If two people in two days tell me in real life that they miss me here on the tubes, does that say good things about my writing, or bad things about my real life presence?
Anywho, the past two weeks of silence were brought to you by my “Why am I writing this? Five people read it and I'm in regular contact with them anyway.” crisis. (Hi, five people!) The crisis actually only lasted a week, but then I got food poisoning (not from my cooking) and while I considered posting just long enough to sing the praises of my favorite ginger tea, I decided I'd just curl up in a ball instead.
The family has to eat no matter what crisis I might be having, and a favorite around here is black bean quesadillas. (Don't forget to shred your own cheese!) They're easy, filling, healthful, and once you've made the big pot of beans, you're all set up for another easy dinner later. Just add rice.
Dried beans are a great pantry staple, because they're cheap, nutritious and versatile. Unfortunately, a lot of people get their dried beans as far as the pantry but no farther. The poor beans sit in their bag gathering dust and getting drier and drier until no amount of simmering will save them. Do you have a bag of beans in your pantry?
Well, do you? Go look. Oh, there they are, red beans, leftover from that time you were going to make red beans and rice. It was 2005 and New Orleans cuisine was all the rage because of Katrina. Hmm... lets tuck those away for a just a tiny bit longer and go get some fresh beans. If you're not used to cooking dried beans, it's probably best to give yourself the best odds of success.
The first trick is to buy beans from a store that has a high turnover in the bean aisle. If you're in an area with a large Hispanic population, just go to a large supermarket with a good selection of dried beans and you'll be fine. If not, go to your favorite market and snoop around the bean aisle. Is it a large section? Is there a large variety of beans? Did someone who looks like they know what they're doing just buy some? Fantastic. This is the place. Buy some beans and head home.
Your second step is to sort and wash your beans. Pour out the amount you want to cook into a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and pick through to remove and discard broken, misshaped or discolored beans, as well as any small stones or clumps of dirt. I buy my beans in bulk and while my black beans are merely dusty, my pinto beans always have a few clumps of sandy soil that need to be picked out. Put the picked over beans in a strainer and rinse, stirring with your hands, until the beans are free of dirt.
Put your beans into a medium-large pot and add enough water to cover by 2”. I've messed around with ratios trying to figure out cups of water to cups of beans and I never get it right, but if I put my index finger on top of the beans the pot, and add water up to the middle of the second knuckle I get it right every time, no matter how many beans I have or what pot I'm using.
Now we come to controversy #1: to soak or not to soak. You don't NEED to soak. Soaking the beans doesn't produce any magical change in the beans except that they will need less time to cook after you turn the heat on than unsoaked beans. Soaked beans take about an hour on heat, unsoaked beans about two hours. But if you don't plan far enough ahead to cook beans directly, you're certainly not going to plan far enough ahead to soak them. So, soak them if you want to, or don't. Whatever.
Fast on the heels of controversy #1 is controversy #2: when to salt. Conventional wisdom says that if you add salt at the beginning of cooking your beans will never cook, and will remain hard and gritty even if you boil them for days. This is poppycock. You can salt now and everything will be fine. I use about ½ teaspoon salt per cup of beans.
What else you put in your beans depends on what you like and what you're going to do with the beans. For pinto beans and cornbread, I use a bay leaf, some black pepper, a garlic clove and a tiny bit of cayenne. For black bean quesadillas I use all of the above but swap out some chipotle powder for the cayenne because I like the smoky flavor. If you are the type to have bacon or ham hocks or smoked turkey legs lying around your house, by all means add a bit of one of those. I'm not, so I don't.
Cover and put the pot on the heat, bring to a boil then turn down the heat to a bare simmer and allow to cook until beans are tender, about 2 hours if you didn't soak ahead of time. (Not lentils, they're done in no time at all and are the subject of a different post altogether.)
If two hours seems like a really long time to wait for your beans to cook, cook them the night before and keep them in in the refrigerator overnight, or cook a huge batch and keep them in meal sized portions in the freezer.
Beans and cornbread make a lovely simple supper, or there is an almost infinite variety of beans and rice dishes. You could even cook up a couple of different types of beans for a nice vegetarian chili (coming soon!). Now that you've made one batch successfully go back to your pantry for that bag of red beans and make some red beans and rice.