Sunday, May 6, 2012

Basic Beans

This week's recipe is a simple one. "Legumes" 

I don't want to insult anyone's intelligence by doing something this basic, but I'm doing this post for two reasons:

1.  Legumes are a staple in many other recipes that I'll post, and since I have my "no can" rule, I should probably explain this before moving on.

2.  Most Americans (myself included, at one point) probably don't know how to make them from scratch.

My introduction to bean-making came while I lived in Venezuela from 2003 to 2004.  One cool evening in Caracas (of which there are few), I decided to make Chili for the staff of the Diocesan House, who were all working late that evening.  I first went to the grocery store down the block to get all the ingredients.  To my surprise, a can of beans was really expensive!  I couldn't figure out how a culture that eats so many legumes in so many forms could pay so much for such a basic staple.  I just let this be a fleeting thought, and I bought my can of beans for that evening.

Sadly, this whole incident shows my own ignorance, but probably not uniquely my ignorance.  I was 23 years old, and I had never, to my knowledge seen a bean in a non-canned form.  It never occurred to me that beans came in another form.  As it turns out, I learned later that beans don't actually grow in cans, and most people around the world buy them dry.  Even more amazingly, you can buy them dry in this country AND they're cheaper AND healthier that way!

So, here's how to do it:

*Note: Proportions will vary depending on how much you need to make.
2 c. Dried Beans (whichever kind your are making)
10 c. Water
1 t. Salt
1 T. Oil (Preferably Olive, but you can really use any kind)
1 fg. Fennel Seed (Optional - I'll explain this one)
1 fg. Baking Soda (Optional)

1. Rinse the Beans in a colander under tap water.  (Remember they were grown in dirt)  You may have to move them around with your hand as you're rinsing, and pick out any bad beans, stones, or sticks.  Those are pretty common (again, dirt).

2.  Put the Beans into a large pot with the 10 c. of Water.  Some people say that the pinch (fg) of Baking Soda helps to soften the beans when soaking, so if that is your preference, here's where you put it in.  Also, it is common to put a pinch of Fennel in the soaking Beans.  This is supposed to lessen any of the intestinal side affects that beans cause when eating them - unless you like not having a social life. 

Black Beans - You can see the Fennel on top
Pinto Beans
Thin layer of foam
3.  Leave the Beans to soak in the water for 8-24 hours with the Baking Soda and Fennel, if desired.  It's best to let them soak long enough that they develop a thin layer of white foam on the surface of the water.  When you are ready to cook them, add the salt and oil.  The next day, there may be some shriveled up beans at the top.  Just skim them off and throw them away.

4.  Cook over medium heat, getting them to a rolling boil.  Make sure you stir them every 5 min, or so to keep them from sticking to the pot. 

Cooking times will vary depending on the type of legume or the quality.  In general, the older the beans, the longer they will take to cook.  Also, different beans take different times.  In general, I find the beans that soak up the least amount of water are the ones that cook the slowest, and vice versa.

Black Beans can take as little as 30 min, and as long as 2 hours.  I usually find 45 min. does the trick.

Red and Pinto Beans will take 20-40 min. 

Chick Peas tend to take 20-30 min.

Lentils can cook in as little time as 10 min, depending on the type of lentil.

Another issue while cooking legumes is that they develop foam while boiling.  There are a few things you can do about this.  Soaking is your first defense against The Foam that Ate Your Kitchen.  The oil is the major thing that keeps foam under control.  If you have an oil sprayer that can cover the surface of the water evenly, you are very unlikely to have a foam problem.  Even a glob of oil in the middle of the water will be helpful, though.  If you want the beans to cook faster, you can cook them on a higher heat, but they are more likely to foam up, and WILL boil over if you don't watch them.  If you reduce the heat to medium or low, you reduce the foam, however it will extend cooking time.  The biggest thing to do here is to keep an eye on them.  When foam arises, just scoop it off the top, and throw it into the sink.  Once the initial foam is off, it probably won't foam up again.

5.  Use the legumes in your favorite beanie recipe, or store them for later use.  If you are going to store the beans in plastic, let them cool for an hour before putting them into a container.  Most legumes will keep well in the fridge for about a week, then they may start growing mold.  However, you can store them in the freezer almost indefinitely.  I tend to store legumes in zipper bags still in their liquid, making sure there's no air in the bags, so they don't get freezer burned.  Months later, they will thaw out and taste just like you cooked them that day.

*A couple of notes about cooking beans:
-You can cook legumes without first soaking them, however they will take longer, foam up more, need more stirring, and your social life will be in more jeopardy than before from the intestinal effects.  

-One Venezuelan trick to cooking black beans, which take a longer time, is to use a pressure cooker.  You can knock them out in 30 min, without soaking or stirring.

-I don't know if it's an old wives' tale, but I have heard that you should never put a spoon into your mouth, and then back into boiling beans without washing the spoon first.  Supposedly, it will ruin the beans. I can't say that I know this to be true for sure, but it doesn't sound like a good idea either way.

-There are so many ways to cook beans, and what to or not to include, that there really is no wrong way to do them. For instance, you can cook them without salt or oil on low heat, and they will cook (albeit, after a longer cooking time) without foaming up.  In the end, as long as you make sure the water doesn't cook off in the boiling process and they don't burn, the beans will turn out just fine.

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