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Taking beans to a whole new level
May 21, 2017, 4:11 pm

Despite many a food writer’s best efforts, dried beans are a tough sell for the home cook. This is because the cooking process could not be simpler: Soak beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain, then cover in a pot with fresh water. Simmer until tender, seasoning with salt somewhere along the way. And then: voila!—a delicious, nourishing pot of beans.

And since a mediocre pot is surprisingly easy to make when a can is involved, a majority of home cooks opt for the easy way out. But there are ways to ensure that every pot comes out perfectly. Listed below are three of them.

Avoid undercooking beans: This is a very important step. There cannot be even a hint of grainy texture in your finished beans, not only because their tender, creamy splendor is compromised, but because your body will punish you while struggling to digest them. Sometimes they take all day to cook, sometimes just an hour. Play by the beans’ rules and ignore the clock. As you simmer, check thoroughly for doneness. A popular rule is to taste five beans before taking the pot off the heat, ensuring that they are all nice and tender.

Salt and fat are key: Beans are plenty virtuous. Salt and fat soften that a little. Other aromatics—herbs and bay leaves, or stock essentials like carrot, onion, celery, parsley stems, and garlic—can be added to the cooking liquid as well, but are not mandatory. Just remember to fish them out at the end. At minimum, pour in a generous few glugs of olive oil at the beginning of cooking, which flavors the beans and enriches the bean broth, and then, towards the end of the cooking time, add salt, tasting the broth until it is well seasoned.

What you do with the beans matters: A simple pot of beans is just, well, a simple pot of beans. You might use it as a side dish, or in salads, or bowls. But this is the beginning of what those beans can do. They can be a pot of soup, a batch of chili, or the base of runny fried eggs.

Make that pot of beans, a day or two in advance if you like. Then, in a Dutch oven, give a mess of sliced onions, cubed cabbage, garlic, and canned whole tomatoes a quick fry in plenty of olive oil (This specific assortment could go in lots of different directions, like swapping fennel for onions, sturdy chicories for cabbage, adding a squirt of harissa to the pan, playing around with spices and dried herbs). Then tip the beans and their broth into the Dutch oven, bring it all to a boil, and transfer the whole thing—covered—into the oven for an hour and a half.

The baked beans that emerge are tender, rich, and sweet because of the onions and cabbage that melt into the creamy broth. They can be ladled into bowls and drizzled with some olive oil on the day you make them.

Here are a few more ways you can opt to turn those beans into meals.

  • Serve the baked beans as you would your favorite chili, with an assortment of toppings (shredded cheese or crumbled feta, minced jalapeno, sour cream or plain yogurt), with steamed rice on the side.
  • Spoon the hot beans over garlic-rubbed slabs of toasts, and put a poached or fried egg on top. Drizzle with olive oil.
  • Or, in that same vein, scrape the beans into a smaller gratin dish, crack eggs into little divots in the beans, and bake them once more. This way, you will have eggs baked in beans, which goes very nicely with a good loaf of bread.
  • Serve the beans over piles of soft polenta or any other grain you like, such as farro or barley, with or without a simple green salad on the side.
  • Eat the beans with charred tortillas and all your favorite taco fillings: slabs of avocado and piles of pickled onions, crumbled queso, and your favorite salsa or hot sauce.
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