Slow-Cooker Braised Beans with Fennel and Herbs

A simple pot of beans, aromatic vegetables and herbs cooked ultra-low-and-slow in the crock-pot have become my go-to evening meal on busy days. This is a dish that nearly cooks itself, requiring only a few simple prep steps in the morning (and no overnight soak on the beans), a gentle all-day simmer, and the addition of a few flavor boosters about an hour before you are ready to eat. Cooking the beans super low and slow means they don’t require soaking beforehand, and you can use whatever vegetables and aromatics you happen to have on hand — making this is more of a flexible blueprint than a recipe. Slow cooking creates a rich, flavorful and velvety broth without the need to add prepared broth or stock. When you’re just about ready to eat cook up a quick-cooking grain, if you like; white basmati rice cooks in 15 minutes and makes a perfect pairing. A steaming bowl of creamy, nutty beans and savory, herb-flecked broth topped with a small mountain of fragrant rice, a drizzle of olive oil, and sprinkle of fresh chives or parsley is definitely the kind of comfort food I want to come home to.

The most important element to any bean preparation is using truly fresh dried beans. These can be difficult to find in stores — even my most trusted local specialty food store carries beans that are less than fresh — so I’ve taken to ordering my dried beans from Napa, CA-based Rancho Gordo. If you’ve never tried RG’s beans I highly recommend that you do so immediately! The freshness and flavor of their beans are incomparable vs store-bought, and their unique varieties of heirloom beans are so beautiful and fun to experiment with that you’ll be inspired to add more of these health-enhancing legumes into your daily meals. I particularly enjoy their Rio Zape beans, Christmas limas, and Alubia Blanca beans; for this recipe I chose Yellow Indian Woman beans, which I ordered recently and have been looking forward to cooking with. This variety is dense, creamy, keeps its shape and makes a fantastic pot of beans when cooked with a few simple aromatics and herbs. I just checked RG’s website and sadly for us YIW beans are currently sold out, but any bean that you would use for soup would work great here as well (the Alubia Blanca in particular would be a fantastic substitute).

This is one of those high-synergy dishes where the whole alchemizes into much more than the sum of its parts — such simple ingredients yet the finished dish is packed with flavor and so satisfying. This is where another one of my secret soup weapons comes in — the magical Parm rind — since it imparts major umami richness to the broth. But if you’d prefer to leave out the dairy try adding a tablespoon or two of chickpea miso at the end of cooking to enrich the broth (dilute the miso with a ladleful of the cooking liquid and then add the mixture to the pot of beans).

Slow-Cooker Braised Beans with Fennel and Herbs
Serves 4 to 6

1 cup dried beans (such as Yellow Indian Woman or Alubia Blanca), picked over and rinsed/drained
1-inch piece kombu (dried kelp)
1 dried bay leaf

1 shallot, diced

1 small carrot, peeled and diced
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 fennel bulb, diced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
5 canned plum tomatoes (San Marzano, if possible), crushed by hand (save remainder of can for sauce or other use)
Piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese rind (or other hard Italian cheese such as Grana Padano or Pecorino Romano) (if rind is large use a 2 to 3 inch section)
Bouquet garni of 2 sprigs each fresh rosemary, thyme, and oregano tied together with kitchen twine
1/2 teaspoon dried red chile flakes (or to taste)
sea salt or kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
extra-virgin olive oil

For serving:
cooked basmati rice, quinoa, or grain of choice (rule of thumb is 1 cup of uncooked grain = 4 servings cooked)
thinly sliced chives

  1. In slow cooker combine rinsed beans, kombu, bay leaf, and 6 cups of water. Cover and set slow cooker to ‘low.’
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Saute shallot, carrot, and celery until golden, 5 to 8 minutes. Add garlic and stir for a minute more. Add vegetables to bean mixture. 
  3. Cook beans until tender. This can take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours depending on freshness and size of the beans and type of slow cooker. Since beans in the same batch can cook at different rates, it’s a good idea to taste 5 or 6 beans to determine whether the pot is done to your liking. When beans are tender, add 1 teaspoon of salt and stir to distribute.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet and cook fennel and scallions over medium-low until beginning to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Add to the bean mixture along with plum tomatoes, cheese rind, bouquet garni, chile flakes, and a drizzle of olive oil. Cover and continue to cook for about 1 hour more — you’ll know it’s done when the flavors have come together and the broth is rich and velvety. At this point you can serve immediately or switch the slow cooker to ‘warm’ to hold until you are ready to eat.
  5. When ready to serve, remove bouquet garni, cheese rind, and bay leaf (you can also remove the kombu if you prefer, although I usually leave it in, breaking it up with a spoon — this adds extra minerals to the soup). Adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper, to taste. 
  6. To serve, ladle beans into warmed soup bowls and top with a scoop of cooked grain, drizzle of olive oil, and scattering of chives.

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