Monday, March 7, 2016

You Don't Know Beans
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But you probably do know a little about them, even if it’s just those sad cans of beans and franks at the supermarket, or the kidney beans that show up in chili, or the tomato-sauced ones that appear at summer picnics.
Beans taste best cooked from scratch, but when Mom and Pop both work, this appears to take too much time. I used to be in this boat, but I was also in the boat with the folks who don’t get paid much for their 40 hours a week, so I couldn’t easily leave beans out of my weekly grocery equation. They were and are cheap food that is good for you and your kiddies.   (Way back, when I first learned about bean cookery, we lived in the back of beyond, so there was no fast food temptation around—not that there was anywhere the amount of what foodie Michael Pollen calls “corporate food” in supermarkets and beside the highways to expand everyone’s waistline.)  

I’d make a big pot on Sunday, using bones and drippings from our once a week chicken. In the fridge, those beans would last for days to be reheated and served in various combinations. They might be curried, dressed with sunflower seeds, chopped apples and raisins and poured over rice, or chili-peppered and served, with a little ground meat and cheese, over spagetti. 

Nowadays, I start my beans with a good wash in a strainer, followed by a hand sort—back in the good old days there was sometimes rat poo as well as stones and dirt in among the beans.  (Blessedly, it’s been several decades since I’ve found this unsavory additive.) Then, put them to soak overnight.  You may add bay leaves now, onion flakes, pepper, dried celery and other aromatics. Originally, back in my wood stove days, I’d just put them straight away onto the back where it was warm, not hot, and leave overnight.  
If you want to hurry the process, you can boil for five minutes, then cover and let them stand for an hour. After, you discard the water and begin again—especially if you are feeding someone who complains that beans make them gassy. This parboiling will hasten the cooking process.  (BTW the more frequently you eat beans, the easier they digest, as your body learns the trick.)

But all that basic advice may be found on the back of the bag or in your "big fat" cookbook. There are many kinds of beans, and they'll give you a world tour of eating—and that’s the interesting part to me. Currently, I’m working my way through several different kinds, because each lends itself to different recipes.
Kidney beans, big and red, can be cooked and used cold in green salads. If cooked with onion, garlic, oregano, and chili powder, and mixed with browned ground meat and onions to make chili. Red beans cook faster than pintos, but likewise can be used for refritos—mashed with a wooden spoon and cooked again in oil in a heavy pan, you’ll end with a basic south-of-the-border taco stuffing.  
Limas, a.k.a. “butter beans” in this neck of the woods, fresh or dried, are delicious when cooked slowly in chicken stock, with celery, onion and parsley. They make their own creamy sauce.   
Split peas and lentils cook fast. The former are made to be cooked with a ham bone, a pig’s foot, or just lots of carrots, potatoes and onion.  The yellow and red varieties are delicate and will cook to a mushy nothing if you aren’t careful.  Yellow lentils, mixed with yogurt and curry powder, approximate Dal, an Indian favorite. 

Black beans lend themselves to cooking with a Spanish or Portuguese flare. Cook them with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and a big squeeze of fresh orange juice.  Serve over rice and alongside more of those cooked greens--only this supper time you'll be dining in Brazil instead of the Deep South.

Black-eyed peas and white beans are still the darlings of the south, especially good cooked with pork odds and ends and accompanied with dishes of greens and cornbread.  Cooked white beans (or pintos) can go into the bottom of a well-oiled iron skillet, covered with a cornbread mixture and then baked into that original hand-held American take-out food, the venerable cornpone.  

I think you'll be surprised if you give some of these recipes a try at how good the humble bean can taste. You can make them over the weekend, freeze what you don't use, and/or just dip into the pot for a couple of days as we used to do until they are gone. Your budget will benefit, too.

Juliet Waldron
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