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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dried Beans, Peas, and Lentils--Some Basics and Two Recipes to Try

As we move into cooler weather, beans will become more and more a basis of soups, chili, etc. Keeping a supply of canned beans of all kinds is a nice last minute/emergency kind of thing to have in the cupboard, but preparing dried beans "from scratch" can be economical, healthier (much more control over sodium) and more varied--there are many kinds of beans that are not readily available in canned form.

I spent many years thinking that cooking with dried beans was too labor intensive and time consuming, not worth the effort since the only beans we ate were baked beans (usually canned pork and beans with additions to make them palatable), kidney beans in chili, or beans or split peas made into soup whenever I had a leftover ham bone.

My daughter and daughters-in-law have all helped introduce me to the world of legumes, broadening our menus, saving money, and adding nutrition all at the same time. The more I cook with these wonderful ingredients, the easier it gets.

In case you are still where I was just a few years ago, a few basic hints can help get you started with your own fragrant pots of bean or lentil dishes simmering in the slow cooker or oven. The following site provides a few charts on cooking times for various kinds of beans, yields after cooking etc.

http://whatscookingamerica.net/Vegetables/driedbeantip.htm


I won't repeat all of Cooking America's valuable information, but a few points to emphasize or add:

  • The older the beans, the longer they will take to cook. How old are the beans you are buying? Hard to tell, so just try to rotate your supply. Even older beans will ultimately soften, but this is one of the main reasons why cooking times may vary quite a bit. Older beans will probably benefit from a longer soaking time as well as longer cooking time.
  • While you can soak beans overnight (or during the day while at work), I have found the best way for me is to cook the beans for a few minutes and then let them sit for an hour or two before draining and cooking. Which ever way you do the soaking, be sure you use LOTS of water. Beans expand exponentially it seems; if some beans end up not covered with water, they will not soften as much as the others and could be very difficult to cook to a softened stage.
  • Draining the beans after soaking is recommended. The reason is that the "flatulence factor" beans comes from oligosaccharides, and many of these will be dissolved in the water you are discarding. Yes, there is some nutrient loss, but the beans will still be a major source of protein, minerals, and fiber; if draining makes them more "socially acceptable," the small reduction in food value is worth it.
  • After draining, cook the beans in water or broth that has not been salted or that has acid ingredients like tomato juice--both salt and acid can change the structure of the beans enough to make it difficult or impossible to soften them completely. It can often take only another 30 minutes to an hour of cooking to tenderize the beans enough to add to your favorite recipe. Try doing this precooking before adding beans to the other ingredients for a bean soup or chili, and you will be surprised at how much faster the overall dish will take.
  • Lentils and split peas never need pre-soaking and, unless you have had them in the cupboard for a long time, can take as little as 20 to 30 minutes to cook.
  • Beans freeze well, and two pounds of beans take little more time to cook than one pound, so get in the habit of cooking up a large batch and freezing those you don't use right away in recipe sized batches, dividing up some of the liquid between all of the beans.
  • Your slow cooker is a great way to cook beans. For best results, go back to the manual/recipe book for your specific cooker to find out maximum amounts you can cook and what are the recommended cooking time.

Now for two recipes to venture into the world of beans, peas and lentil cookery.

The first is an easy dish common in many Middle Eastern countries and is thought to be similar to the "pottage" that Jacob used to bargain with Esau in the Old Testament.

The second uses garbanzos or chick peas, a kind of bean we more often think of as something only from a can. However, these are as easily prepared as pinto or navy beans, though they may require a longer cooking time.



Lentils and Rice (Mjadara)

2 c lentils
1 1/2 c rice
salt
8 c water
olive oil
3 large onions, cut in strips

1. Boil the lentils in water until tender, about 20 minutes or so. Add the rice and simmer about 20 minutes. Add salt to taste. (NOTE: If brown rice is used, begin cooking the rice and lentils together, simmering until both are tender.)
2. Meanwhile prepare the onions. Cut each onion in half from top to bottom. Lay each half on a cutting board and slice in thin strips, again from top to bottom.
3. Pour about a quarter inch of olive oil into a large pan and saute the onions very slowly in the oil until they are a deep golden brown.
4. When the rice and lentils are cooked, pour into a casserole dish and spread the onions evenly over the top. If needed, this can be kept warm in a 200 degree oven for up to an hour or so.


Garbanzos and Shells with Spinach

1 T olive oil
1 med onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 finely chopped carrot (about 3/4 to 1 cup)
red pepper flakes to taste
1 T tomato paste
2 c garbanzos (use a 15 oz can if you don't have any cooked at home)
liquid from beans plus enough water to make 1 cup
salt to taste (if using canned beans, be very careful not to over-salt)
10 to 16 oz pkg frozen chopped spinach, thawed, including liquid
8 oz pasta shells, cooked and drained
Parmesan--freshly grated if possible
Freshly grated black pepper

1. Saute onion and garlic in oil.
2. Add all remaining ingredients except pasta. Stir until just heated through and taste for seasonings.
3. Fold in pasta shells and serve topped with Parmesan and black pepper to taste.

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