Beans are among the most versatile and important foods in the world. They are a staple in nearly every cuisine and have traditionally been the prime protein source in regions where meat is scarce or expensive. Besides providing protein, beans are a rich source of calcium, phosphorus, and iron. Best of all, these delicious, noble legumes can be used in so many ways -- try them in salads and soups, with rice or pasta, or in such varied dishes as Moroccan couscous (chickpeas), Mexican refried beans (pintos), Cajun red beans and rice, Southern succotash (limas), or hummus from the Middle East (chickpeas).
A few bean varieties such as limas and favas are commonly available fresh, and many more can be purchased in cans, but you'll find the broadest selection -- and by far the best value -- in dried form. Though dried beans can take quite a while to prepare, the actual labor is minimal -- you just need to plan ahead. Soak the beans overnight or while you're at work, and boil them while you prepare other portions of the meal.
Dried beans should be less then one year old, so buy them from a busy, reputable store. Exact cooking times vary according to the size and density of the bean, so consult your package for specifics.
You can use the following technique to prepare beans for a recipe, or to enjoy on their own. Martha seasons hers with salt and pepper and drizzles them with extra-virgin olive oil.
Cooking Dried Beans How-To
1. Pick over beans, removing any broken beans, stones, or other foreign matter. Rinse them.
2. It is not absolutely necessary to presoak beans before cooking, but it does cut down on the cooking time, and it also reduces their flatulent effect. To soak, place them in a large bowl, and cover them with fresh, cold water (roughly three times the volume of the beans). Remove any beans that float to the surface, as they are probably hollow from insect damage. Cover with plastic wrap, and let stand at room temperature for a minimum of 4 hours or as long as overnight. It may be necessary to refrigerate the beans if the kitchen is warm, to prevent fermentation.
Note: If you don't have time to soak beans overnight, use this quick-soak method. Place the beans in a large pot with plenty of space for expansion, and cover with at least 2 inches of cold water. Bring to a rolling boil, turn off the heat, and let stand for 1 hour.
3. Drain the beans. When you're ready to cook them, place beans in a large pot, and cover them with at least 2 inches of cold water. You can add seasonings to the pot -- Martha likes to include half an onion, a rib of celery cut into 2-inch pieces, a few sprigs of thyme, tarragon, or parsley, and about a dozen black peppercorns. A few cloves of garlic or a bay leaf are other optional additions. For even more flavor, cook them in chicken stock instead of water.
Note: Salt and acidic foods like tomatoes will toughen the skins of the beans and prevent them from becoming tender. Never salt beans at the beginning of the cooking process -- add salt about 10 minutes before the beans are finished cooking. Also, beans should always be precooked if you want to use them in a tomato-based dish.
4. Bring to a full boil, reduce the heat and simmer the beans gently. Occasionally give the beans a gentle stir to help them cook evenly. If the water runs low (to the surface of the beans) add more boiling water -- not cold water.
5. The beans will take anywhere from just under an hour to 2 hours to cook, depending on variety and age. Small beans like adzukis, black-eyed peas, and flageolets cook the fastest, and larger beans like limas and gigandes take the longest. Most average-size beans will take about 1 hour and 15 minutes to cook. Consult the package for a precise time.
6. When the beans are tender, or still a little firm if you are using them in a salad and want them to remain whole, turn off the heat, but don't drain. Let them cool in the cooking liquid at least until they are lukewarm. This will help prevent the skins from peeling off and ruining the look of the beans, and it will also give them a chance to continue soaking up the flavorings and the salt.
7. If you're not using the beans right away, they can be stored in the cooking liquid until ready to use, or drained and rinsed right away. Discard the onion, garlic, and other additions, and proceed with your recipe.