Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Pot of Beans Volume 1: Soup Beans

I don’t think I’m a food snob. Sure, I prefer high-quality ingredients when I can get them, but the fact is that such products are not always affordable. And now that I also try to consider such things as how my food was grown, the distance my food traveled to get to me, how it had to be stored during its journey, and how much it has been processed, there’s a whole other world of choices, and expenses, to consider. Then, there are the new USDA dietary guidelines, just in case you’re interested in how to keep yourself healthy with your food as well. Like me, you may be wondering how you’re going to provide enjoyable food for yourself and the people you love that will neither kill you nor bring on the next national financial crisis.

Well, if I knew the answer, I would probably have a much more important job than “amateur food blogger.” I can, however, tell you how I’ve taken steps to deal with this dilemma, and it involves picking my battles and making some compromises. For example, I really prefer Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, sustainably raised animal products, and fair trade coffee. When I can, I purchase these foods rather than their alternatives (there hasn’t been a green can of cheese in my refrigerator for at least 10 years). Yes, they are expensive, but I try to balance out the grocery bill with inexpensive whole foods, and frequently make cheap but healthy eats like this big pot of beans.

We call these Soup Beans, and I think I got the idea for making them from one of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s books several years ago. Basically, I cook pinto beans long and slow until they get soft and creamy and start to fall apart. The cooking liquid transforms into a thick, flavorful broth that’s great served over brown rice or mashed potatoes. The result is a simple, homey, comforting dish that can be jazzed up with garnishes such as cheese, onions and spicy salsa. A pound of dried beans goes a long way and the leftovers can be reheated or made into a healthy version of refried beans (a subject for a future post).

The slow cooker is great for this dish, providing just the right kind of low and slow heat and making this dish mindlessly easy to prepare. I usually don’t even make any measurements when I cook this dish, but have tried to give some guidelines in the recipe below. I like to cook the beans with some onion and garlic, then add spices like cumin, chili powder and crushed red pepper. Salt is also important, and I have given a range that might be on the low end as far as saltiness is concerned. Just taste the beans and add salt as you like.

Perhaps beans have received a bad reputation as a food of poverty, but that doesn’t have to mean they aren’t delicious. And their very cheapness is what makes them a great tool for balancing the budget and allowing for grass-fed steak, organic dairy products, and imported wine. At least that’s how I see it. Beans are also super-easy to prepare. Even if you think you can’t cook, you can make Soup Beans. And if you can cook, give yourself a break and make this cheap and easy but surprisingly flavorful bowl of humble, wholesome goodness. I know plenty of people who wouldn’t consider a bowl of “just beans” to be a proper meal. I don’t know what their problem is. Maybe they’re just food snobs.

Soup Beans
I used a moderate amount of salt in this recipe. Taste your beans and add more salt (or other seasonings) as desired.

1 pound dried pinto beans (about 2 heaping cups)
½ of a medium-sized onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1-2 teaspoons chili powder
1-2 teaspoons cumin
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
2-3 teaspoons coarse salt, or to taste

Suggested accompaniments
chopped onions or scallions
chopped cilantro
shredded cheese, such as cheddar, Monterey Jack or pepper jack
sour cream

1. Rinse the dried beans in a colander. Sort through them and remove any broken beans, stones or clumps of dirt.

2. Place the beans in a large pot or bowl and cover with water by at least 2 inches. Let stand about 8 hours or overnight.

3. Drain the soaked beans. Place them in a large slow cooker along with the onion and garlic. Pour in about 6 cups water, or enough to cover the beans by 1-2 inches.

4. Cover the slow cooker and cook the beans on low for 8-10 hours or on high for 4-6 hours. They are done when they are beginning to fall apart and the liquid has thickened significantly.

5. Stir in the chili powder, cumin, crushed red pepper flakes and salt. Replace the cover and cook on high about 30 minutes more (enough time to prepare rice or potatoes). Serve over rice or mashed potatoes.

Makes at least 8 servings. Leftovers can be refrigerated for a few days or frozen for a few months.

Other recipes like this one: Bean Dip with Sour Cream, Salsa and Cheese; Squash and Pinto Bean Chili

One year ago: Bittersweet Almond Amaretto Truffles

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