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Big on Beans

July 25, 2011 | Tags: Deborah Madison , Food , Vegetables | Post comment

Big on Beans

The Full Yield Program stresses the value of beans in our diets and rightly so.  Here’s a food that’s a relatively inexpensive protein and a highly versatile one. Beans have gotten a bad rap as a poverty food ——but so did polenta before it became something more glamorous than corn meal mush. Add to this that there are hundreds of varieties of beans besides pintos and black beans and growers who are packaging up enticing heirlooms. We’re no longer talking about a stodgy pot of legumes that’s the same week-in and week-out. I’ve collected beans from markets wherever I’ve traveled and I have a big jar of now really old but once dazzling beans that I look at sometimes to remind myself of how beautiful and varied this botanical family is. It offers us speckled beans, plain beans of all colors, beans with eyes, mottled beans, beans as large as quails’ eggs and others as small as a tiny grain of rice. Just as they look different, they also don’t all taste exactly the same, but the differences are subtle even when you sit down and taste a number side by side.

The subtle virtues of their flavors are best revealed when beans are simply cooked, but they can also be teased into fancier fare, as in the many bean and pasta dishes that exist, including gratins, as an element in a stew, certainly as the basis of salad, spreads, and stand alone dishes with olive oil, garlic and herbs.

People who are nervous about eating beans often have no problem eating them when they’re mixed with other foods such as vegetables and pasta, You can open a can of beans, or cook your own and have them at the ready to draw on over the period of a week. Or you can freeze batches to pull out when you’re too busy to cook.  The advantage of canned beans is their convenience, but the advantage of cooking your own is that they often taste better and end up with a better texture. The important thing in any cases is to make sure they’re thoroughly cooked! If not, they can be hard to digest. Better to have them too soft than not done.

Bean Basics
To make beans palatable and pleasant to eat, some cooks insist on presoaking, parboiling, and draining before cooking. With equal confidence, others say that beans should never be soaked because valuable nutrients are lost (although if the beans aren't digested, nutrients are also lost.)  Still others report that nothing you do really makes any difference, and the latest word is that soaking is simply unnecessary.  The truth is that people react differently to legumes--some with great sensitivity and others with apparently none, so in the end this is something each person has to work out.  Also, as you get accustomed to eating small amounts of beans on a frequent basis, they become easier to digest.

If I’m cooking for someone who is very sensitive to beans, I soak them, discard the soaking water, add fresh water and always give them a vigorous 5 to 10 minute boil at the start. In addition, I add a teaspoon of epazote, a pinch of asafoetida, or a 6-inch piece of kelp to the pot -- practices followed in different bean eating cultures to make beans digestible.  However, beans cooked in a pressure cooker with absolutely none of these precautions observed are always pleasant to eat, undoubtedly because they end up so well cooked, which may be the most important factor of all.


How to Select, Prepare and Cook Beans
Selecting Beans:  Shop for beans where you think the turnover is brisk. Although beans last virtually forever, with time they become increasingly dry, brittle and require extra time on the stove.  Beans cooked within the year of their harvest are clearly best.  Avoid beans that are chipped, split and cracked-- all signs of long storage.

Soaking:  Soaking beans reintroduces moisture, shortens their cooking time, and allows beans that are over-dry or immature to float to the surface where they can be skimmed off. Soaking also removes a portion of the complex sugars that cause indigestion.  Although beneficial, soaking can be skipped, especially if you're using a pressure cooker.

-  Overnight Soak:  Beans absorb 3 to 4 times their volume in water and swell to 2 or 3 times their size. “Soaking beans overnight” means covering them with water at least 4 times their volume for at least 4 hours, about the time it takes for most beans to absorb the maximum amount of water they can. 
-  Quick Soak:  When you don’t have the time, cover sorted, rinsed beans with 4 times their amount of water, bring to a boil for a full minute, then turn off the heat, cover, and let stand one hour. 

Draining and Parboiling:  After the beans have soaked, pour off the soaking water, cover them with fresh, and bring to a rolling boil for 5 to 10 minutes.  These steps help eliminate the sugars that cause indigestion. During the parboiling scum frequently forms on the surface.  It doesn't represent dirt, but the coagulation of proteins.  Skim it off before the vegetables or aromatics are added, but if you forget, don’t worry--eventually it disappears.

Cooking:  A perfectly cooked bean is soft and creamy inside, never hard; it's skin is intact, not broken.  Beans can be cooked on the stovetop, in a pressure cooker, in the oven, or in a crock-pot.  In general, soaked beans take about 1 1/2 hours to cook, although this depends on the type of bean, its age, the altitude, and the quality of water.  Old beans, high altitude and hard water all add significant time.  Size isn't necessarily an indicator. Large beans, like limas, take less time to cook then tiny rice beans.  One of the simplest and most delicious things to do when your beans are done is to drizzle them with olive oil and chopped parsley (or other favored herb) – some fresh minced garlic and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

-  On the Stove:  Pour off the soaking water, then cover soaked beans generously with cold water.  Boil hard for 10 minutes, remove the scum, then add aromatics --onions, garlic, sage, oil, vegetables, etc.  Lower the heat and cook at a simmer.  Add salt when the beans are tender but not yet completely cooked, after about an hour.
-  In the Pressure Cooker: Not only does a pressure cooker make the tenderest beans, it makes last-minute beans for dinner possible.  Put soaked or unsoaked beans in a pressure cooker with aromatics, a teaspoon of oil and then water -- at least 5 times the volume if unsoaked.  The oil helps prevent foam or loose skins clogging the pressure gauge.  Bring to high pressure and maintain for 25 minutes, unless otherwise indicated. Lower pressure by quickly releasing the steam.  Taste the beans. If they're not quite done, return the lid and bring to pressure 5 minutes more or simmer until done.
-  In the Oven:  Beans baked in the oven smell as good as baking bread.  Start with pre-soaked beans, boil for 10 minutes, then drain and put them in a casserole or gratin dish.  Add aromatics, boiling water to cover, then cover.  Bake at 325’F to 350’F.  It should take about the same amount of time as on the top of the stove.  Check to make sure they're only simmering, not boiling. Add salt at the end, uncover, and let them cool in their liquid.
-  The Crock Pot:  The gentle slow heat of the crock-pot is ideal for beans.  You can soak them or not, but soaking cuts down on the cooking time.  Either way, boil beans 10 minutes then put them in the pot and cover by 3 to 4 times the volume of hot water.  Cook on low for 8 hours, on high for 6, approximately.  Add aromatics and salt towards the end of the cooking.

A Few Additional Tips
Refrigeration:   In hot weather, soaking beans can actually ferment if left at room temperature. The surface will be covered with fine frothy bubbles and you'll notice a yeasty, sour odor.  When it's hot, soak beans in the refrigerator.  And as for beans in summer, plan on turning them into salads that are cool and refreshing.

Salt:  Salt draws out moisture and works against the cooking process so add it once the beans have gained a degree of tenderness, but aren't completely done, about an hour into their cooking.  Do not add it to the soaking water.

Acids:  Tomatoes, wine, vinegar, and other acid foods inhibit tenderizing and for that reason shouldn't be added until after the beans have gotten a head start of at least 20 minutes or so.

Hard Water:  Hard, mineral-filled water really slows the cooking time of beans.  In the past baking soda was added to soften the water and the skins of the beans. However it also destroys nutrients and can turn the beans mushy.  If you have impossibly hard water and are going to add soda, use just a pinch, or 1/8 teaspoon, per cup of beans.  Rainwater is wonderful for beans, incidentally.

Canned Beans:  As convenient they are, canned beans are seldom as good as those made at home. However, there are times when they can save the day, and if you’re going to puree them, their mushiness shouldn’t matter. A can of black-eyed peas is an instant dinner for me on a regular basis. Those that are organic, lower in salt, and in BPA-free cans, such as Eden, are more expensive but taste better and are, of course, free from BPA.