Basic Pot of Beans
PHOTO BY MICHAEL PIAZZA / STYLED BY MOLLY SHUSTER
If you ask my 8-year-old daughter to name her top five favorite foods, beans will occupy at least four of the five slots. BLTs always come in first, but burritos, bean chili, bean soup and a bowl of beans-and-rice round out the rest. White beans, baked beans, flageolets, cranberries, black turtles; with cumin or sage or basil or just plain with salt and olive oil—she’s what the Tuscans call a “mangiafagioli,” a real bean-eater. So I cook a lot of them at home.
A pot of cooked beans is a marvelous thing. Simmered simply in water seasoned with olive oil, a few cloves of garlic, a bay leaf or two and some salt (yes, salt; more on that later), they are an easy to prepare, nutritious and downright inexpensive dinner. Since my girl would likely eat them at every meal if given the chance, I try to always have some cooked beans on hand to serve alongside a fried egg at breakfast, to heat and serve with fresh salsa in a thermos for lunch or to fold into charred tortillas for a quick taco supper.
But why bother to cook your own beans when opening a can is so much easier? I can think of many reasons, not least of which is that they just taste so much better when you’ve cooked them from scratch. You can control the seasoning, they’re not swimming in a BPA-lined tin can and their liquid is flavorful and useable in your recipes rather than viscous, gummy and better off poured down the drain.
Arguments against cooking one’s own beans include the annoying overnight pre-soaking and the length of time they take to cook, but I have solutions to these problems. If you’re lucky and can find a bag of local beans, they’ll be younger than most you see on a grocer’s shelf and therefore need less soaking and less cooking time. In fact, these are the kinds of beans you can just rinse, throw in a pot, season and cook, letting them simmer away slowly for 1–1½ hours, partially covered, until they’re tender. You can always add more liquid if you need it, and watching over a bean pot is a nice activity for a weekend afternoon.
(Need another reason to seek out local, heirloom beans? There are umpteen varieties in myriad colors, shapes, and patterns, with romantic names like Bumblebee, Calypso, Eye of the Goat and Scarlet Runner. A colorful collection of heirloom beans on your shelf makes for a Pinterest-worthy pantry. You can find them at various specialty foods stores around the Boston area, farm stands like Volante and Verrill and at Siena Farms’ Boston Public Market stand.)
If you have a bag of beans you’re pretty sure are more than a year old, and you’ve forgotten to soak them overnight, you can always use the quick-soak method which works quite well. Rinse your beans and discard any shriveled ones or tiny stones, then cover them with water by 1–2 inches and bring to a boil. Cook 3–5 minutes, then cover and remove from the heat. Let the beans steep in the hot water for an hour or so, then add your seasonings and some more water, and cook for another hour or until tender. (Most cooks will drain the beans between soaking and cooking and cover them with fresh water, but I find that the broth is richer and more substantial if you leave the soaking water in place and just replenish it a bit when adding the aromatics.)
Better still, why not let your slow-cooker do all the work? Quick-soak the beans in the morning on the stovetop, pour them into the cooker’s pot, season them and set them off to simmer all day—you’ll come home to a fresh pot of beans and umpteen ways to prepare them. Here’s the basic recipe along with a few of our favorite bean suppers, all of which can be prepared in under an hour on a busy weeknight, as long as you have a pot of cooked beans in your fridge!
BASIC POT OF BEANS
A note about salt: there are differing opinions on when to (and if to) add salt to your beans. Many cooks believe salt will prohibit softening, and therefore will add it at the end of the cooking process when the tender beans are cooling in their liquid. They’ll absorb some salt, sure, but the beans tend to stay somewhat under-seasoned while the broth is too salty. After many years of bean cooking every which way, I have discovered that adding salt in the beginning not only doesn’t add significant cooking time or toughen the beans, and in fact seasons the beans deeply and richly in a way that post-cooking salting just doesn’t do. So be bold and add your salt at the beginning!
Makes about 6 cups of beans
1 pound dried beans, rinsed and picked over for stones, soaked overnight
or quick-soaked (if you’re using freshly-dried beans, you can skip the soaking step)
6 cups water
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 bay leaves (fresh or dry)
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
After rinsing and soaking, pour the beans into a heavy-bottomed pot, like a Dutch oven. Add 6 cups of water, or enough to cover the beans by at least 1–2 inches, the oil, garlic, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, add the salt, and let cook partially covered until tender, about 1–1½ hours. Be sure to check on your beans while they cook and add more water if needed. The best way to know if the beans are cooked is to taste them; sample a few to be certain they’re really done. Once they’re cooked to your liking, let the beans cool in their liquid and remove the garlic cloves and bay leaves. Store in an airtight container in the fridge, covered with their broth. They will last 3–4 days. Any leftover beans can be frozen in zip-top bags for use in a pinch!
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.