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Two Swell Secrets; Three-Bean Salad

August 20, 1992|ROSE LEVY BERANBAUM | Beranbaum is a cookbook author. and

Dried beans are beautiful. They are also healthful and delicious. But there are two secrets to making beans properly--and knowing them makes all the difference between firm, tender beans and bullet-hard beans that never soften.

I discovered these secrets the hard way, and in the process I became so discouraged that I avoided bean cookery for years.

My first venture was about 30 years ago as a young bride, after I saw a recipe for baked beans in a major national food magazine. At that point, I still believed that a printed recipe was like the Ten Commandments: If you followed every detail religiously, you would achieve perfection. Now I know better.

This particular recipe called for about eight spices, which in those days meant driving from store to store to find them all, not to mention justifying to my new husband why I was spending so much money when in some cases I needed only 1/4 teaspoon of a particular spice. But knowing nothing about the way cooking worked, I feared that if I left out even one, for some esoteric reason the recipe just wouldn't work.

After soaking the beans overnight, as advised by the recipe, and mixing together the many ingredients, I placed the bean pot in the oven, utterly secure in the anticipation of an exceptional meal. But a few hours later, when I tested the beans, they were not even beginning to soften.

Puzzled, I planned something else for dinner but continued cooking the beans. Two hours later, they were still hard as pebbles. I ended up cooking them for 24 hours, at which point I decided that the fuel consumption just didn't warrant further experimentation.

It wasn't until many years later that I read the secret in another publication: Never add salt to beans until they have finished cooking, or they will never soften. (This is also a handy fact to know when you want them to stop cooking and not become mushy.)

I went back to cooking beans, and for years I met with success, until one day my beans, once again, would not soften. This time I called the company listed on the back of the package and learned the second secret: Old beans are no longer capable of softening.

Since then, I have had no more unpleasant surprises when cooking beans, and I've joyfully gone on to create some new favorite bean recipes. This cold marinated bean salad has become a summer regular at our house. The sweet little bursts of fresh corn kernels make it particularly delicious.

Remember that you have to plan ahead to make beans--they must be soaked before cooking, either overnight or via the one-hour quick-soaking method described in the recipe. And this bean salad is best if it marinates at least two hours (or up to three days) before serving.

The French flageolet beans can be found in many specialty food stores, but if they're unavailable, they can be replaced with extra black beans. Do not use pea beans or navy beans, as they tend to be slightly pasty when cold. The leftover bean salad freezes well for up to three months, but the pasta should be removed because its texture will be altered.

THREE-BEAN AND CORN SALAD

1 1/4 cups dried black beans

2/3 cup dried garbanzo beans

2/3 cup flageolet beans

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups fusilli pasta

1 3/4 cups freshly cooked corn kernels (from about 3 medium corn cobs)

1 1/2 cups chopped onions

18 pieces sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained (reserve 2 tablespoons oil for Vinaigrette) and chopped, about 3/4 cup

Few fresh basil sprigs

Wash each variety of black beans, garbanzo beans and flageolets separately and discard any stones or shriveled beans. Place each variety in separate medium saucepan or bowl and cover with 2 inches fresh, unsalted water.

To soak overnight, place beans in cool spot or refrigerate to keep beans from fermenting.

To quick-soak, bring beans to boil and boil 2 minutes. Cover. Remove from heat and let stand 1 hour.

Drain soaking water and rinse each variety of beans. Place in separate saucepans and cover again with 2 inches fresh, unsalted water. Bring water to boil. Reduce heat to low and cook at bare simmer, partially covered, until beans are just tender but still firm. Add more water if necessary so beans are always covered. Test bean by cutting it in half to see if it is cooked through. Flageolets, depending on age, take 20 to 75 minutes, black beans 30 to 45 minutes, garbanzo beans 45 to 55 minutes.

Remove beans from heat and add 1/4 teaspoon salt to each bean pot. Allow beans to cool completely in cooking liquid. Or drain beans and cover with plastic wrap to prevent cracking.

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