation).
    Which deli did you hit? It had to have been Hal’s on Aurora Street, right?

  • Tom: Although I do confess to having my share of Tempeh Reubens in Ithaca, yes! it was Hal’s Deli.
    Cabbagetown was across from Fontana’s (I used to live above it, looking down Buffalo Street). A friend of mine went to Moosewood once and after she finished her wine, she asked for another glass, and the waiter replied, “Well, it’s not free, you know!”

    Sheri: Believe it or not (and now everyone’s going to get the impression I’m a big meat eater when I’m not) if you roast frozen lima beans in the oven in beef fat until caramelized and crisp on the outside, they’re absolutely amazing. The crunch of the crust and the soft, cushiony interior is excellent. Try it! They’re one of the best things in the world to eat and my mother used to make 1 box per person.

    She used to make those with her roast beef (and I probably did snitch a few of these, even though I was a veg-head!)

  • Oh! I love that you make me laugh!
    And I love the first photo.
    And for some vegetables is very hard to pronounce…My four year old says “wedgables”.

  • You should really try this kind of half dish and soup “la garbure béarnaise”. You can do it with some duck (confit de canard), some white beans and a lot more végetable. This soup is exceptional !!! and haricots tarbais are a must eat … ;-)

  • Mmm, burrito pie!

    Your ‘doctor’ must’ve worked for Frito-Lay.

    I think the reason many people don’t like to eat meat has to do with the appalling conditions to which animals are subjected by industrial farming. Craving or not, that can be hard to get around.

  • David,
    Haricots Tarbais are ‘red label’ – so they are like Champagne and only authentic if grown in their little corner of France, thus why they are not very available. I found a couple of sites for Tarbais Beans in the US, but rather than listing sites of unknown quality, I’d recommend folks search for “Tarbais Beans”. The bean does, however, have its very own site: http://www.haricot-tarbais.com/eng/culture.htm

    In the ’70s, my mom used to wage war on vegetarians. She’d start by frying up rashers of homegrown bacon every morning, and make up a huge succulent ham in the evening. By the time she’d cook up a big turkey a few days later, most vegs would break down for a small bite, and then another. By breakfast the next day, fat slices of bacon would have gone missing. She was a determined woman :)

  • I was a veg for about a year and my mom kept telling me that it was ok to have meat broths and stocks and to have fish, even though I had made the choice not to. And my little Asian grandmother kept telling me that she would only give me a little meat. Or that I could have the veg dim sum that she brought. I never knew pork and shrimp were vegetables.

    And I broke my friend’s vegetarianism with Chinese BBQ pork :)

  • I was a veg for about a year and my mom kept telling me that it was ok to have meat broths and stocks and to have fish, even though I had made the choice not to. And my little Asian grandmother kept telling me that she would only give me a little meat. Or that I could have the veg dim sum that she brought. I never knew pork and shrimp were vegetables.

    And I broke my friend’s vegetarianism with Chinese BBQ pork, however according to my grandma its still a vegetable :)

  • I’ve been a vegetarian every day of my life, trouble is I can’t stop when I get to the meat…

  • Nope, 6 years is no passing fancy, David. Guess you felt there was a good reason to eat that way. But people change. They mellow.

    Sounds like “Beyond” was the world’s most mindful eater and that would certainly make her weird . Maybe she knew real hunger and liked to take her time. I wish I ate like that.

    I agree with Steve. If you eat meat, I encourage you to find a source that is as cruelty-free as possible. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to think that reducing suffering is a good thing.

    Surely, any contribution to reducing suffering in the world is worth the effort. But what a luxury we have to argue about vegetarianism when so many people in the world are starving.

  • Laurent: J’adore le garbure! I’d make it, except it’s traditionally cooked over an open fire, and I don’t think my neighbors would take very kindly to roaring flames in my apartment building.

    Laura: It’s funny that people don’t think of pork, or lamb, as ‘meat’. And btw, all my Chinese friends insist that somewhere inside me, I’m actually Chinese.

    Catherine and Steve: I was actually a vegetarian more for political reasons rather than humanitarian ones. Which are the same reasons I don’t patronize fast-food joints.

    As most of us know, eating meat isn’t a very efficient way to use the earth’s resources. And the way animals are raised is often appalling. But being a vegetarian made me realize that meals don’t have to revolve around meat (unless you live in France, where it’s almost de rigeur)…some vegetarian friends of mine recently moved here from Italy and they’re going nuts from the lack of vegetables being served.

    I read a comment elsewhere that “veal is cruel”, and I wondered how is veal more cruel that any other meat?
    In the old days, veal was raised using rather dubious methods, but today that’s changed. We once had veal activists protesting outside Chez Panisse, when we were doing the ‘right thing’ and buying only locally-raised veal. (right idea…wrong target, folks..)

    So is eating a young animal any different than eating an older one?

    So why is veal considered ‘cruel’, or worse than beef or lamb or pork?

    And Alisa, maybe your little one’s trying to tell you she has a wedgie. Better check! ; )

  • I could never be a vegetarian…I love a great steak once in a while, love lobster,and I absolutely love corned beef sandwiches and Reuben sandwiches! It is so hard to find a good one in Asia. Impossible in China!
    Yep! I order them when I am in the states for home leave. YUM!

  • I am SO glad you agree that the word “veggie” should be struck from the American vocabulary. It makes my skin itch.

  • Seems to me that in France a vegetarian

    would have to eat the garnishes and send the
    entrees back. Bizarre.
    There used to be a place in Paris called”Le roi de pot-au=feu”. They Served only one dish & one (red)) wine. Delicious.

  • Funny story! My wife was a vegetarian for many years too, and I went along for the most part at home. We dabbed in meat for a few years then when she got pregnant we really became carnivores–can’t get enough of that steak now!

  • same here – vegetarian for 2 years, tucked into my first schnitzel when i had a bun in the oven and was dangerously iron-deficient.
    have never gone back. i don’t eat masses of meat, but it’s too good to pass.
    but: why does MY body tell me i need to eat pastries from paul’s every day???? oh well, i probably really need it!

  • That first picture is beyond awesome! A little tantalizing, a little mysterious, a little gothic?

  • As a vegan for three years now, I bristle a little at the fascination towards “reformed” vegetarians. It’s as if being a vegetarian is like a childhood developmental stage: you’ll grow out of it and look how great and vibrant the world is when you do. Vegetarianism is not ascetism; most people don’t become vegetarians to deny themselves the obvious pleasures of eating meat. Many make the realization that those pleasures come with an accompanying cost, one which I don’t think can be justified.

    As for veal, it is not a matter of the animal’s age. After all broiler chickens in the United States don’t live to see three months old and most cows don’t live past two years of age when their typical life spans number in the twenties. The objection is the conditions under which veal calves are raised. In the United States, they are kept almost from the day they are born in small crates, too small for them to turn around, and chained to the floor in darkened warehouses. They are fed diets purposefully deficient in iron, so that by the time they are taken to slaughter at about 6 months, many have to be dragged because they can no longer support their own body weight due to the anemia. Is a tender piece of meat worth that?

  • Hi Sean:
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
    I agree that there’s a bit of glee in people seeing vegetarians fall from grace, so to speak. As mentioned, I was a vegetarian mostly for political reasons rather than because I was against eating meat. Meat is an inefficient use of the planet’s dwindling resources and I especially abhor the way animals are raised by agribusiness for fast-food restaurants and other places.

    Although I now eat meat (the Parisian diet is pretty scant on vegetables, unfortunately, and some vegetarian friends of mine who just moved here are having a hard time dining out), I credit my days as a vegetarian for making me appreciate shelling beans, like haricots Tarbais and other good things that most people who focus their diets on meat-eating don’t attempt to try.

    I did add the note about veal because people assume that all veal is raised inhumanely and I asked a good friend, a former chef from Chez Panisse about that, and he replied that that sentiment was a carry-over from the old days when veal=cruely, period. I think eating humanely-raised veal is probably a better option than eating industrially-raised beef (see article below). So when folks make the assertion that ‘veal is cruel’, it harms people, namely the small/organic producers, who are trying to do the right thing and raise animals for consumption humanely. (That depends, of course, how you feel about animal consumption in the first place.)

    There’s a good article here for further reading and as always, I encourage readers to learn as much as they can about the foods they’re eating. Appreciate your commentary, which made me look deeper into the subject.