Friday, February 6, 2009
Cheap Vegetarian Food: Beans
There is simply no other food available that will feed you and your family as variedly, deliciously and cheaply as beans. I know some of you have some major reservation regarding the musical fruit - but cooking beans is certainly not the magic trick some people make it seem. With very little prep - how hard is it really to soak something overnight in water? - this should absolutely be an easy part of the way you eat.
To put is more bluntly - the more bean and lentil dishes you can cram into your weekly menu, the cheaper - and many times better, you will eat.
Beans come in two forms: dried and canned. Since we are talking affordability, dried beans are the better option - obviously. But canned beans do have their place. They are a great emergency staple - dips, main dishes, soups are all of a sudden available in a matter of minutes, whereas the dried beans do take some forethought. However, always keep in mind that money wise the canned bean manufacturers really charge for their pre-cooking services. Also, for those of us with delicate digestive systems, dried beans prepared according to the method explained below may be gentler.
Beans - the musical fruit:
Beans prepared poorly can be quite unpleasant. In my family we all have quite sensitive stomachs when it comes to beans and I have tried many methods of preparation, until I found a way to make eating beans an enjoyable part of a meal. Here is what I have found out:
A - Lentils are generally gentler than beans - they are a slightly different type of legume and are an excellent way to get started.
B - soaking is both easy and necessary. I don’t know why some people make such a big deal out of pouring a cup of beans into a larger cup with water.
It literally takes two seconds and I think the beans look like little jewels submerged in the water. It puts me in a good mood knowing that in a couple of hours time they will be ready to feed me and my family. Even though most people say you don’t need to soak lentils - I soak all legumes and would recommend you do the same, especially if you are a bean novice. I like to err on the side of caution. I find overnight soaking to be the most convenient. If you have to dash off to work in the morning - just change the water - and give your beans an extra soak - so they are ready to be cooked when you come back. But generally overnight is all the soaking that is needed.
C - we are all different when it comes to digesting beans - some lucky people never have a problem and others have to be more cautious. There is even a difference within different types of beans from person to person. Someone, who may have a harder time with black beans could chose to make a chili with Navy beans or lentils, because their digestion will be easier on them. I personally see very little difference when it comes to the taste of bean types - what changes is mainly color, shape and texture, when cooked. So substitute wildly and take advantage of sales. Chili for instance, can be made with pretty much any bean or lentil - the texture of the dish may change every so slightly, but the taste and nutritional profile will certainly remain unaffected.
Nutritionally they are all little miracles. Beans are packed with protein, contain impressive amounts of fiber, help lower cholesterol, help regulate blood sugar levels and contain a wide array of phyto nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Now comes the cooking. I call this the Romanian method - since I observed it first from my Romanian nanny, not paying much attention then, but when I heard it referenced again as the bean cooking method of Romanian peasants, I remembered it and so it shall be the “Romanian method”.
The Romanian Method for cooking gas free beans:
This will also work for lentils - but be careful not to overcook them or they will fall apart.
Basically all you need to do is gently boil the beans three times.
* First chose the amount of presoaked beans you want to make - you should make more, rather than less because they keep well in the fridge - which gives you access to instant beans just like from the can only for a fraction of the cost, and also if you make too much, beans freeze well. At most I would want you to have to prepare your basic beans only once a week.
* Combine your presoaked beans with a lot of fresh water - somewhere around 3 to 4 cups of water to every cup of bean.
* In a large pot over medium heat bring to a gentle boil - that can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes depending on your stove.
* Once boiling, turn off the heat immediately - and carefully drain your beans - rinsing off all the cooking water. Clean the pot well - scrub off any stuck-on foam and continue.
* Repeat the process - once again filling the pot with beans and fresh water in 3:1 ration and again over medium heat bring to a very gentle boil. Note: do not add salt. That will not help and leads to tough beans.
* Once the boil is reached, turn off the heat and carefully pour off the water - rinse your beans and repeat once more.
* Now we are at our last step - again submerge your rinsed beans in a generous amount of fresh cold water and bring them to a gentle boil and then reduce the heat down to a simmer. The beans should simmer covered for anywhere from 15 minutes for little lentils to 45 minutes for some heartier beans. Timing really depends on your stove and the freshness of the beans in question. Also if you will continue cooking your beans you can leave them just al dente since they will be exposed to more heat. Therefore the chart below is only a very general guideline.
The goal here of course is a creamy, soft bean that is neither mushy nor broken and certainly not hard or chewy. Practice makes perfect. It helps to take notes - so you will have your own magic bean formula for next time.
Now you will have a couple of cups worth of basic beans - some of which you can use immediately in your recipe of choice - the rest should be stored in the refrigerator to be used within the week, or frozen in one cup increments to be kept for a lot longer.
Bean chart: Soak all beans at least overnight. You can soak them longer, just change the soaking water every 12 hours and soak them in the refrigerator, when it is very hot so they don’t go sour. If little white sprouty buds develop at the end of your beans,rejoice, that means your beans are fresh and alive! Cook these sprouted beans extra gently and for a shorter time.
Bean name: approximate cooking time - after two times boil a la Romanian method
Adzuki Beans 30 minutes
Black-eyed Peas 45 min
Chick Peas 50 min
French lentils 35 min
Green lentils 45 min
Green Peas (Split peas) 30 min
Kidney Beans 50 min
Mung Beans 45 min
Pinto Beans 50 min
Red Lentils 20 min