There's nothing like a pot of beans

A warm, sweetish musky smell fills the house and steam obscures the kitchen window. The soft rolling sound of a bubbling pot keeps time with the washing machine. And gray light falls on the floor from the winter sky outside.

Winter is no longer fun, my kids say. The snow has turned into slush and patches of deceptive ice. And to me that makes this the perfect time for a big pot of beans.

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

Creative Commons image by James Saunders

I never thought of myself as being part of the "slow food" movement, but there are few things that are as slow as a pot of pinto beans. And there are few foods as versatile and handy at the end of a tired winter week.

Beans, particularly dark-colored beans, have protein, fiber and a lot of nutrients that the modern diet tends to be deficient in. They are the staple I'd grab if I had to choose just one. And cooking them is surprisingly easy. 

Rule number one: Don't add salt until they're soft. I thought everyone knew this, but recently I've been told that isn't the case. 

Rule number two: Soak if you can but don't panic if you didn't. It just takes longer to cook them.

How long? There are charts online matching each type of bean to a number of hours, but they're pretty useless. It varies a lot depending on the size and type of bean. I've seen kidney beans that really will cook in two hours as the chart states, if they've been soaked overnight. And I've seen those that take a good six hours to soften. The main thing is to plan a bit ahead and figure that having the bubbling pot of beans on your stove all day is part of the experience.

Keep enough water in the pot, keep the heat medium, stir every hour or so and they shouldn't burn.

Once you've got them soft, there are a great many things you can do with your beans from tortillas, tacos, enchiladas and bean salads to a healthier side dish for almost any meal. 

Yes, do add salt--carefully--to taste once the beans are chew-able. As for herbs and spices, my family's most common combination is pinto beans with cayenne pepper, paprika, basil, cilantro and oregano, but there are many other good options:

Aduki beans generally take less time and go well with coriander, cumin and ginger.

Black beans are excellent spiced with chilly peppers, garlic, ginger, savory, thyme, oregano, cumin and/or parsley and they are especially delicious in Brazilian black bean soup which includes orange juice. I know it sounds strange but it's really good.

Black-eyed peas are spiced much like black beans but more often include turmeric. Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans) are a staple of many Mediterranean foods including humus and do well with cardamon, cilantro, cumin, fennel, garlic, ginger, mint, paprika and rosemary.

Fava beans and lima beans share a lot in common with chickpeas but they are also spiced with sage and thyme.

Kidney beans and navy beans use the basic cumin, oregano, parsley, sage and thyme. Mung beans look different but have a similar rich taste and often get ginger added. 

Lentils are legumes but usually not called beans and they come in various colors. They deserve separate consideration but perhaps in another post. For now, just remember that you cook them in the same way (no salt until they're soft) but for a lot less time (as little as 15 minutes for red lentils) and they do well with a lot more spices like cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, curry, ginger, mint, parsley, thyme and turmeric. 

This is slow food but actually incredibly easy, filling and nourishing. That is particularly important when you're burnt out and times are tough. The revolution will probably be powered by beans. 

Here's to keeping warm and well-fed wherever you are.