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I recently realized that I have been way overspending on groceries. And so, a few days ago, in order to save as much as possible for the rest of April, John and I decided to eat only what we have in the house. No grocery trips.  Fortunately, my pantry is pretty well stocked with a lot of dry beans, a few tins of sardines, a can of salmon, and a bunch of pasta.  And I have garlic, 2 onions and some potatoes.  And some tempeh in the fridge.

So this week,  I’m going to write a little bit about some pantry staples, and what to do with them.  Today, beans– dry beans.  Because honestly, there is something so deeply satisfying about starting with a few handfuls of dry, intransigent beans and coaxing them from their impossible hardness into a creamy and sustaining meal.  (And a meal that costs pennies per person.)

And it’s incredibly simple, though, admittedly, not as simple as opening a can of beans and putting them in a pot, so why bother?  These are my reasons:

1. You save a ton of money.  Buying dry beans in bags or from bulk bins will get you great nutrition at a fraction of the cost of buying canned beans.  Check the prices of beans sold in bulk at health food stores– even if the store, i.e., Whole Foods, sells most things at a higher price than other stores, usually their bulk bins will be less pricey than pre-bagged beans, grains, etc. sold at cheaper stores.

2.  Possibly healthier?  Some cans are said to have BPA in them, and in Ayurveda, canned food is actually considered toxic.  Also, most canned beans have a lot of added salt.  When you cook them yourself, you can control the amount and type of salt that goes in.

3.  Less waste.  Even if you’re recycling those cans, a LOT of water and energy are going to be used up in the process of converting them to some other material.

4.  Better taste.

How to Cook Dry Beans

(Note: some beans do not need an overnight soak: split peas, mung beans, black eyed peas, and lentils.  Also,  there are a lot of different schools of thought as to how best to cook beans:  soak them, or not?  Add salt at the beginning, or the end?  Here’s an interesting article about cooking beans that would be worth a read.)

1.  Rinse beans in a colander or strainer.  Pick out any discolored beans or small rocks. (For 2 people, I usually soak between 1-2 cups at a time.  The beans expand when soaked and cooked to about double or almost triple their dry volume.)

2.  Put beans in a bowl and cover them with about twice the amount of water and cover with a dish towel or lid (doesn’t have to be air tight) for 8 hours or overnight.* (Skip this step with split peas, lentils, mung beans, as noted above).

3.  After the beans have soaked, put them in a generously sized pot with their soaking water.  Add more water, if needed  (enough so that there’s about an inch of water above the top of the beans).  Bring to a boil.  (Note: if your water is very hard, you might need to use distilled water, as the beans may never get soft enough to eat)

4.  Once the water boils, reduce the heat to a high simmer, and skim off any foam that has risen to the top of the pan.  Cook in this manner for 30 minutes to an hour or possibly 2, depending on how old the beans are and other factors.  Check every 15 minutes or so, and add more water if necessary  (the beans should be completely submerged in water).  After 30 minutes or so, taste one bean from the pot to see how much longer they might need.  If the bean is tender, you’re finished.  If it has some bite to it, you need more time.

5.  Once the beans are very tender, remove them from heat.  Season with some salt and garlic powder.  Let them soak a little while in the cooked bean water (overnight, in the fridge, if you have the time) so that the flavors can develop fully.

6.  Use the beans like you would any canned beans.  Or just drizzle with hot sauce and a little cheese and eat them out of a bowl.  Or make some black bean soup.  Or homemade refried beans.  (You can use this method with many different kinds of beans, including garbanzo beans– and hummus made from freshly cooked garbanzo beans is amazing.)

* There are some different schools of thought about soaking, draining, etc.  I’ve read that in traditional Mexican cooking the beans are not pre-soaked or rinsed after cooking, as the water contains important nutrients.  If anyone has thoughts about this, I would love to know more…

You can also cook dry beans in a slow cooker.  Soak overnight, slow cook during the day, and dinner will be waiting for you when you get home.

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