Crescent Dragonwagon was a household name growing up.
At the time, the author was running the Dairy Hollow House, a nationally renowned bed and breakfast in Eureka Springs, Ark. She was a local celebrity for hosting people such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Betty Friedan, and my mom relied on her “Dairy Hollow House” cookbooks as others did the red plaid “Better Homes and Gardens” book or “The Joy of Cooking.” (And no, Crescent Dragonwagon is not her given name. She made it up as a teenager when getting married to her first husband — the name outlasted the marriage.)
Only as an adult did I discover that, like her mother, Charlotte Zolotow, Dragonwagon also writes children’s books, many of which use food as a storytelling device (“The Bread I Baked Ned, ” “Is This a Sack of Potatoes?” and, my favorite, “Alligator Arrived With Apples: A Potluck Alphabet Feast“).
This year, she’s back with both genres. “Bean by Bean,” a recipe-filled homage to the lowly legume, came out earlier this year, and “All the Awake Animals are Almost Asleep,” her first children’s book in almost 10 years, is coming out this fall. (Another first: Dragonwagon will record an e-book, so children at bedtime can hear her mellifluous voice read her own carefully crafted words.)
This book, her 50th, is Dragonwagon’s second on beans, but as she notes in the introduction, “beans have certainly come up, up, in the world since I first began writing about them.” Once lacking in social standing and availability and “reviled nutritionally as little more than starch, ” beans across the board are more appreciated than they ever have been.
The self-proclaimed “legumaniac” gets excited talking about all the possibilities a single bean presents.
“If you have a dry bean, you could join it with hundreds of its fellows and have it for dinner, ” she said last week from her Vermont home. (She and her late husband, Ned, turned the Arkansas bed and breakfast into a writer’s colony, which still exists today.) “Or you could rinse it, soak it and sprout it and have it for dinner in a couple of days. Or you could plant it and eat it as a shoot, eat it as a pod or eat it as a shelled bean. Then you could dry them out and plant them again.”
As one of the only plants that puts as much back into the soil as it takes, beans are helpful at every phase of their lives. “They are so generous.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that beans are one of the cheapest forms of protein available. “Everyone is watching their income now, yet you can still bring a giant dish of wonderfulness and protein to a potluck, ” she said.
We tend to think of beans as an ingredient for wintertime soups and stews, but many of the recipes in the book are perfect for summer, including dips, stir-fries and salads, such as this Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Lime Vinaigrette. (One of Dragonwagon’s favorite dishes is a seven-layer Middle Eastern mountain dip that would be a nice change if you’re tired of bringing the same seven-layer Tex-Mex dip to parties.)
Dragonwagon says she pours the nurturing spirit that made her bed and breakfast so successful into two places: Fearless Writing workshops that she hosts at her home and, much to her surprise, Facebook. “Thanks to the Internet, I’m interacting with people about food and tender things in a different way, but in a connected way. I ran the inn for 18 years. That nurturing energy needs to go somewhere.”
Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad with Honey-Cilantro Vinaigrette
For the honey-cilantro vinaigrette:
1 bunch fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup honey
4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 1/2 tsp. salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Dash of Tabasco or similar hot sauce
1 cup olive oil
For the salad:
3 cups (two 15-oz. cans) tender-cooked black beans, drained well and rinsed
4 scallions, roots chopped off and whites and 2 inches of green sliced
1/3 lb. (about 1 1/5 cups) chilled, cooked green beans, sliced into 1-inch lengths (optional)
2 or 3 large sweet potatoes, baked, peeled and chunked
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper For the dressing, combine all of the ingredients except the oil in a food processor and buzz smooth. You may need to scrape the processor sides once or twice. If your machine’s pusher tube has a little hole, pour the oil into the tube in two batches and let the oil drip in as the machine runs. Otherwise, drizzle in the oil by hand. Taste for seasonings, then transfer to a lidded container or jar and store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Combine the black beans, scallions and green beans, if using, in a large bowl and toss with about 1/2 cup of the dressing. Add the sweet potatoes and toss very, very gently to keep the tender sweet potato pieces somewhat intact. Taste. Correct the seasonings with salt, pepper, and additional dressing if you like. Pass the remaining dressing at the table. Dig in, and get ready for the compliments; act modest. Use additional dressing on lettuce salads or even on entrees like enchiladas or a stir-fry. Serves 4 to 6.
— From “Bean By Bean: A Cookbook: More than 175 Recipes for Fresh Beans, Dried Beans, Cool Beans, Hot Beans, Savory Beans, Even Sweet Beans!” (Workman, $17.95) by Crescent Dragonwagon