Most Americans' knowledge of dried beans starts and stops with baked beans, three-bean salad, refried beans and chili.
But beans are worth getting better acquainted with. They are high in protein, minerals and cholesterol-reducing fiber, and low in sodium and cholesterol. Compared to meat, they are an inexpensive source of protein, typically costing less than $1 a pound.
More than 50 varieties are available. Besides the familiar pinto, kidney, Lima, black and white beans, there are heirlooms such as the anasazi, appaloosa and Jacobs cattle beans, which have been preserved by native Americans of the Southwest, some ardent seed savers and a few small commercial farmers. The pinquito bean, the Fordhook lima and the half-dollar-sized Louisiana speckled butter bean have been kept alive for consumers who treasure their particular nuances of flavor, texture and shape.
Many other beans may be widely available in one particular region but difficult or impossible to find elsewhere. The delicate flageolet bean of France, used in rich cassoulets and crumbed gratins, is one example; the plump cannellini bean of Italy, which goes into garlicky purees and hearty soups, is another. The sturdy soldier bean is unique to New England.
The three beans most important to the human diet are the soybean, native to Asia; the fava bean, from the Middle East, and the common bean, which originated in the Americas. The common bean--the kind we're most likely to see in markets--includes an extraordinarily diverse variety. By the time of Columbus, dozens of species were already flourishing over here, from the small white beans of the cold North American plains to the Lima beans of the Peruvian highlands.
Although beans are extremely economical, the pace of modern life often makes the cost in time required to prepare beans prohibitive. Canned beans and reconstituted dry beans provide a welcome measure of convenience, but nothing beats the enticing aroma and rich flavor of well-seasoned, slow-simmered or baked beans.
TIPS ON SELECTING,
STORING AND PREPARING
* Look for clean, whole beans of uniform size and color.
* Beans should be stored in a cool, dry place. They store well but are susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature that can make them more difficult to cook properly. Since you can't tell by their appearance whether dry beans are over the hill, buy them from a reliable purveyor with good turnover.
* Before cooking, rinse the beans and pick them over to remove any grit, pebbles or discolored beans. They also must be soaked, which insures that the beans will cook evenly and reduces cooking time.
* There are two basic soaking methods. The most common is to soak in cold water for eight hours or overnight. The quicker method involves bringing water and beans to a boil, boiling for two minutes and then letting the beans stand covered for an hour.
In either case, discard soaking water and rinse beans well before cooking. Many of the undigestible, soluble sugars in beans (which contribute to flatulence) dissolve in the soaking water.
* To cook presoaked beans, cover with three parts fresh water to one part beans, boil 10 minutes, lower heat and simmer, covered, for the prescribed cooking time.
* Cooking time for most beans is 1 1/2 to two hours. Mung beans take a little less time, whereas fava beans and soybeans take considerably more time; fava beans may take as long as two to 2 1/2 hours. Cooked beans should be tender but not mushy.
* Adding aromatics--onions, carrots, celery and a bouquet garni --can enhance the flavor. Add salt or acids such as vinegar or tomatoes toward the end of the cooking time. Adding salt earlier tends to slightly toughen the beans, and acids can slow cooking time.
* In a microwave, cook the presoaked beans and water, covered, on HIGH (100% power) eight to 10 minutes or until boiling; reduce power to MEDIUM (50% power) and cook another 15 to 20 minutes or until beans are tender.
* Beans swell from 15% moisture when dry to 60% moisture when cooked. So one pound beans equals two cups dry and five to six cups cooked.
From "James Beard's Fowl
& Game Bird Cookery"
2 cups dried pinto beans, soaked overnight and drained
2 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
3 onions, 1 studded with 2 cloves, 2 finely chopped
2 (5-pound) ducks, cut into serving pieces, skin removed and reserved
1 cup flour, about
2 tablespoons butter
2 ounces salt pork, diced
Dash dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
Oil for deep frying
Place beans in pan along with garlic, bay leaf and whole onion. Cover with boiling water and cook over medium heat 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until beans are tender. Drain, reserving liquid.
Cut duck skin into thin strips and set aside. Dredge duck pieces in flour seasoned with salt and pepper.
Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Add salt pork and fry until most of fat is rendered. Add chopped onions and saute until tender. Transfer salt pork and onions to casserole.