#LovePulses and take the pledge

Another informative post on an underutilized and versatile food source. Even if you don’t wish to take the pledge, please read! Look at the nutrition data. If you cook your own, the preparation  may take planning and time but it’s not labor intensive. Canned beans are an option to help use this food group.

one taste at a time

The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 the year of Pulses, which are the edible seeds of plants in the legume family. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) officially recognizes 11 specific types of pulses, but they can generally be encompassed in 4 groups: dry peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas.

Referred to as “nutritious seeds for a sustainable future,” these superfoods pack an impressive nutritional punch. Not only are they loaded with protein, fiber, iron, potassium, folate, and antioxidants, but they’re also cholesterol, sodium, and gluten-free.

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Cooking dried beans

We’re all aware that we should have more whole grains, beans, and legumes in our diet–we’ll talk about grains later, but let’s consider dried beans now.  They taste good, are good for you, and economical.

Beans are a pantry staple for me–both canned and dried.  The canned ones are mostly for “emergency” use.  It’s very easy to cook your own dried beans–especially if you use a slow cooker or put them in a slow over.  Either way, they are on their own without needing attention from you, other than checking them occasionally.

The advantages of cooking your own are multiple: the texture and flavor are likely going to be better than those coming out of a can; you can control seasoning (and the amount of salt), and you have so many more different heirloom beans with different flavors!  Yes, different flavors–not all beans taste alike–and even from the supermarket, you have a lot to from which to choose. If you find that you do like beans, then it’s worth a venture into a gourmet store, or online to find some the wonderful heirlooms that are available.

It does need a bit of planning.  First, you’ll need to sort them to remove any debris like small stones and broken beans–but that’s easily done if you just put the beans on a plate or a rimmed baking sheet.  Since dried beans do need to be rehydrated,  it’s best if you soak your beans overnight.   The quick-soaking methods are not recommended as they can affect the nutrition and the texture of your cooked beans. (Cook’s Illustrated, “Dried Beans 101). Once cooked you can freeze them so that you have a supply of cooked beans on hand when you need them.

Soaking in tap water can toughen them, depending on the mineral content of your tap water.  To avoid this, it’s best to soak them in brine; three (3) tablespoons of salt to each gallon of water will keep the tap water from toughening them, and even displace some of the minerals (calcium and magnesium) that occur naturally in the skins.

You want to cook beans at a gentle simmer so that they don’t break up or split open.  That’s easy with a slow cooker, or in the oven at a very low heat; an advantage of either of these methods is that they don’t require your attention–just a periodic check to see if they are done yet.  It’s an easy thing to do on the weekend when you want to have a lazy day.  In the slow cooker, they can cook while you’re away.

What seasonings you use will depend on what you’re planning to do with these beans.  If I’m cooking a large quantity to freeze some for various uses, I will likely keep the seasonings to a minimum–some onion, bay leaves–to have more flexibility in what I do with them later.   One caution, though:  it seems that most food scientists agree that adding acidic ingredients can keep dried beans from softening during cooking.  So you don’t want to add acidic things (like tomatoes) until the beans are tender.  If you see older recipes that suggest adding baking soda to the cooking water, I would give that a pass as the alkalinity can affect the nutrition.

Occasionally you’ll get a batch of beans that just don’t soften with cooking–that probably means that they are very old, so buy your dried beans where there is a good turnover and don’t let them linger on your pantry shelf for years–go ahead and cook them and freeze them.  I think that you’ll find that if you have them readily available you will use them.

Once you “get into” beans, you’ll find that there are so many wonderful varieties. For an introduction to some of them, take a look at The Cook’s Thesaurus.  Keep in mind that lentils and some “peas” don’t need soaking so may be substituted if you’ve not planned ahead.  Additional nutritional information and survey of some varieties of dried beans can be found at Fruit & Vegetable of the Month (CDC).

My pantry is almost never without canned beans either:  black beans, navy beans, cannellini beans, pinto beans, and garbanzo as the basics, but those are more for when I’ve not planned ahead or for emergency use.  There are huge differences in the taste and, particularly, the texture of canned beans, so you’ll want to explore using different brands for the “emergency” pantry stash. Some store brands (Harris Teeter) are fine for basic uses, but as the texture can vary, you need to buy according to the used–if I’m making a cold bean salad in the summer, I might want Goya, or Progresso instead.

Bean and ham soup

The arrival of cooler weather means that it’s time to start restocking the freezer with hearty winter comfort foods.  Some of the mac ‘n’ beef now resides in the freezer.  Another favorite that needs to be stashed in the freezer along with the chili con carne is some ham and bean soup.

Mix of 15 kinds of beans

a 15-bean mix

For my bean soup, I start with a one-pound bag of soup mix of fifteen different beans and lentils.  The first step is to discard the seasoning packet that comes in the bag with the beans.

The dried beans need to be soaked so it does require a little planning.  Use a brine of 3 tablespoons of table salt or equivalent amount of kosher salt (see Conversions page) in one gallon of water and soak over night at room temperature.

The next important ingredient is some country ham (a hock is good or a slice will do too)–not the “city” or deli ham.  If you’re lucky you’ll find real country (dry, salt cured) ham in your supermarket (not in the refrigerated meat section, but somewhere in the meat department), or maybe even in your local hardware store (right next to the new-crop pinto beans there in the bushel basket).

American country ham is dry, salt cured–like Italian prosciutto or Spanish Serrano ham.  (Deli or “city ham” is wet cured in brine and is a different matter.  You can use it for ham soup, but it’s a different flavor and complexity when you use country ham.)

Because the country ham is SO salty, it needs to soak in water (or milk) to remove some salt.  If your ham is a thick chunk like a hock,  it  needs to soak at least 24 hours, with the water changed about every six to eight hours, to remove salt.  For a thick slice of country ham, or even “biscuit” slices, an overnight or 8-hour soak would be adequate with a couple changes of water.

The “hock” is the small end of the hind leg that has been cured.  It will have some skin, bone and fat on it.  Don’t remove the skin, bone or fat…it has connective tissue that will “melt” with the slow cooking and give the soup a nice silky texture.

When you’re ready to start the soup, sauté  chopped onions, celery, and carrots in a bit of olive oil until they start to brown.  This caramelization adds an extra layer of flavor to your soup.  I like to add lots of whole garlic cloves for the last few minutes of the sauté. You can slice or mince the garlic if you want, but whole cloves will give mellow background flavor after they’ve cooked with the beans and almost fall apart.

Two cautions when making this soup:

  • First, you do not want to add acid ingredients (like tomatoes) to your soup until the beans are tender.
  • Even though the ham was soaked, it’s still going to be saltier than “city” or deli ham, so don’t add salt until you’ve tasted the cooked beans.

Drain the soaking water from the beans.  Put the beans and ham hock  into a Dutch oven with the aromatics (onions, carrots, celery) and herbs (a couple large bay leaves and about a tablespoon of classic herbes de Provence) and enough liquid (water or part chicken broth) to cover the beans by a couple inches.  Bring to a simmer on the stove top.  Once simmering, cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid put it on the middle rack of a 295 ° F  to 300 ° F oven.  It can simmer unattended for about an hour  to an hour and a half later when you should check to see how tender the beans are.

When the beans are almost tender, remove the pot from the oven. Take out the ham hock and remove the skin, fat and bones.  Chop the meat into bite-sized pieces and return it to the pot.

Now that the beans are tender, you can add acid ingredients to your soup.  I like to add two 14.5-ounce cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes, or just diced or crushed tomatoes–what ever strikes your fancy.  Either return the soup to the oven  for another 30 to 40 minutes, or simmer on the stove top to allow flavors of the soup and the  tomatoes to meld.

You now have some serious bean soup.  Just before serving I like to add a few drops of sherry vinegar to brighten the flavor. Some minced parsley would make a great garnish, adding some bright, fresh notes to this hearty, earthy soup.

This does make a lot of soup so some is destined for the freezer for that really cold, damp winter day when you need comfort food.

A son goût!