Saving–and Using–Soup Beans
One of my favorite autumn tasks is harvesting dry beans. This year, I fell a bit behind schedule, thanks to some unexpected events, but happily my beans were willing to wait. A few weeks ago, I pulled all the dry bean plants and hung them upside down in dry burlap sacks until I can thresh them out at my leisure. Before I learned the tricks of bean harvest, I found it a messy and tiring job, but now I think it’s a blast. For starters, you have to wait to harvest your soup beans until the pods are dry and evenly brown, but still intact. To be sure, I usually wait until a few pods just start to split open.
To save your beans for drying, uproot each whole plant and hang them upside down in a dry, cool, protected place (a garage is often just right). If you (like me) aren’t sure just when you’ll get back to them, put some light weight, dry sacks around them so if they split without your help, you won’t have beans all over the floor (guess how I know this).
Whack A Sack
When you’re ready to thresh your beans, stuff the dried plants into a sack if they aren’t already in one. Hang the sack from a rafter (a hook set in a beam will do just fine), then whack the sack with a broom handle or rake. If you lack space or that sounds too wild (it is, a bit), you can also thresh beans in a clean barrel. I found some awesome red barrels that were originally used for Greek olives, but really, any kind will do, from a 55-gallon drum to a big washtub.
For free form tub thumping, just grab dried bean plants by the roots, thump them vigorously against the sides of the barrel, and the beans will fly! No matter which way you work it, you’ll get a fair amount of broken pods and dried leaves along with your beans. To clean the beans, pour them into a bowl or shallow tray and use a hair dryer to blow away the chaff.
Smart Storage For Long Shelf Life
No matter how careful you are about cleaning dry beans, it’s very possible to get a few bugs in the mix. Before storing your beans, freeze them for a few hours (at least 4, overnight is better) to kill potential pests. After that, you can store clean dried beans in clear glass jars with tight lids (canning jars work well, as do recycled pickle jars) and store them in a cool, dark place. Even though they are lovely as can be, resist the impulse to use dried beans as a decorative element in your kitchen; exposure to light and moisture will shorten their shelf life.
You will be very pleased with the way home-dried beans cook up, as compared to store bought ones. Commercially dried beans are often extremely dry and some of them end up with what’s called a “hard-to-cook” defect, thanks to a pectin imbalance. If you get beans like that, you can correct the problem by refrigerating the super-dry beans for a few weeks and they should cook up properly. I soak dry beans overnight in cold, salted water, rinse them well, then cook them in plain water.
Master McGee’s Slick Trick
I learned this sweet trick from master foodie Harold McGee, author of On Food And Cooking; the science and lore of the kitchen. It’s one of my favorite go-to resources when I can’t figure out why something kitchen related isn’t working the way I think it should. McGee’s written extensively about all kinds of foods, including beans, and he says that many factors can cause beans to turn out tough, hard, or mushy. His solution, which works great, is to do the brine thing described above, which not only results in creamy, unbroken beans but also reduces the oligosaccharides that cause beans’ famously antisocial flatulence.
I also like to cook un-brined beans in my slow cooker when I’m not home all day. This is brilliant because dry beans will absorb about half the water they are going to in a couple of hours, but need 10-12 hours to fully hydrate. Brined beans cook up faster, so don’t need the long, slow treatment. In fact, brined beans can cook up in as little as 10 minutes in a pressure cooker.
Salty And Savory
For bean brine, the rule of thumb is to use 2-3 tablespoons of salt to a gallon of soaking water. Stir in the salt until fully dissolved, then add the dry beans and let them sit overnight. The next day, turn them out in a colander, rinse them, then soak them briefly (2-3 minutes) in cold water, and rinse again. Since excess cooking liquid leaches out bean flavor, just put them in a pot with water to cover by about an inch. Bring to a low boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender. Depending on how dry the beans were, this could be anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
For a rich flavor boost, add 4-5 unpeeled cloves of garlic when cooking dried beans. When the beans are ready, squeeze out the boiled garlic, mash and stir into the pot. If your beans come out tough, don’t add salt or anything acid (tomatoes, citrus, or vinegar) until beans are already fully cooked and soft. And if beans make you gassy, keep on keeping on: those who eat beans regularly (once a week works fine) report a rapid reduction in “gassy” experiences as their bodies adjust to the extra fiber consumption.
Italian Bean Soup
This “classic” soup has a hundred variations, but this is my all-time favorite. Chopped Opal apples make a great garnish, as do crunchy garlic bred croutons.
Tuscan Bean Soup With Black Magic Kale
2 teaspoons virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon fennel seed
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 organic lemon, juiced, rind grated
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups cooked canneli or any white beans
1 bunch Black Magic kale, stemmed and cut in ribbons
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
In a soup pot, combine oil, fennel seed, half the garlic, the lemon rind, the onion, and the carrots, sprinkle with salt and cook over medium high heat until barely soft (8-10 minutes). Add beans and water to barely cover, bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes. With an immersion blender, puree with remaining garlic, add kale and pepper, cover pan and cook until barely wilted (2-3 minutes). Stir in lemon juice to taste and serve hot. Serves 4-6.
Cranberry Bean Garlic Soup
Fresh orange juice adds citrusy snap to this pretty soup, combining pink beans, pink garlic, and tarragon. If you don’t have Cranberry beans, any kind will do, and each type will taste a little different, so experiment freely.
Cranberry Bean Garlic Soup
1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
4 cloves pink Italian garlic, chopped
1 organic orange, juiced, zest grated
1 red onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 cups cooked cranberry beans
1 quart vegetable or chicken broth
1 teaspoon fresh or 1/2 tsp dried tarragon, minced
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
In a soup pot, combine oil, garlic, orange rind, onion and salt and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add celery and beans and cook for 5 minutes. Add broth just to cover, stir in tarragon and orange juice, bring to a simmer and serve, garnished with smoked paprika. Serves 4-6.