Generations of kids in Britain have been brought up on beans on toast; the beans, in a sweet tomato sauce, coming from the famous blue tin and heated up in less time than it takes to make the toast. Most cooks will, at one time or another, have used a tin of red kidney beans to tip into a chilli con carne, but for many, that is the beginning and end of their relationship with beans.
The same is not true of other cuisines around the world: Mexican cooks use beans in the aforementioned chilli con carne, refried beans and many other dishes. Beans, along with pulses and other legumes are used prolifically in Indian cookery, and, in a completely different fashion, in the French kitchen.
I think it’s time the rest of us followed suit: beans are filling, nutritious, versatile, tasty and very good value for money. They are cheap, in the “wow, that’s a bargain” sense of the word.
You can use tinned beans, of course. I usually have several tins in my cupboard: mixed beans, kidney beans, chick peas (not really beans) and, yes, the ubiquitous blue tins as mentioned in the first paragraph: childhood tastes often stay with us for life.
But, if you only use beans from tins, you are missing a trick. Dried beans are much better value, and have a better taste and texture. The preparation of them seems to be a bit of a fiddle, which puts many off, but it doesn’t have to be so. The trick is to cook off lots at one go, freeze the ones you are not going to use right away, or freeze down the dishes you have made with them.
The most important thing to know about dried beans is that some (particularly kidney and soya) contain a toxin, which has to be removed by soaking and boiling. You can get a bad tummy ache, or worse, if you neglect these steps. But, hey, many foods can do you a mischief if they are not cooked properly, and you probably use these on a weekly basis; pork and chicken, for example.
So, go out and buy a pack of dried beans: a single variety, such as haricot, cannellino, black-eye beans, for example, or dive right in and get mixed beans, which will be useful for the recipe given toward the end of this piece.
Step one: rinse the beans in cold water, put into a large bowl or pot, cover with at least twice their depth of cold water, and leave to soak overnight, or for at least 12 hours. Leaving them longer won’t hurt them if it suits your schedule.
Step two: once they have had their soak, drain and rinse again, put into a large saucepan, cover with fresh water, again to at least twice their depth, and bring to the boil. Add no salt at this stage: salt toughens the beans. Boil hard for at least ten minutes, skim off any scum that has risen to the surface, then simmer on a low heat for at least an hour, until tender, but still slightly firm. Older beans will take longer, so the timing may vary. After an hour, fish out a bean or two and give it the bite test; they should be “al dente”, like properly cooked pasta. You are looking for them to be tender, but still slightly firm and not cooked to a mush.
You can leave the beans to cool, or refresh them immediately under cold running water to stop them cooking any further. Now, you can portion up your beans in convenient batches for your freezer, or use them right away in a dish.
There are many recipes for beans, from the French cassoulet to Boston baked beans, but once you have prepared them as above, try experimenting. Toss a couple of handfuls into a stew or casserole, blitz some in a food processor with olive oil, herbs and lemon juice for a hummus-like dip, add cold to a salad, use plain as an accompaniment to an oily fish, such as tuna or mackerel. You can add salt now; beans will take a lot of it, and whatever other seasonings and flavourings you like.
Or try this recipe; absolutely delicious with sausages or any pork. Quantities are only a rough guide: after all, how big is a “large” onion, and what size are your wine glasses? Play with it, and use your discretion. Use small quantities of sugar, salt and pepper at first; you can always adjust the seasoning as you go along.
Mixed Bean Casserole
1 lb (425 grams) mixed beans, cooked as above.
One large onion, peeled and sliced finely
3-4 plump garlic cloves, crushed or minced finely
2 tablespoons tomato puree
A good pinch of sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste
2 bay leaves
A good sized sprig of thyme
2 large glasses of red wine, or around half a bottle
1 – 2 teaspoons of soft butter, mixed with an equal quantity of plain flour
A little olive oil for cooking
Gently cook (sweat) the onion and garlic for around ten minutes in the olive oil – you want them to soften and take on a little golden colouring, but not brown.
Add the wine and beans, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Add all the other ingredients except the butter/flour mixture, stir frequently, and cook until the beans are really tender – probably at least half an hour to forty minutes. You are looking for a loose, moist result, not a sloppy soup. If it begins to dry out too much during the cooking, add a little boiling water.
Now stir in the butter/flour. After a further ten minutes or so, the sauce should be thick, glossy and shiny, but check there is no taste of raw flour. If there is, give it a few more minutes.
This can be served right away, but you can let it go cold and reheat it when you need it. It also freezes well. If you like a bit of a mouth tingle, add a chopped chilli or two when you are sweating the onions and garlic – beans and chilli is a great combination.
The alcohol in the wine will cook out, leaving just a depth of flavour, but if you prefer not to use it, substitute stock, (maybe the chicken stock you made from the last recipe) or a good vegetable stock to keep the whole thing strictly vegetarian.
In fact, this recipe is very adaptable: add whatever flavourings and aromatics you like, and leave out what you don’t. I suggested serving this with pork of some kind, but it is a perfectly good meal on its own, perhaps with some nice crusty bread to mop up the juices, and maybe a bit of salad on the side.