Cooking with Dried Beans
I’m a big fan of getting the oven going and cooking a bunch of food and then, throughout the week, converting that prepped food into a variety of dishes whipped up lickety split. This already-prepared food circumvents the temptation of a restaurant dinner. I will bow to that temptation more than I care to admit when facing 1.5 hour meal preparation times after a long day. But snuggling in for the night will be in the cards if warming something up and tossing together a salad is the only hurdle to dinner.
We try to always have some sort of a grain cooked and in the refrigerator. One of my favorites is dried beans. Michigan is known for its cherries, blueberries, stone fruit of all kinds, apples and asparagus. But we should also be known for our beans. Michigan is the second largest producer of dried beans in the United States. A veritable earth-toned rainbow of beans—black, pinto, cranberry, kidney and the creamy great northern—come out of the thumb region each year.
Pulses in general are known to be an inexpensive way to incorporate protein into one’s diet. They are also high in vitamins and micronutrients without the fats associated with animal proteins. They are also a healthy part of our food system because they are nitrogen fixing counter balance to the volume of corn that is grown in this country. They are also a foodstuff that is not energy intensive to ship and share with other parts of the country and world—not full of water, no need for refrigeration.
I simply love cooking them, a bonus above and beyond all the esoteric reasons why beans are a regular guest at our dinner table. They take time and a bit of planning ahead. Somehow it feels like you have to earn the deep flavor that they yield. (All of this time can be circumvented by buying canned which is a good option in terms of nutrition despite being significantly less romantic.)
Last week I made my favorite big bean dish—potlicker. Bean potlicker is a large batch of beans cooked with aromatic vegetables until the beans give up their starches and convert to silky, creamy darlings.
I first heard the term potlicker at the Freemont Diner in California. I assumed that it was one of those amazing words that evolved from verb to adjective and finally noun. Turns out there is no cultural legacy to the term potlicker (except that it used to be a derogatory term for the poor and hungry and usually immigrant communities), so I’m in the throes of retaking the word and making it the adj-noun that it should be!
The exact proportions of the potlicker is not super important. What is important is to have a good amount of aromatic vegetables and herbs and I like to add something that adds some acidity (the tomato paste, the beer, even some wine).
I have read that including something acidic or salty when cooking beans toughens their skins. I have also read that soaking them with salt or a pinch of baking soda will chemically break down that structure. I have not had trouble with toughness except with very old dried beans. So, I skip the baking soda but keep the salt because it penetrates the bean and makes the whole pot more flavorful with less salt than when adjusting at the end of cooking. But do as you please. If you like it with the baking soda, keep adding it. If you find that the acidity has added a bit too much chew for you, add tomato or beer at the end of cooking and swirl it into the broth.
Similarly, play around with any spices you like. When using fry the spices in oil with the herbs in the initial step. I generally keep the initial potlicker neutral so the beans are more versatile throughout the week. Incidentally, I usually add a good chunk of pork in some form (bacon, sausage, salt pork or hock) at the beginning of cooking but it is not necessary—just a bonus. Same with something spicy.
And that big, black bean, potlicker yielded this week of eats.
Saturday: soaked the beans in salty water and seasoned a rack of ribs to braise in the oven at the same time.
Sunday: made the bean potlicker, braised the ribs to turn into pasta sauce and a roast chicken over roasted vegetables. I like to give the beans a day to soak after cooking and absorb the flavors of the broth. Let them cool on the counter top and then spend the night in the fridge. Same with the pork ribs.
Monday’s breakfast: boiled eggs, warmed beans, sour cream and broccoli.
Tuesday’s lunch: Cheese quesadilla stuffed with beans and a big green salad.
Wednesday’s lunch: the leftover chicken pulled from the bone and tossed with beans, grated carrots, green onions and arugula.
Thursday’s afternoon snack because I missed lunch: the beans warmed and smashed with a fork on toast with a hard-boiled egg and avocado. Thought about turning the rest of the beans into a puree to use on sandwiches or toast or into refried beans but never got around to it.
Friday’s I can’t believe I still have these beans: turned into a soup with more onions, carrots, celery and canned tomato.
Saturday’s lunch: finished the soup and the last of the beans.
And that’s how one day of three things in the oven fed us for the bulk of the week.
- 1 lb dried beans, soaked overnight in salty water
- 2 onions, sliced thinly
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ¼ C tomato paste
- 6 sprigs of thyme, rosemary and/or oregano
- 1 beer (nothing too fancy but any flavor that you like)
- Water to cover by 2 inches
- Heat oven to 325F
- In a large ovenproof dish, heat a big glug of oil till shimmering
- Briefly fry the herbs in the oil (adding any spices or chili peppers that you’re using)
- Add the onions and garlic (and any other vegetables you’d like to include) to cool down the oil
- Add a pinch of salt and allow the onions to soften
- Add the tomato paste and beer and stir to mix and let the beer reduce by half
- Add the beans and let cook in the mixture for 5 min or so
- Add the water, bring to a boil, cover with a tight fitting lid and then transfer to the oven
- Bake until beans are tender (anywhere from 1 hour to 2 ½)
- Remove the beans from the oven and allow to cool in the cooking liquid