My first job in the food industry was at a fledgling Taco Bell in Greensboro, N.C. It was 1977, the summer after my senior year in high school (I graduated when I was 3). Back then, Mexican(-ish) food was not enjoying its current ubiquity, and most of the locals in Greensboro were completely unfamiliar with our offerings.
One of my jobs was cleaning the pinto beans. Spreading them in single layers from 50-pound sacks, I’d remove any unwanted small stones and pebbles, thereby preventing our clientele from losing a tooth.
Today, we revisit my halcyon youth and make us a great big ol’ mess o’ beans.
WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS
Beans are full of protein, and word on the street is, they’re good for your heart. Made-from-scratch beans are tastier and cheaper than canned and not a lot of work. Plus, I hear they’re hiring down at The Bell.
THE STEPS YOU TAKE
Like the method for last month’s hallowed meatloaf, the method for beans is easy: Simply combine all your ingredients, and simmer until done.
Granted, we include other steps to make flavorful the otherwise bland bean. Nonetheless, that nine-word dictum speaks to a larger truth — namely that beans, being as dry and hard as Lenin’s scalp (ewww!), are rendered palatable only by cooking them in liquid long enough to make them as moist and tender as the glistening cheeks of a baby clam.
You heard me. Clam cheeks.
As per our maddeningly repetitious norm, let’s start by discussing the ingredients:
Beans. Beans are in the family Fabaceae, aka the legume family. This family also includes several genera whose products behave very much like beans in the kitchen, namely peas, lentils and garbanzos. Thus, even though we’re talking beans, you can apply today’s principles to any of those aforementioned goodies.
Liquid. Water is dandy, though I prefer stock or canned broth, because it adds more flavor. Or half stock, half water.
The common wisdom is that you should soak your beans before cooking. Turns out, that’s not really necessary. The idea behind soaking is to make them absorb water and decrease the cooking time. Fair enough, but why bother? Beans take a while to cook anyway. Just start them a little earlier in the day.
Another alleged benefit of soaking is that it makes the beans more “digestible,” if you know what I mean. Without a long explanation, just suffice it to say, no, don’t count on it. (Please, gassy readers, no lengthy diatribes citing awkward personal anecdotes.)
A third alternative fact from the beanish rumor mill concerns salt in the cooking liquid. “Don’t do it,” the Bland Beaners cry, “or they’ll never get soft.”
“Pish posh,” sez I. Season the cooking liquid, about half a tablespoon of kosher salt per quart, as soon as it comes to the simmer. The liquid should taste properly seasoned.
Other ingredients. Recall that beans aren’t pizza; they’re not a vehicle for delivering other ingredients. Thus, the ingredient list is limited mostly to things that will enhance their flavor. Aromatic vegetables (onions, peppers, garlic, etc.), herbs and spices are nearly always included. Tomatoes, perhaps. And pork: bacon, salt pork, ham hocks, etc. Pork products deepen the flavor, and the extra fat gives the beans a creamier mouth feel.
Here’s how I’d make a pound of dried beans:
1. Crisp up half a pound of bacon lardons.
2. When they’re halfway there, add your aromatics, and sweat for a few minutes.
3. Add your beans and enough liquid to cover them by about an inch. Bring it all to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
4, Add salt until the liquid tastes perfectly seasoned, then cover the beans and simmer until they’re as soft and creamy as silk pajamas dipped in warm butter. (That’s my smartphone’s simile app talkin’.)
Depending on the kind of beans and how old they are (beans continue to dry out on the shelf), and depending on whether you soaked or not, this could take anywhere from an hour to three or more. Leave yourself plenty of time, and you can’t go wrong. Check the liquid frequently; if the level drops below the beans, add more as necessary.
When the beans are done, taste for salt, and finish flavoring with whatever you’re using: spices or fresh herbs, vinegar and sugar, barbecue sauce, you name it. Then, you have several more options: Serve them immediately with rice. Add more liquid and turn it into bean soup. Pass them through a food mill to make bean puree. Yum.
Here are some flavoring ideas, plus a basic recipe adaptable to the variations here:
Cuban/Latin American style: Render bacon. Sweat onions, green pepper, garlic and jalapeno, if you like. Use black beans with chicken stock or water. When done, flavor with cilantro, oregano, cider vinegar, sugar and optional sliced pimento-stuffed olives.
French style: Render bacon. Sweat mirepoix (a 2-1-1 mix of chopped onions, carrot and celery). Use white beans with stock and a bay leaf. When done, flavor with thyme or herbes de Provence. A poached egg on top of these is a wonderful thing.
Tex-Mex: Render bacon. (See the pattern?) Sweat onions, green pepper, garlic and optional jalapeno. Use kidney beans and/or pintos in water or stock. When done, flavor with cumin, chili powder and optional barbecue sauce.
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: up to 3 hours
Makes: 12 half-cup servings
1/2 pound thick-cut bacon, cut into lardons
1 medium onion, diced
2 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound pinto beans
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
Water as needed
Salt as needed
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons cumin
1 jalapeno, split in half, optional
Cilantro, minced, as needed
Mexican cheese, like cotija or queso fresco, crumbled, as needed
1. Saute bacon in large, heavy bottomed stockpot over medium heat until fat is rendered but bacon is still soft, about 5 minutes.
2. Add onion, and continue cooking until bacon is slightly crispy, about 5 minutes.
3. Add garlic, and cook until just fragrant, about 30 seconds.
4. Add beans and stock. Add water until beans are covered by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.
5. Season liquid with salt, about 1/2 tablespoon per quart of liquid.
6. Add bay leaf, spices and jalapeno, if using; cover and simmer until beans are soft and creamy, 90 minutes to 3 hours.
7. Serve in warm bowls with cilantro and cheese.
Nutrition information per serving: 172 calories, 3 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 7 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 11 g protein, 326 mg sodium, 8 g fiber