Monday, April 5, 2010
Don't You Forget About Me
I've been really bad about giving dried beans and legumes a chance this year (with the exception of lentils, an iron powerhouse that cooks up in 30 minutes or less and always seems to get all of my attention). But the truth is that dried beans that take longer to cook and often require overnight soaking shouldn't be ignored. Despite the quality of today's canned beans, homemade beans just manage to have a texture and flavor that can't be matched. They actually absorb the flavors they're cooked in, a distinct advantage over the canned variety. While I like adding canned beans to a multitude of dishes for the added protein and color, they don't bring a great deal to the party in the way of added flavor (there's some nuttiness to be had, but that's about it).
It was my good fortune, then, that during my last CSA distribution we were given a pound and a half of dried black beans, which it turns out is a hell of a lot of beans. We'd never bean given dried goods before so the entire membership was somewhat flummoxed. Several members mentioned that they were unfamiliar with how to use dried beans and asked how exactly to go about using them. Attempting to quash any misconceptions, I admitted that yes, soaking is required, but like so many things in the kitchen, there's an alternative. I told them about the "quick soak", a neat trick where the beans are boiled on high heat for two minutes and left to sit in the hot water for an hour. I really like this method, and have used it even if I'm planning on putting beans in the slow cooker. Quick soaking makes using dried beans a real option for every day use and not something for strictly "plan-ahead" meals. They can quick soak while while the rest of dinner gets prepped, or in my case, while I spend a half an hour decompressing before starting to cook dinner in earnest.
I knew immediately that my sack of beans would go towards a big pot of Cuban-style black beans. It's hands down my favorite way to eat black beans, and a dish I'm quite picky about. They're actually easy to make, requiring little more than beans, stock, herbs, spices and pretty much any kind of smoked meat. I like using ham hocks or neck bones because they're so incredibly cheap, but if you're wary of them, a good thick slab of heavily smoked bacon will do. Some people like to add green bell peppers and other veggies, but I'm a black bean purist. A pinch of cumin and a bay leaf or two are the only other major flavor elements. The firm beans take on a rich, smoky flavor with a bit of salty bite that's perfect over fluffy white rice. Freshly cooked beans also do really well when frozen, so cooking up a big batch is ideal (freeze them in zip-top bags and reheat in a pot or pan--no defrosting necessary!). And leftovers are easy to deal with, whether it's making black bean burgers, black bean cakes, bean burritos or re-fried beans (which are actually made from leftover beans).
So if you can, give dried beans and legumes a try. I've already written about how easy lentils are, and beans and chick pea are a cinch to master. And if you have a slow cooker, you're in luck, because they're even easier to make there and require even less attention (most recipes translate pretty well from the stove top to the slow-cooker). So please, don't forget about these wonderful dried legumes. They're definitely a pantry staple with incredible health benefits (especially for people with high cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes) and the ability to leave you feeling pleasantly full with minimum negative calories. Here's my recipe, which you can easily move to your slow-cooker.
Cuban-Style Black Beans
1 lb (about 2 cups) dried black beans
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves
extra virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp ground cumin
2 dried bay leaves
chicken or vegetable stock (enough to cover beans, 4-6 cups as needed)
1 smoked ham hock (or 2 smoked neck bones or 1 large slab of smoked bacon)
1. Soak beans in a large bowl of cold water overnight. If you don't have time, "quick soak" beans by boiling them in water for two minutes then removing them from the flame, to sit covered, in the hot water for 1 hour.
2. Drain beans and rinse in cold water, setting aside. Heat onion, garlic and olive oil in a heavy bottomed soup pot or Dutch oven. Sweat onions until soft, then add cumin and cook 30 seconds further. Return beans to pot along with ham hocks, bay leaves and enough chicken stock to generously cover beans.
3. Cover pot and cook on medium heat until beans are cooked through, about 30-45 minutes, stirring often. Beans should be slightly soupy, so add water as necessary. Once beans are cooked through, remove ham hocks, bay leaves, and serve over rice. Enjoy!