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.

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