Making Ends Meet : All About Beans

Most Americans' knowledge of dried beans starts and stops with baked beans, three-bean salad, refried beans and chili.

But beans are worth getting better acquainted with. They are high in protein, minerals and cholesterol-reducing fiber, and low in sodium and cholesterol. Compared to meat, they are an inexpensive source of protein, typically costing less than $1 a pound.

More than 50 varieties are available. Besides the familiar pinto, kidney, Lima, black and white beans, there are heirlooms such as the anasazi, appaloosa and Jacobs cattle beans, which have been preserved by native Americans of the Southwest, some ardent seed savers and a few small commercial farmers. The pinquito bean, the Fordhook lima and the half-dollar-sized Louisiana speckled butter bean have been kept alive for consumers who treasure their particular nuances of flavor, texture and shape.

Many other beans may be widely available in one particular region but difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The delicate flageolet bean of France, used in rich cassoulets and crumbed gratins, is one example; the plump cannellini bean of Italy, which goes into garlicky purees and hearty soups, is another. The sturdy soldier bean is unique to New England.

The three beans most important to the human diet are the soybean, native to Asia; the fava bean, from the Middle East, and the common bean, which originated in the Americas. The common bean--the kind we're most likely to see in markets--includes an extraordinarily diverse variety. By the time of Columbus, dozens of species were already flourishing over here, from the small white beans of the cold North American plains to the Lima beans of the Peruvian highlands.

Although beans are extremely economical, the pace of modern life often makes the cost in time required to prepare beans prohibitive. Canned beans and reconstituted dry beans provide a welcome measure of convenience, but nothing beats the enticing aroma and rich flavor of well-seasoned, slow-simmered or baked beans.

TIPS ON SELECTING,

STORING AND PREPARING

DRIED BEANS

* Look for clean, whole beans of uniform size and color.

* Beans should be stored in a cool, dry place. They store well but are susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature that can make them more difficult to cook properly. Since you can't tell by their appearance whether dry beans are over the hill, buy them from a reliable purveyor with good turnover.

* Before cooking, rinse the beans and pick them over to remove any grit, pebbles or discolored beans. They also must be soaked, which insures that the beans will cook evenly and reduces cooking time.

* There are two basic soaking methods. The most common is to soak in cold water for eight hours or overnight. The quicker method involves bringing water and beans to a boil, boiling for two minutes and then letting the beans stand covered for an hour.

In either case, discard soaking water and rinse beans well before cooking. Many of the undigestible, soluble sugars in beans (which contribute to flatulence) dissolve in the soaking water.

* To cook presoaked beans, cover with three parts fresh water to one part beans, boil 10 minutes, lower heat and simmer, covered, for the prescribed cooking time.

* Cooking time for most beans is 1 1/2 to two hours. Mung beans take a little less time, whereas fava beans and soybeans take considerably more time; fava beans may take as long as two to 2 1/2 hours. Cooked beans should be tender but not mushy.

* Adding aromatics--onions, carrots, celery and a bouquet garni --can enhance the flavor. Add salt or acids such as vinegar or tomatoes toward the end of the cooking time. Adding salt earlier tends to slightly toughen the beans, and acids can slow cooking time.

* In a microwave, cook the presoaked beans and water, covered, on HIGH (100% power) eight to 10 minutes or until boiling; reduce power to MEDIUM (50% power) and cook another 15 to 20 minutes or until beans are tender.

* Beans swell from 15% moisture when dry to 60% moisture when cooked. So one pound beans equals two cups dry and five to six cups cooked.

DUCK WITH

PINTO BEANS

From "James Beard's Fowl

& Game Bird Cookery"

2 cups dried pinto beans, soaked overnight and drained

2 cloves garlic

1 bay leaf

3 onions, 1 studded with 2 cloves, 2 finely chopped

2 (5-pound) ducks, cut into serving pieces, skin removed and reserved

1 cup flour, about

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons butter

2 ounces salt pork, diced

Dash dried basil

1/2 teaspoon dry mustard

Oil for deep frying

Place beans in pan along with garlic, bay leaf and whole onion. Cover with boiling water and cook over medium heat 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until beans are tender. Drain, reserving liquid.

Cut duck skin into thin strips and set aside. Dredge duck pieces in flour seasoned with salt and pepper.

Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Add salt pork and fry until most of fat is rendered. Add chopped onions and saute until tender. Transfer salt pork and onions to casserole.

Sear duck in salt pork fat and transfer to casserole. Add beans, basil, additional pepper and dry mustard. Mix duck with beans. Pour in enough reserved bean liquid to cover ingredients. Bake, covered, at 350 degrees about 2 hours, or until beans and duck are thoroughly tender. Add liquid if it cooks away too quickly. Season to taste with salt.

Meanwhile, deep-fry strips of duck skin in 350-degree oil 2 to 3 minutes to crisp. Drain strips and use as garnish for duck. Makes 6 servings.

LOUISIANA RED BEANS

AND RICE

From the Junior League of

Corpus Christi cookbook,

"Fiesta: Favorite Recipes

of South Texas"

2 cups dried red beans, soaked overnight and drained

1 ham hock

2 quarts water

1 tablespoon salt

4 medium onions, chopped

6 to 8 green onions, chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 green or sweet red pepper, seeded, deribbed, chopped

1 cup finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/8 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 cup tomato sauce

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

4 cups cooked white rice

Place beans and ham hock in large soup kettle. Add water and salt. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and cook slowly 45 minutes, skimming occasionally.

Add onions, garlic, pepper, parsley, cayenne, hot pepper sauce, Worcestershire, tomato sauce, oregano and thyme leaves. Continue cooking slowly 2 hours, or until beans are tender and liquid is thick. Serve over rice. Makes 12 servings.

PASTA E FAGIOLI

ALLA VENEZIA

From "The Brilliant

Bean," by Sally and

Martin Stone

1/4 cup light Tuscan olive oil

1 cup coarsely chopped onions

1 cup coarsely chopped carrots

1 celery stalk with leaves, coarsely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil, or 1 teaspoon dried

1/4 pound pancetta or prosciutto, finely chopped, optional

1 cup dried red or white beans, soaked, rinsed and drained

1 cup chopped canned Italian plum tomatoes

1 sprig fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried, crushed

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon fresh or dried sage

7 cups chicken or vegetable broth, or boiling water

2 cups dried fettuccine, tagliatelle or egg noodles, broken in pieces

Salt, pepper

Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in large, heavy saucepan over moderately high heat. Add onions and saute until they begin to turn golden. Add carrots, celery, garlic and basil and cook few minutes longer, stirring occasionally. Stir in pancetta and saute 3 or 4 minutes.

Add beans, tomatoes, rosemary, red pepper, sage and 6 cups boiling liquid. Turn heat to high and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook, covered, 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until beans are tender, stirring occasionally. Add more boiling liquid, if needed, to cover beans.

Transfer about 2 ladles of beans and liquid to food processor, blender or food mill. Process to thick puree, then stir back into soup.

About 15 minutes before serving, bring soup to boil. Add pasta and any remaining boiling liquid. Stir occasionally 8 to 10 minutes or until pasta is cooked al dente. Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper. Ladle into soup bowls. Sprinkle each serving with Parmesan cheese and few drops olive oil, if desired. Makes 6 servings.

BLACK BEAN CAKE

(From "Jeremiah Tower's

New American Classics"

3 cups cooked black beans

1 tablespoon ancho chile powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 small fresh hot green chile, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro leaves

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sour cream

1 tablespoon milk

1/4 cup rendered duck fat, lard or olive oil

1/4 cup salsa (homemade or bottled)

24 sprigs cilantro, washed and dried

Cook beans as directed below. Let drain about 2 hours (reserve liquid for soup). Don't worry if they look terrible after sitting that long.

Put drained beans through meat grinder or food mill, then mix into paste with chile powder, cumin, fresh chile, chopped cilantro leaves and salt. Roll paste into 4 equal balls. Place each ball between 2 pieces wax paper and press into rounds 1/8-inch thick with palm of hand. Set aside.

Whisk sour cream with milk until smooth.

Heat duck fat in crepe, nonstick pan or on griddle. When hot, add cakes and cook 2 minutes on each side. Transfer cakes to warm plates and spoon sour cream in center of each cake. Spoon salsa over top and garnish with cilantro sprigs. Makes 4 cakes.

Note : To cook beans, rinse and sort 1/2 pound black turtle beans. Soak overnight in cold water. Drain. Place beans in large heavy pan and add 1/2 onion, chopped; 1/2 peeled carrot, chopped; small stalk celery, chopped; 3 cloves sliced garlic; 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme; 1 bay leaf; 1 ham bone; and 1 1/2 quarts chicken stock.

Bring to boil. Skim off any scum that rises to surface. Simmer slowly, loosely covered, until beans are tender, about 2 hours. Add more stock if level falls below surface of beans. Stir often to prevent sticking and to ensure that beans cook evenly.

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