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Erick Williams

Seeking healthy, bright meals for my family, I asked Erick Williams of Virtue Restaurant to help me elevate an unsung hero of my pantry: the humble but mighty bean.

Manuel Martinez

I needed a jolt of winter cooking inspiration. Could the humble bean be it?

Like a lot of us, I didn’t practice super healthy eating habits during the pandemic.

While I did make exercise a part of my daily routine, I dialed it in on the nutrition side of things. Literally. Ordering takeout became more and more the norm for mealtime, especially during the winter months. The result? Besides weight gain, I was not feeling my healthiest.

How we winter

This story is part of a series of essays by Midwestern writers, illustrators, photographers and creatives about how they make the most out of winter, from quiet reflections to extreme activities. Tell us how you winter on social media #HowIWinter

Day 1: I’m trying ‘hygge’ to combat my seasonal depression

Day 2: I swim in the frozen lake, and I’ve never felt better

Day 4: I bike in Chicago year-round but want to go further

I cooked in professional kitchens for years before returning to journalism. And this winter I pledged to drop the food delivery apps and return to the kitchen to create healthy, bright meals for my family and me.

Still, I’d been out of the cooking game for a minute, so I needed expert inspiration. I called on Erick Williams, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Virtue Restaurant & Bar and Mustard Seed Kitchen in Hyde Park. I love his style of cooking: simple, familiar recipes with high-quality ingredients.

Erick Williams

The kitchen is a much-loved room in the Williams home.

Manuel Martinez

For me, winter cooking evokes a feeling of comfort. It’s a time of dense stews, soups and hearty roasts — dishes that offer a warm embrace to contrast the bitter temperatures. Comforting, yes, but these dishes also tend to be oppressively brown and heavy on animal proteins, and they can lack the crisp and fresh flavors we often associate with warmer months.

Now don’t get me wrong, I enjoy cooking with the in-season vegetables of winter. Leeks, root vegetables and leafy brassicas, such as cabbage, mustard greens and broccoli, all make frequent appearances on my table during the winter. But I knew that winter is also a time to lean into your dry goods — the beans, legumes, rice and grains that we stock up on throughout the year but rarely pull out of the cabinet.

With that pledge to myself to create healthier meals, I asked Williams to help me work with an unsung hero of the pantry: the humble but mighty bean.

Beans are incredibly versatile in flavor and texture and are packed with nutrients. They are an anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting food that’s rich in antioxidants, fiber and protein.

Winter cooking

Williams explained to me why he used each ingredient in his winter bean stew and why.

Manuel Martinez

Williams’s dishes evoke a sense of home and heart while showing off an appreciation for complex flavors and immaculate cooking techniques. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to be invited to his home for a cooking demo.

I made my way over to his Bronzeville rowhome on a snowy December afternoon. Immediately, it was clear the most-loved room in the house was his kitchen. Marble countertops framed the room, providing an abundance of prep space. At the heart of the kitchen sat a pristine Wolf range encased in a long marble island.

Winter bean stew

Williams used presoaked, dried cannellini beans and Aleppo chili for maximum flavor.

Manuel Martinez

Laid out neatly on the island were our ingredients: uniformly diced onion, red and green peppers, cherry tomatoes that had been halved, garlic, spinach, dry white beans and chicken stock.

My first question for Williams: Could I substitute canned beans in place of dry beans? The answer: It’s tricky. While canned beans are more cost-effective and take less time to prepare than dry beans, Williams said they can be packed with sodium.

“When you force something out of a can, most often than not, it needs to be seasoned,” Williams said. “If you rely heavily on canned, commercially canned products, then in essence, you’re spiking your sodium levels, because we start with 20% of an ingredient with salt.”

Erick Williams at home

The chef in his home kitchen in Bronzeville.

Manuel Martinez

But just because canned beans are high in salt, doesn’t mean they’re totally devoid of nutrients. So if that’s all you can get your hands on, he admitted, it’s not the end of the world.

“It’s a much better alternative than eating or filling myself with snacks,” he agreed.

Erick Williams

Williams seasons the vegetable mixture using salt.

Manuel Martinez

For this recipe, we used dry cannellini beans. They are similar to flageolet beans, small kidney-shaped, European-style heirloom beans commonly used in French cooking. Flageolets are known to be tasty but can be hard to find in the United States, so the cannellini or great northern beans make a great substitute. (As with any dry bean, they should soak overnight before cooking.)

We simmered them in chicken broth in a medium-size pot for about 30 minutes.

While that was going on in a separate pan, Williams sweated the onions and garlic in cooking oil. He then added the green and red bell peppers which instantly filled the room with a delicious aroma.

Next, we seasoned our vegetable mixture, using Aleppo chili pepper, black pepper, salt and fennel seed.

Once the vegetables were well-seasoned, we added them to our beans and let the mixture cook for about 10 to 15 minutes.

The smell was robust and hearty but also bright and almost citrusy. Our next ingredient was cherry tomatoes.

Tomatoes are in season from July to early October. They are usually canned at the beginning of fall to capture the sweetness and acidity of the ripe fruit at its peak. Again I asked if a canned version would work.

Williams said just because tomatoes are “out of season” doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses in the winter months. As he added the tomatoes to the dish, Williams talked about how the flavor of off-peak hot house tomatoes benefited our beans.

“Now that just got a good amount of acid,” he said while gently adding the tomatoes to the beans. “I liked that acid with beans because beans are uber earthy. So I’m going to introduce those tomatoes early, and the skins are pretty robust so they won’t break all the way down. They will get soft, they will impart flavor. But you will notice that those tomatoes are still there.”

The tomatoes cooked in our bean stew for about 10 minutes, and we finished the dish with two quarts of spinach, cooking until gently wilted.

Winter bean stew

Fresh spinach finishes off the stew.

Manuel Martinez

The first bite was perfection. The beans were perfectly tender and a bit toothsome. The acid from our off-peak tomatoes balanced nicely against the earthiness of our beans, just as Williams promised. The gentle heat from the Aleppo chili and sweetness from the fennel seed rounded out the dish.

Mission accomplished: a simple stew that encompassed all the bright notes of the summer bounty, while still embracing you like a warm throw on a winter’s day.

I’ve since recreated this dish at home and have served it a few ways. I topped it with pan-seared walleye. It also works nicely as an accompaniment to roasted chicken.

While the flavors are light, this stew does stand up to heartier proteins like lamb, or even a filet of beef.

But my favorite way to eat this dish is by itself, with a splash of lemon and a little bit of freshly grated parmesan. It’s simple, versatile and it gives me peace of mind that — with COVID-19 still very much a part of our reality — I’m eating something that’s good for my body.

Cianna Greaves is WBEZ’s morning producer. Follow her @CiciGreaves.

Winter bean stew

Williams’ bean stew is simple but it manages to deliver bright summer flavors and winter warmth.

Manuel Martinez

Erick Williams’s Winter Bean Stew

  • 1 pound flageolet beans, presoaked in lukewarm water overnight (you can substitute cannellini or great northern beans)
  • 1 cup red bell pepper and 1 cup green bell pepper, minced
  • 2 cups onion, diced
  • 2 quarts spinach
  • 2 cups grape tomatoes, halved
  • 5 cups chicken broth
  • 10 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • ½ teaspoon Aleppo chili pepper
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • ¼ cup cooking oil
  • Salt to taste

1. Simmer beans in chicken broth in a medium saucepan for 15-20 minutes.

2. In a separate saucepan, sweat onions in cooking oil until translucent. Add garlic and simmer until aromatic then add bell pepper, simmering an additional 2-3 minutes.

3. Add fennel seed, Aleppo pepper, black pepper, and salt to vegetable mixture and stir.

4. Pour vegetable mixture into beans and simmer for 10 minutes.

5. Add tomatoes and simmer for 10 minutes, then add spinach. Cook until wilted. Adjust seasoning as needed.

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