By Paul Lewis
Beans from a can, in sauce, have long been associated with the students. Times inexorably have changed. It is now more likely that tin of beans contains chickpeas or kidney beans, which is a great improvement for the student body. But now that we all find ourselves interminably at home, finally we can ignore fast recipes catered to our ‘on-the-go’ lifestyles and give cooking and eating the time and attention they deserve. And so, it is high time we gave cooking some pulses and beans our serious consideration. And it’s always nice to have some fresh company around the kitchen.
Some vegetables, fish, and meats, correctly treated, are superb eaten in their raw state. Some vegetables can be most pleasant when cooked with still a bite to them. Pasta is favoured al dente. In terms of nutrition and gustatory preference, we wish generally to avoid overcooking our food – it becomes dry or too soft or all other states of unsavouriness. Not so when it comes to pulses and beans. They must be cooked – cooked thoroughly until edible, soft and digestible. There is no argument to be had here. Please cook the beans. If you are not sure, wait and eat or serve something else. This is the time to open the tin. Or overcook them – the sauce goes thick and beany and completely delicious.
Soak your beans in plenty of water overnight. Some lentils, you’ll survive without soaking, especially the red ones (they cook and turn to tasty mush so quickly). Puy lentils require soaking. Don’t be fooled by split peas – yellow or green, they need long soaking and cooking. All beans, dried ones that is – butter, soya, turtle, black-eye, black, cannelini, kidney, berlotti, fagioli, fava, chickpeas, you name it, all require overnight soaking. All of the aforementioned foods are ready when there is no hardness, gritty or graininess left and they become soft enough to enjoy. It sounds obvious, but even restaurants sometimes don’t grasp this.
After soaking your legumes, drain, rinse them well and cook in plenty of water. Boil for a while, and stir, and then turn down to a gentle simmer. Add more water as it evaporates. You can flavour this pot with stock vegetables, bouqet garni, spices and so forth, but it’s not entirely necessary if you are soon going to be flavouring your stew, soup, curry, salad or wherever the cooked legumes are bound. Don’t add salt at this cooking stage, it can harden the skin. Cooking time ranges from half an hour to three hours, more sometimes. Every bean is different – not only varieties, different batches can differ vastly in cooking times. Don’t drain the beans of their liqor once you are satified they are cooked – allow them to cool in their cooking liquid and store them in it or use some in the dish you are making them in.
Canned beans can be perfectly pleasant, lovely even, but rinse them quickly of their liquid. Some recipes will recommend using bicarbonate of soda to break down your beans as you cook them, but time should take care of this, and save the flavour.
Each time I open the cupboard and look through full and half packets of beans of the globe, I think of the English cookery writer Rose Elliot’s introduction to her brilliant The Bean Book – ‘I’m a compulsive bean buyer.’ It’s a great thing to be. They are cheap, nourishing, versatile and delicious, when cooked properly. Time and care are the main ingredients.
To make falafel, use well-soaked chickpeas and avoid phony recipes that tell you to use cooked chickpeas. Hummus is of course made with cooked chickpeas. To achieve smoothness, rinse lighlty the chickpeas in a colander and quickly rub off their skins as you do so. Blend with both water and olive oil and please, go wild with lemon and tahini, but easy on the garlic. Chickpeas and spinach is my favourite chickpea dish – make a sefirot by cooking onion, crushed garlic, bay leaf and smoked paprika; add grated tomato and a splash of wine, cook a while; add cooked chickpeas, some of their liquid and some stock, cook until liquid is 80% evaporated; season, add plenty of washed and chopped spinach, remove from the heat and finish with a little parsley and olive oil. It can be eaten as dinner, a lunch, or tapa with some bread and hard cheese, an accompaniment to fish – however you please. Chickpeas and spinach can also be flavoured with little pieces of chorizo or black pudding.
Chilli-bean lovers – black beans are the new kidney beans. Or black-eye beans. If you are going to make a mixed-bean chilli, soak and cook separately, so sticking to one kind makes sense. Soak overnight and cook for hours. Gently fry onion, fresh chilli and garlic; add cumin, smoked paprika, cajun, chilli powder and oregano – or whatever your go to chilli spice mix is; add tomato purée and tinned tomato, cook for a while; add diced pepper and sweet potato, black beans and some of their liquid, a pinch of cocoa powder and stew slowly until the sweet potato is cooked through. Make loads and serve with all the bits – tortillas, salsa, guacamole, sour cream, cheddar.. The following morning make heuvos rancheros, or that night a big tray of nachos.
If you want to update the student stereotype and make your own baked beans to have on toast: soak and cook cannelini/white beans; make a simple, blended tomato sauce; mix togther in a casserole or roasting dish with a little of the bean liquid and a pinch of cayenne and brown sugar, and bake for two hours, covered well with foil in a medium oven – you will not be disappointed.