Living Well

March 9, 2012 § 6 Comments

I know, I’m writing about beans, again. But last week I wrote about how whenever we are in a money crunch the two things that make frequent appearances in our diet are bread and beans.  There was talk about  my current bread of choice and promise of a nice way with beans. So, see, I promised.  And,  I love beans and want everyone to know how good they can be.  So, here we are, at beans, again.  I should say at the beginning that almost every idea I have about making beans is from Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal (a treasure trove of thoughts on food). Before I read her excellent chapter on beans, called “How to Live Well”, I had one bean recipe. One. It’s a good recipe, but when your finances dictate inexpensive food (and you don’t want to eat ramen or boxed mac n cheese), you need ideas for beans and lots of ’em.

There is a lot of debate on whether you need to pre-soak dried beans or not (see an interesting thread on the topic here).  After reading about it pretty extensively, and being utterly confused by so much contradicting information, I’ve decided to just do what works best for me and hope for the best.  So, I pre-soak.  There is a quick soak method (bring beans and water to a boil for a few minutes, then take off the heat, letting beans sit in hot water for an hour) that works in a pinch, but I prefer the low-key nature of just plopping them in a bowl of water the night before.   Don’t let the idea of “soaking beans” send you into a “this is too much hassle” state of mind.  There are really only three actions involved: pouring the beans into a bowl, adding enough water in the bowl to cover them by a few inches, and placing them in an out-of-the-way place in your kitchen. And you’re done with soaking.  You can start a set of beans soaking without even having a detailed plan for them.  You don’t have to cook them in 8 hours or even 12.  You can soak beans for 24 hours (some people say even more) before you cook them, so you’ve got tons of time to figure this out. (It’s actually supposed to be great for easing digestion and absorbing nutrients if you do give them an extra-long soak.)

After soaking, I put all the beans in a large pot and cover them by 2 inches of fresh water (a little more if I know I’m turning it into soup).  I bring them up to a boil, but only just to the start of the boil, and then decrease the heat to what produces a light simmer in the water.  While the beans are coming to a boil, I chop up an onion (onion skin can do, too), a few carrots, some celery,  and 6 or 7 cloves of garlic (because I love garlic).  I take the skin off a lemon with a vegetable peeler or paring knife (no pith), and I get out a bay leaf, a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme, and my salt. Once I’ve lowered the heat on the beans, I dump all of the vegetables, the lemon, herbs, and about 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of salt (some people say not to salt until the end, but I’ve had better tasting beans doing it this way).  I usually then remember that the best beans (and soups) I have ever made have been simmered with a cheese rind (the hard end of your block of parmesan, pecorino, etc.  don’t throw them away; keep them in your freezer for such an occasion as cooking beans), so I throw one of those in, too.  I add about 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil, cover, and walk away, letting the beans bathe in all that goodness for about 30-60 minutes (the older the bean, the longer they need to cook). You’ll know they are done when you can peel the skin off the bean by lightly blowing on it (this is a technique from food writer Clementine Paddleford found in AEM and I love it in theory and in practice).  They should be creamy through the middle, not crunchy in the slightest.  Remove the bay leaf, whole herb stems, the lemon peel, and the cheese rind if you can find it.

You now have a pot of flavorful, hearty beans (and some vegetables) and all the delicious liquid in which they cooked.  What should you do now? Here are some places to start (almost all straight out of Adler’s book):

~If I want soup, I add diced potato and some chopped greens (my favorite is kale), and maybe a can of tomatoes, with the juice, to the pot and let it all simmer until the potato is cooked through.  After checking the seasoning,  I ladle it into bowl and serve with a small dollop of basil pesto if I have it, or olive oil and parmesan if I don’t.  Croutons made from yesterday’s bread are good here, too.

~If we are wanting meat and I have some sausage, I brown a few in a pan, ladle the cooked beans and vegetables into a baking dish, and nestle the sausages in so they are cozy.  Then I add a little of the bean broth and put the dish into a low oven (325 degrees F or so).  When the sausage is cooked through I serve them with some herbs and garlicky bread crumbs if available, or just serve it as is.

~Or, you can do my favorite meal that I could eat happily every day (I use pinto beans, but you could use any you like): Saute some chopped kale (or green of your choice) in olive oil. Season it with salt.  Take your cooked beans and veggies and a little of the broth and warm it all over medium heat.  Add the greens to the pan and stir.  Crack as many eggs as people to feed into the beans.  Season the eggs with salt and pepper, scatter some fresh thyme over everything, and cover.  Let cook until the eggs have turned opaque and then take off the heat. Squeeze some lemon juice over the pan.  Put an egg and beans into each bowl, add a some feta cheese or, even better, a bit of olive pesto. You might want to eat it everyday, too (and please invite me over).

Whenever I eat and serve beans in these ways I’m awed by how well we can do with very little money and a little care.  I’ll end with a quote from “How to Live Well” because she says what I mean so beautifully:

“We do know that people have always found ways to eat and live well, whether on boiling water or bread or beans, and that some of our best eating hasn’t been our more foreign or expensive or elaborate, but quite plain and quite familiar.  And knowing that is probably the best way to cook, and certainly the best way to live.”

Don’t you agree?

For the list makers:

1 lb of dried beans (white, pinto, black, cranberry, etc)

onion (or onion scraps if you need the onion elsewhere)

chopped carrot (how much depends on your taste and what you have)

chopped celery (same as the carrot on the amount)

6-7 garlic cloves (or however much you like)

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of rosemary or 2 sprigs of thyme

peel of 1/2 to 1 lemon

1 hard cheese rind

olive oil

salt

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§ 6 Responses to Living Well

  • Elena says:

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, elbow grease, research and tried and true experiences in bean making and creating. This is motivating for me because my kids love beans and my dad always bugs me that I’m not making more pots of beans! I need to stay true to my Mexican roots (and I’m sure my European side is represented in bean making somewhere in the family tree as well!) Love your thoughts and words Monica. :)

    • Monica says:

      I got a good laugh about your dad bugging you to make more pots of beans! I did read that most Mexican cooks don’t soak their beans, they just cook them for a longer time. What’s his method?

  • Michelle says:

    I love it when you post step-by-step, detailed instructions with a list! I know it takes more time, but listy-people do appreciate it. Can’t wait to see you and your crew this weekend…

  • Mary Garrigan says:

    ok first – i’m really really jealous that you guys are getting together and i’m not there. Instead i’m here where it’s still snowy! not fair.
    Monica – I love reading your blog! it just makes me happy. I sure do miss you guys!

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