Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Basic Beans and The Joy of Negligence

Lest I give the impression that my teenage sons pop willingly and cheerfully into the kitchen for cooking lessons with their mother, let me be clear: they do not, always.

Last Sunday Henry finished his homework and rewarded himself with a nice long session of Portal 2. He didn't leap to his feet when I interrupted him with,"Guess what? It's time for me to teach you how to quick-soak beans!" There was foot dragging, there was foot stomping, and it wasn't one of our more fun cooking lessons.

But we got through it, and rather than discourage or deter me, it all reminded me of something that periodically plagues me. The thing is this: to my kids, food must seem just to land on the table every night like magic; always enough for everybody, always edible, and utterly taken for granted. When I was a kid, it wasn't always this way, and I think I'm lucky for it.

I grew up with a single mother who worked full-time, and who impressively managed to get dinner on the table most nights, but there were times she worked late and my brother and I learned to fend for ourselves. One of my most distinct and cherished childhood memories is of being ten-years-old, carefully following the recipe in The Joy of Cooking for scrambled eggs down to the tablespoonful of cream. When the eggs turned out delicious, I had an epiphany: cooking was not some big mystery, it was mostly a matter of following instructions. I was hooked, and The Joy of Cooking became one of my favorite books.

I attribute my love of cooking to that classic cookbook, but I owe just as much to those strange, lonely evenings at home without a parent around, trying to scrounge up something to eat. There was a more relaxed approach to parenting in the 70s, a kind of benign negligence that many of my generation experienced, and it came with some fringe benefits. I'm glad my children have had a more stable childhood than I had, but I also wish I'd found more ways to help them learn to improvise on their own.

So I'm willing to take the occasional grumbles and foot stomps, because I blew it on the benign negligence, and I'm determined to not send them out into the world unable to make a pot of beans, and I'm determined to show them that food doesn't appear on the table by magic, sometimes you have to think about it hours or even days ahead, and I'm determined to prove to them that cooking is no mystery, but mostly a matter of following instructions.

Okay then, speaking of instructions, here's my recipe for basic beans. On Sunday I made one pound of white beans and one pound of black beans, and this made for an econo and tasty week of bean burgers, chili, huevos rancheros, tostadas, and white bean soup with kale.

Basic Beans

1 lb (2 1/2 cups) dried beans
2 tablespoons salt (yes, tablespoons)

To soak:

Rinse beans well and pick out any stones. Put beans in a pot with salt, cover with 7 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 1 hour.

Drain and rinse very well - your beans are ready to cook.

(Thank you Cooks Illustrated for the quick-brining method! I used to soak my beans overnight in cold water, but they turn out much, much better this way. Apparently it's because sodium ions partially break down the pectin in the bean skins, in case you were wondering).

To cook:

Rinse out the pot, Put beans back in there, and cover with 7 cups fresh water.

Bring to a vigorous boil and cook uncovered, 5 minutes.

Cover, reduce heat to medium, and simmer strongly 45 minutes - 2 hours, depending on the type of bean. My white beans were done in 1 hour, the black beans in 1 hour 15 minutes. You do want to make sure they stay covered in water, so add a little more if you need to. Beans are done when they are completely tender but not mushy, and totally intact (beans, like flip-flops, have been known to blow out, so don't overcook them).

Now you have 6 or 7 cups of cooked beans, do with them what you will. I stored mine and their cooking liquid in 2 airtight containers in the fridge and it meant I was never more than 30 minutes away from a good meal. I highly recommend it.

Recipes for Black Bean Chili and White Bean and Kale Soup coming very soon!