A Barrel Full Of Beans

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Drying, Storing And Cooking Beans

As I’m settling into my newest new kitchen (I don’t really want to talk about it), I’m gloating over my cherished collection of dried beans. One whole shelf in this capacious kitchen is devoted to jars of beautiful beans in an enticing variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. I’d love to keep them on the counter where I can admire them, but like many foods, dried beans degrade in sunlight and kitchen moisture. Thus, my beautiful beans live in this tall cupboard where opening the door is a bit like swinging around a corner of my favorite island road to catch a glimpse of snowy mountains beyond ice green water. Ok, maybe not quite like that, but it definitely gives me a tickle of pleasure and that’s nothing to sneeze at in these challenging times.

All around the world, beans are a favored crop, which makes perfect sense when you realize that beans rank among the top foods in terms of protein and nutrients per acre. (Rice, corn, potatoes and quinoa are right up there too.) Permaculture fans devote significant space to beans and so do subsistence farmers everywhere. The specific beans they grow vary considerably and thanks to specialty nurseries, nowadays we get to try dozens if not hundreds of them. If you haven’t ranged much past pintos and black beans, take a closer look next time you visit a bulk food department. You might begin your exploration by choosing a cup each of several unfamiliar kinds of beans. Next season, you may be inspired to grow some Black Turtle, Anasazi, Cannellini, or Dutch Brown along with Kentucky Wonder or Blue Lake or whatever your old favorites may be.

Discover The Wide World Of Beans

Fresh or dried, few crops combine nutrients and versatility as beans do. For culinary variety, grow a mixture of fillet and shell beans as well as dried varieties that store well. To expand your bean repertoire, try some famously flavorful heritage beans such as rose-and-white speckled Cranberry Bean and Christmas Limas, rust red Sangre De Toro and burgundy Rio Zape, or mottled brown Wren’s Egg and tawny Eye Of The Tiger. Creamy and a little sweet, Yellow Eye Beans are traditional favorites for cooking with ham hocks. Scarlet Runner Beans have edible, fragrant flowers and are delicious fresh or dried. Black Turtle is a very old black bean variety still widely grown today for its sumptuous flavor and fine texture. Italian cooks cherish White Runner or Cannellini beans, with the rich, buttery taste that makes them favorites for rustic bean spreads.

Growing beans is pretty easy as long as you’ve got space to spare. Indeed, if you don’t, you can let pole beans twine around corn stalks or up a trellis so they don;t really need all that much ground space. I’ve always enjoyed harvesting and threshing beans, a messy but satisfying process. Threshing is easiest if you don’t harvest your soup beans until the pods are dry and evenly brown but still intact. When a few pods just start to split open, uproot the plants, tie the tops with twine or stuff them into dry burlap sacks. Hang these upside down from a nail or hook set in a rafter beam, in a dry, cool, protected place (a garage is often just right). Spread a tarp under them so if they split before you find threshing time, beans won’t get all over the floor.

A Thumping Good Time

When you’re ready to thresh out your beans, just thump the sacks with a broom handle or rake. You can also grab dried bean plants by the roots and thump them vigorously against the sides of a clean barrel or a big washtub to spill the beans. Either way, your beans will be mixed up with shattered pods and leaves. Shake the tub so the dry beans settle and the lighter detritus floats up, then scoop out as much of the stuff as possible. Now pour the beans into a big bowl or shallow tray and jiggle it to bring the remaining small bits to the surface. Blow them away (use a hair dryer if you run out of breath) and sort out any sneaky pebbles or beans that look funky.

Even after all that cleaning, it’s wise to assume that a few bugs are lurking in there somewhere. To off potential pests, pour the beans into covered containers and freeze them overnight. The next day, pour your beans into clear glass jars with tight lids (canning jars work well, as do recycled pickle jars) and store them in a cool, dark place. Home-dried beans cook up far better than 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.

A Hot Tip From Master McGee

For the very best beans, brine them overnight in cold, salted water, rinse them well, then cook them in plain water. 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 has 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.

Savory, Not Salty

For bean brine, the rule of thumb is to use 2-3 tablespoons of salt to a gallon of soaking water, which will leave them tender, not salty. 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 Winter Soup

This “classic” soup has a hundred variations, but this is my all-time favorite, and it’s vegsn to boot. Chopped Opal apples make a great garnish, as do crunchy garlic bred croutons.

Vegan Tuscan Bean Soup

1 tablespoon 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 Tuscan kale, stems chopped,
leaves cut in ribbons
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup chopped Opal apple (or any)

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, garnished with chopped apple. Serves 4-6.

A Snappy, Seasonal Soup

Fresh orange juice adds citrusy snap to this pretty soup, combining pink lima beans, pink garlic, and tarragon. If you don’t have Christmas limas, any favorite beans will do, and each type will taste a little different, so experiment freely. This version is vegan, but you can add ham or spicy Italian sausage if your family leans that way.

Vegan Christmas Lima Bean Soup

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil
3 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 Christmas beans (or any)
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.

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3 Responses to A Barrel Full Of Beans

  1. Tamara Mitchell says:

    Yum! I love beans! I never seem to reap enough to save beyond what I need to plant the next year, though. Scarlet runner beans were a complete bust this year. I got quite a lot of lima beans, but hardly enough to bother cooking. All good information and I will hopefully figure out how to grow beans more successfully next year to utilize this information. I absolutely adore Cranberry beans….so meaty and good! Thanks for the recipes even though most likely Bob’s Red Mill will be supplying the beans.

  2. Carol Lucas says:

    I have a question for the Bean Crowd: We dry our beans in a dehydrator and then vacuum-seal and freeze. It sounds like this isn’t necessary. Thoughts on storage? Are we taking unnecessary steps?

    And a general-purpose (non-beany!) thank you to Ann for spurring on my own love for gardening via your shared wisdom over the decades. The Year/Border in Bloom were instrumental in my horticultural evolution.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      While the simpler method I described has worked fine for me for many years, the “right” way or “best” way may depend on where you live. If you want to experiment, try treating some of your beans as I do and preserve the rest as usual. Then you can evaluate the way both sets of beans age and cook up over time. Good luck!

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