Friday, May 8, 2015

Coming Home to an Old Favorite

(Originally published in The News Review on May 5, 2015)

I've just returned from a week visiting my daughter in New York City. For six days, with Laura as my guide, we ate our way through the borough of Manhattan. From Indian take out on the Upper West Side, to Dim Sum deep in the back alleys of Chinatown, heavenly mac & cheese in Chelsea, and perfect pizza arrabiata in the West Village, I found myself in a food-lovers paradise. And that was just dinner. We ate authentic New York bagels for breakfast and falafel for lunch. Across the East River we visited “Smorgasburg,” a hipster food festival in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn. We sampled Moroccan meatballs with harissa, crispy scallion pancakes, hibiscus-glazed donuts and Columbian arepas. Farmers markets and random street fairs provided yet more temptation in the form fresh-pressed cider, babka and a peanut butter-banana-chocolate chip cookie.

Thankfully, these gastronomic adventures were balanced with miles and miles of walking, climbing up and down hundreds of stairs and riding bikes in Central Park. Still, after my week of indulgence, I crave simple, healthier fare. I'm hungry for beans. 

Dried beans are an excellent item to have in your pantry or food storage. Cooking dried beans is less expensive than buying canned beans and allows you to control the sodium content, eliminate additives and avoid the BPA (Bisphenol A) that is still used in the lining of most commercially canned foods. When I do opt for canned beans, I buy the Simple Truth brand at Fred Meyer. They're organic and contain much less salt than other brands.

I'm happy to eat just about any type of bean dish. I adore black beans and rice. Topped with salsa, sour cream, avocado and tortilla chips, black beans are my number one choice for a vegetarian dinner. Navy bean soup is simple to make in the slow cooker and delicious with biscuits or cornbread. I often cook up a big pot of pinto beans to use in chili and then make refried beans out of the leftovers for tostadas or burritos. I always add cooked beans (pintos or black beans) to taco filling; they add fiber and make my local, grass-fed ground beef go further.

A bean tutorial

The first step in cooking beans is to sort them. Slowly pour the dried beans into a large pot, keeping your eye out for dirt clods, stones or moldy beans. I don't find them often, but I've seen enough over the years to be careful. Once they're in the pot, run cold water over the beans and swish them around with your hand. Discard any beans that float; they could be infested with insects. Rinse and drain the beans in a colander.

Soaking the beans before cooking hydrates them and shortens the cooking time. It also helps the beans cook more evenly, so they all get tender about the same time. For two cups of beans you need 6-8 cups of cold water, enough to cover the beans by at least two inches. If you've planned ahead, let the beans soak overnight at room temperature. You can also speed soak by covering the beans with a couple inches of water in a pot and bringing to a boil. Boil two minutes, then turn off heat and let stand, covered, for one hour before proceeding to cook on stove top or in the slow cooker. You can soak beans and freeze them (before cooking) so you have them ready to go if you forget to soak in the future.

After soaking, drain the beans and use fresh water for cooking. This makes them easier to digest. Truth be told, if beans become a regular part of your diet, your body develops the enzymes it needs to digest them without difficulty.

Once the beans have been soaked, you're ready to cook them. Almost all recipes say not to salt beans until the end of cooking because it will make them tough. I always add the salt at the beginning and it's never caused a problem. If I wait to add salt after the beans have cooked, they don't absorb it and never taste salty enough for me. Mark Bittman, New York Times columnist and author of How To Cook Everything, agrees with me on this point. Bittman suggests adding one teaspoon salt per half pound of dried beans, but because I almost always add broth base or bouillon too, my rule of thumb is one teaspoon salt per pound of beans.

Small beans, like black beans or navy beans, will cook on the stove top, gently simmering, in 1 ½ to 2 hours. Larger beans, like pintos, kidney beans or garbanzo beans, will take a bit longer. If you use a slow cooker, plan to let the beans cook all day on low or at least eight hours. You can vary the flavor by adding herbs, spices, and vegetables while the beans are cooking. Oregano, thyme, rosemary, chili powder, cumin, carrots, onion and celery all work well. One word of caution: add acidic ingredients, like tomatoes, toward the end of cooking, as they will prevent the beans from becoming tender.

Cooked beans can be frozen in their liquid to be used later in chili, tacos, soups, etc. I freeze two cups in a quart ziptop freezer bag or 4 cups in a gallon bag. Lay the bag flat on a cookie sheet until frozen solid, then add them to your “frozen food file.” When ready to use, thaw quickly in a sink of hot water.

Black beans and rice with salsa, sour cream and avocado.
Basic Black Beans

This basic recipe can be used for cooking most types of dried beans. Larger beans may require longer cooking. Feel free to jazz it up by adding garlic, cumin, chili powder or other herbs and spices. Anything acidic, like tomatoes, should be added toward the end of cooking, after the beans are tender.

1 pound (2 ¼ cups) dried black beans
6 to 8 cups water for soaking

6 cups fresh water
1 bay leaf, broken in half
1 medium onion, diced or 2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon beef bouillon (I like Better Than Bouillon brand)

Carefully pick over beans then rinse thoroughly under cold water. Drain and place in a large pot. Cover with at least two inches of cold water and allow to soak overnight or at least six hours at room temperature.

Drain and rinse the beans; return to pot. Add six cups of fresh water and the remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer approximately 1 ½ to 2 hours, until beans are tender, but not mushy. Remove bay leaf pieces.

Serve over cooked rice with salsa, avocado, tortilla chips and/or sour cream.

Yield: about 6 cups of cooked beans

Slow cooker method: Follow the recipe as directed, but cook beans in slow cooker on low for 8 to 10 hours.

Aprons and Asparagus

(Originally published in The News Review on April 7, 2015.)

I grew up believing that “how you dress affects how you act and how you act affects everything.” For church, I put on my “Sunday best” because it helps me feel reverent. In the gym, I wear workout clothes; they make me feel strong. On date night I slip into high heels; they make me feel glamorous. And when I step into the kitchen, I tie on an apron; it says to my mind “Let's get cooking” and I feel like a chef.

From flirty to functional, aprons come in all shapes and patterns for both men and women. The purpose, of course, is to shield one's clothes from the splashes and splatters and spills all cooks contend with. Marcy Goldman of says cooking without an apron is akin to driving without a seat belt and I agree. Why risk it? Besides the protection it offers, an apron comes in handy when two hands aren't enough. How many times have I run out to the garden to snip a few herbs and returned with an apron full of tomatoes or beans or cucumbers!

My stash of aprons is fairly small. I have a few souvenirs: a milk chocolate-colored Ghirardelli apron, a bright red Pike Place Market apron, a black and orange OSU extension apron (though I'm officially a duck), a lacy half apron (aka hostess apron) my in-laws brought back from a trip to Europe. Yet, my ideal apron is plain white and practical, one I can bleach if necessary to keep it fresh-looking. I like a slender pocket to hold a thermometer and a big pocket to hold my smartphone/timer. (My favorite kitchen timer is a free phone app called Nag. It allows me to set and label eight different timers at once.) I need my apron strings long enough to crisscross behind my back and tie around my waist in front so I can loop a dishtowel through for drying my hands.

Dressing the part won't turn me into a chef without top-notch ingredients. Farmers markets are moving back outdoors and the produce stalls are a sea of green. The cabbage, kale, brassicas and root vegetables we've enjoyed all winter are making way for lettuce, chives, green onions, garlic scapes and asparagus. Snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas aren't far off.

I adore asparagus and eagerly anticipate its arrival each spring. It's usually sold in one pound bundles, often a mix of thick and thin spears. Pencil-thin spears are so tender they can be added raw to salads or tossed into a quick stir-fry. Larger spears are perfect for roasting with olive oil or steaming then sautéing in garlic butter. Any size works well for a creamy asparagus soup.

If your kitchen confidence needs a boost, maybe it's time to “dress for success” with a new apron. Pick a style that makes you smile, gather up some local ingredients and get cooking.

Creamy asparagus soup gets a little zing from white balsamic vinegar.
Cream of Asparagus Soup

Asparagus, garlic stalks and chives are some of the first spring greens to appear at farmers markets. All three go into this creamy soup that can be served warm or chilled. I use Trader Joe's White Balsamic Vinegar. If don't have any, try white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar or a splash of fresh lemon juice.

2 tablespoons butter
1 rounded cup sliced garlic stalks (I used it all the way up to the dark green part) or one large onion and 1 clove of garlic, diced
2 cups chicken stock
1 pound (as purchased) asparagus, woody ends trimmed, sliced into 1-inch pieces
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
fresh chives for garnish

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the sliced garlic (and/or onion) and cook until softened. Add the broth, asparagus and seasonings, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 8 to 10 minutes, until asparagus is tender. Add the milk. I like to puree it right in the pot using a hand blender, but you can also do it in batches in a regular blender. Stir in the cream. Add additional salt, if needed. Just before serving stir in the vinegar. Garnish each bowlful with freshly snipped chives.

Makes 5 to 6 cups of soup.

Roasted asparagus with coarse sea salt.
Roasted Asparagus

Simple and so very good.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Rinse the asparagus and snap off the woody ends. I do this by holding each spear by the cut end and a few inches up the stalk. Bend gently and the spear will break where the woody part starts.
Arrange the asparagus in a single layer in a very shallow baking pan (a half-sheet pan or a cookie sheet with sides). Drizzle with olive oil then toss with your fingers to coat the spears evenly. Sprinkle with a bit of coarse sea salt.
Place in the oven and bake for 5 to 8 minutes, depending on how thick the asparagus is. Check with a cake tester or fork. You want it tender-crisp. Do not overbake or it will turn mushy.

Serve immediately. Any leftovers make a great addition to an omelet or frittata.

Steamed Asparagus Sautéed in Garlic Butter
If your steamer basket is not large enough to lay the asparagus in, try improvising with a round cooling rack or trivet set in a skillet you can cover.

Rinse the asparagus and trim the woody ends. Place the spears in a steamer set over (not in) hot water. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and steam just until tender-crisp. This will only take a few minutes, depending on how thick the spears are.

Meanwhile, begin melting some butter in a frying pan over low heat. When the asparagus is ready, transfer it to the frying pan and add a finely minced or pressed clove of garlic. Increase heat to medium and sauté two or three minutes, just until spears are tender. Do not over cook. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve immediately.

Do ahead tip: After steaming just until tender-crisp, plunge the asparagus into a large bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, drain well and store in the refrigerator for several days. When you want to serve it, proceed with sautéing instructions. You can have fresh vegetables on the table in minutes with this method.