How to Cook Beans

Beans, beans are good for the heart; the more you eat, the more you . . ." Well, we all know the rest to that ditty. Fact is, beans are good for the heart. The lowly bean (or legumes---the fancy word) is a good source of thiamine, niacin and other components of the vitamin B complex series. They are also great comfort food. Think of a hearty French cassoulet casserole; Mexican refried beans; Boston bake beans; the three bean salad for barbecues; and the Middle Eastern hummus. Life would be sad indeed without beans. But how to cook the suckers? Easy enough to open up a can of beans but, for real flavor and texture, nothing beats fresh beans or the more common dry beans you find in 1 pound packages at the store. Be aware that the dry beans you get at the supermarket could be older (and drier) than last year's leftover meatloaf. Thus they need to be soaked beforehand in water. And the more soaking time, the more tender the final product. That's why I recommend overnight soaking rather than the quick soaking method where you cover the beans in water, bring to a boil, then cook uncover over moderate heat for approximately 2 minutes; and afterward let them soak for an hour.

The overnight method involves placing beans in a colander, discarding any broken or shriveled ones, and rinsing in cold running water. Then you place the beans in a pot with water to cover at least 2 inches.  Never use warm or hot water. In extremely hot weather it's a good idea to soak the beans in the fridge. Ideally, one should change the water several times to prevent the beans from fermenting. After overnight or quick-soaking, drain beans and place in a heavy kettle or Dutch over with 2 quarts (8 cups) water and bring to a boil. Cover and boil over moderate-low heat until beans are tender (about 1 hour). From hear on you can finish up with any of the three basic bean recipes given below. Let me add, the recipes are good for almost any kind of legumes: black beans, red kidney beans, pigeon peas, small red beans, Lima beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, pink beans, chick peas, etc.


A. Sofrito Method:
This method uses sofrito, an aromatic mix of herbs and spices which is used a a base for cooking countless Caribbean dishes. You can buy prepared sofrito in most supermarkets or Asian and Caribbean markets. If you want to make it from scratch then you can check my blog post of  11/08/10 which gives an easy sofrito recipe. Or, better still (for me), get it from my cookbook, Puerto Rican Cuisine in America  (Perseus Books Group---Running Press)

1. To the soaked beans, add 1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes; 3 tablespoons sofrito; 1 beef bouillon cube; 1 teaspoon salt; 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano; and 1/4 cup tomato sauce. (My mother, of blessed memory, would add 2 tablespoons dry red wine at this point---a tip she got from a Cuban friend). Mix well.
2. Cover and cook over high heat until water is boiling. This should take 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until beans are completely tender and sauce has thickened somewhat.

B. Skillet Method:
1. Place the beans in a pot and boil in 2 quarts water as outlined above; but add half a medium green bell pepper, seeded, to water.
2. In a skillet or frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add 1 medium onion, peeled and chopped; 1 clove garlic, crushed; 1 teaspoon dried oregano; 1/2 cup tomato sauce; and 1 tablespoon tomato paste. Saute on moderate heat for 5 minutes.
3. Add skillet contents to beans plus 1 large potato, peeled an cubed, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix well.
4. Cover and cook over high heat until water is boiling (5-10 minutes).
5. Lower heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes or until beans are completely tender sauce has thickened.

C. Oven Method:
This is an oven method that is very popular in Italy, particularly in Tuscany. The beans are soaked overnight in the same manner, then rinsed and place in a pot or casserole. The rest of the recipe is as follows:

1. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.
2. Add 1 small onion, peeled and chopped, to beans and water to cover by 1/2 inch.
3. Cover and bring the water to a near boil over low heat.
4. Place the pot in oven and bake until beans are tender (45 minutes to 1 hour). Make sure the water does not evaporate during cooking to below the level of the beans.
5. Remove from oven and add salt and pepper to taste. Let stand for about 10 minutes.
6. Drizzle a tablespoon or two of olive oil over beans and serve.

Note: the above recipes yield from 6 to 8 servings.

photo: courtesy of NewlyWed Nutrition