by Lesley Sykes
The humble bean—satisfying, versatile, and nutritious—has been elemental since the earliest times as a source of high quality nourishment. From common beans to heirloom varieties, the world of beans is endless. Because they were once food for the poor, the legumes have gone largely underappreciated. Recently, thanks to nutrition recommendations and the rise of vegetarianism, this high-protein food has been placed back on the culinary pedestal. And perfect for a money-conscious, pressed-for-time graduate student! Cook them right, and the unassuming bean won’t let you down.
Along with peas and lentils, beans are seeds of the leguminous plant. Most recognized for its protein content, the legume is also rich in cholesterol-lowering fiber, which has the additional effect of preventing sharp rises in blood sugar levels after a meal. When combined with whole grains, beans are a complete, high quality protein source. But the nutritional benefits extend beyond this—beans are loaded with folate, manganese, thiamin, iron, and many trace minerals.
Our ancestors knew what they were doing. Eating beans can be traced back thousands of years. Over time, cultures have perfected preparation methods, devising brilliant dishes that highlight distinct flavors and textures. Hundreds of bean varieties exist in an array of shapes, sizes and colors. Ever heard of delicious varieties like yellow Indian woman, Santa Maria pinquito, flageolet, Christmas lima, borlotti, or cranberry? Beans are widely available year round in their dried forms and interesting varieties are becoming more available at specialty shops. Rancho Gordo, based in the San Francisco Bay Area, is one of the largest purveyors of heirloom bean varieties (see below for more information).
In addition to dried beans, you can also find shelling beans during warmer months. These beans are harvested green and treated more as a vegetable in the kitchen. Nutritionally, shell beans are similar to dry beans, but they have limited availability and can be a tad more expensive. If you’ve ever had fresh pasta, you’d understand the metaphor: Fresh beans are to dried beans what fresh pasta is to dried pasta. That is, dried beans (or their canned counterparts) are convenient and readily available, but fresh beans, with their delicate and tender qualities, are a nice change of pace.
In New England, fresh beans can be found at many farmers’ markets, typically peaking around mid-August. Common varieties include fava, lima, and cranberry beans, all coming neatly arranged in a pod. They are easy to shell and take no longer than 20 minutes to cook – a unique concept for committed dried bean cooks who know that cooking dried beans can take some time. Unfortunately, New England residents won’t be seeing fresh beans at local markets for a few months. In the mean time, dried beans are a reliable and rather exciting option, especially if you seek out heirloom and other interesting varieties.
Cooking Dried Beans to Perfection
While canned beans have become a standard pantry item in many households, bean lovers maintain that the dried variety is best. Nothing replaces the velvety, luxurious texture of slow-cooked beans. Since only a handful of varieties are canned, you would miss out on some wonderful, unusual beans if you didn’t try the dried. And you get more bang for your buck by buying dried, which typically ranges from $2 to $4 per pound (note: one pound of dried beans makes the equivalent of up to four cans of cooked beans). What’s more, beans are really good at soaking up flavors, so cooking them from scratch gives them a chance to take on the characteristics of the ingredients you add. The leftover cooking liquid is a bonus; this thick, rich broth can lend body to soups and stews.
Among experts, methods of cooking dried beans generate a great deal of fuss, all largely unnecessary. The soaking and salting debate rages on, as well as the best way to avoid digestive side effects. One thing’s for sure: Everyone agrees that perfectly cooked beans are uniformly smooth and creamy, hearty yet refined, with skins intact and subtle earthy undertones. Cooking dried beans may take longer than some foods, but the good news is that they cook virtually unattended. Really, there are just a few things to get right and once you do, you’re on your way to dried bean heaven.
Work with one pound of dried beans at a time, which will yield about five to six cups cooked, or six to eight servings.
You will often find bits of earth—pebbles, dirt, twigs, leaves—in your dried beans, along with chipped, split or cracked beans. To avoid these, spread the beans out on a rimmed baking sheet and remove any unwanted debris. Then place the beans in a colander and give them a good rinse.
Soaking beans shortens their cooking time and can remove a portion of the carbohydrates that cause indigestion. However, many culinary authorities say that soaking beans is unnecessary; it really only speeds up the cooking time. The easiest dry bean cooking method is to quick-soak (but soaking the beans overnight in room temperature water is also acceptable). Simply place sorted and rinsed beans in a large pot and add water to cover by about three inches. Bring to a boil for a full minute, then tightly cover and turn off the heat. Let stand for one hour and proceed with your recipe. Make sure the beans are always covered with water—during the soaking process, they can swell up to three times their volume.
Pour off the soaking liquid and cover them with fresh water. This can help eliminate the gas-producing sugars.
In general, soaked beans (soaked overnight or quick-soaked) take about 1½ hours to cook and unsoaked take 2 to 3 hours, although this depends on the type of bean, its age, the altitude, and the added ingredients. Older beans, high altitude, and acidic foods (like tomatoes, wine and vinegar), all add to the cooking time. Also, salt draws out moisture (as the beans cook you want them to hold moisture) so it is important to salt only when the beans are just tender, but not fully cooked.
Beans can be prepared using several methods, but a foolproof, favorite method is on the stovetop. In a large heavy-bottomed pot, cover beans with two inches of water. Bring to a rolling boil and cook for 10 minutes. Add aromatics, seasonings, or fats. Lower the heat, partially cover, and cook at a simmer (not a rolling boil, which will break up the beans), occasionally stirring and checking for doneness (about every 15 minutes for pre-soaked beans and longer for unsoaked). Add several pinches of salt when beans are tender, but not entirely cooked through. Add water, if necessary, to cover the beans. However, a concentrated, thick cooking liquid is desirable. Serve or leave to cool for storing.
Store cooked and cooled beans with their cooking liquid in a sealed plastic container. They generally keep for up to a week in the refrigerator or for months in the freezer. They’ll continue to plump in their liquid.
How to Use Seasonal Fresh Beans
Fresh beans are delicious and easy to prepare, offering excellent flavor and nutrition. There are two methods of cooking fresh beans: boiling or steaming. For salads and sides, use half a pound fresh beans, in their pods, per person. For soups, 3 cups fresh, shelled beans are enough for about 4 servings.
To boil, place the shelled beans in boiled water to cover, and simmer for 10 to 20 minutes. Simmering time depends on the size and variety of the bean. You may want to add some onions, garlic, celery, herbs, and a drizzle of olive oil for flavor. Add salt, but not until at least halfway through cooking because salt draws out water and lengthens the cooking time.
To steam, put an inch of water in a saucepan, and place the beans in a steamer basket that fits into the saucepan. Bring water to a boil, cover and cook over low heat for 10 to 20 minutes.
If you are cooking with fava beans, their tough skins are usually peeled and discarded. Simply use a small knife to peel away one end. Then squeeze the opposite end so that the bean slips out.
Remember, whether you’re cooking with dried or fresh beans, it’s often the simple preparations—nothing more than a few aromatic vegetables (onion, garlic celery), herbs (bay leaves, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, parsley, epazote, thyme, sage) and a touch of fat (olive oil or bacon)—that work best and make for a delicious meal. There’s a reason people have lived on beans for millennia; they’re satisfying, versatile, diverse, and if you’re clever, they can taste different every night of the week.
For more information on dried bean varieties: http://www.foodsubs.com/Beans.html
For more information on fresh beans: http://www.foodsubs.com/Shellbeans.html
To learn about Rancho Gordo products, recipes and ordering information: http://www.ranchogordo.com/
Heirloom dried beans can be found at: Wilson Farm (Lexington), Russo’s Market (Watertown), and Christina’s Spice & Specialty Foods (Cambridge)
Fresh beans can be found seasonally at: Whole Foods, Russo’s Market, Harvest Co-op and farmers’ markets