The Magic of Pot Beans

‘Wait,’ you think, ‘is he writing about beans again? This cat has a serious case of OCD.’ For the record, I do not – I have CDO, as I prefer my maladies in alphabetical order – and yes, I am writing about beans again. Why? Because alert follower Mia, who hails from Charlotte, North Carolina wrote, ‘Love the blog, and especially the bean posts, as I’m trying to eat less meat and go easier on the planet a little. But I’m not finding a post that really explains the basic cooking process you use.’ I waded through 10 posts with beans in the title and discovered that she’s absolutely correct. Time to fix that, and delve into the magic of pot beans.

Mia’s also right about the fact that we here in America need to dilute our animal flesh eating habits to some degree. I’ve said it before and will again – great beans are every bit as good as meat, when they’re prepared with love and imagination. Of course doing any of that requires the goods to be available fairly quickly, if we want to compete with a chub of kick ass local ground beef. That’s where Frijoles de la Olla, Mexico’s version of pot beans come in to play.

flageolets might be French, but they’ll swing whatever you want to do

Fact is, great beans aren’t gonna come from a can. The reason canned beans get used far more than dried beans is obvious – The former is ready to eat far faster than the latter – But it needn’t be that way. If you’ve poked around here, you know we advocate cooking major proteins in large batches at the start of the week, so that you can enjoy good meals quickly throughout your busy week. Pot beans are just the ticket for many days worth of delicious stuff.

I chose the Mexican iteration of pot beans because they’re simple, tasty, and can easily be morphed into a myriad of other cuisines at your whim. That said, every bean eating country has a version and they’re all, more or less, designed to do the same thing – provide a big batch of cooked beans to work with for the next few days. In France, they might be flageolates with herbs de Provence. In Italy, it’s a white bean with garlic, olive oil, and maybe a little chile. In Spain, it might be fabada beans with tomato, cumin, and onion. Truth be told, any of those deserve further exploration.

How you cook them really is up to you, (although diehards of the various options will naturally insist that their way is best.) Take all that with a grain of salt and do what you like, but again, save some future time for exploration too. Stove top is relatively quick, does a great job, and is easy to keep an eye on – You can always do low and slow in the oven for other stuff down the line.

Boston baked beans made with flageolets? Yup.

Which beans to use? I say try them all, and don’t be shy. Our last two excursion were Mexican enfrijoladas and a glorious clay pot of Boston baked, both of which were made with French beans – Mogette de Vendée and flageolates, respectively. Both were spectacular, my point being that you needn’t be too tied up with using the ‘proper’ variety – Explore and enjoy, because there are a bunch of heirloom bean varieties out there, and you really, truly owe it to yourself to go find them.

There’s a world of bean varieties to choose from out there

Then there’s the question of what to cook them in. A decent stock or soup pot will work just fine and give excellent results. I will say that it’s probably best to steer clear of pressure cookers and instant pots with beans, unless you really know the cooking characteristics of what you’re working with, and the vagaries of the appliance.

Depending on the bean, the cooking time can vary from an hour and change, to several hours. While the lion’s share of the process is pretty hands off, you do need to keep an eye on things, to make sure you don’t turn a pound of heirloom loveliness to mush, (And if you do, no sweat – that just means that you’ll be making bean dip, purée, or enfrijoladas instead of whatever you had in mind initially – and they’ll be delicious.)

Finally, to soak or not to soak? I very rarely do so, but if that’s what you’ve always done and are comfy with, then do it. Soaking will shorten the cooking time somewhat, and some folks believe it helps beans cook more evenly – In any event, it sure won’t hurt. Plan on soaking for at least an hour and up to 4 – Any more than that is likely too much for good quality, freshly dried beans.

Frijoles de la Olla – Basic Pot Beans

1 Pound of good quality dried Beans

1/2 medium Yellow Onion

2 cloves fresh Garlic

Pinch of Salt

A few twists of ground Pepper

Optional:

A few sprigs fresh Epazote or Cilantro

A couple of Bay Leaves, (I like Turkish)

Stem and peel onion and garlic. Both can just be quartered, (as in, quarter the half, so you’ve got a bunch of 1”+ pieces of onion, and quartered cloves of garlic.)

Spread your beans out on a clean baking sheet and check for rocks and other debris, (I’ve never found anything foreign in Rancho Gordo beans, but even they recommend you do this, so…)

Pour beans into a colander and rinse in cold water.

Add the beans to a cooking vessel big enough to allow for significant expansion as they absorb water – A 3 qt. sauce pan does great for a pound of beans.

Add the onion, garlic, three finger pinch of salt, and a few twists of pepper. If you’re using any or all the optional, they can go in now too, except epazote, which is a finishing herb added at the very end of the process.

Add enough clean, fresh water to cover the beans by about 3 inches.

Turn the burner on high and let ‘er rip.

Keep an eye on things, and when you get a vigorous boil, reduce the heat enough to maintain a boil but not get crazy, and set a timer for 15 minutes.

When your timer goes off, drop the heat to just maintain a bare simmer, and cover the pot.

Continue cooking until you’ve got the doneness you’re after. You will want to keep an eye on water level, and maintain 2” to 3” above the beans – Add hot water from a kettle when you top things off – Again, they’ll usually absorb more water as they cook.

What is done? Personally, I want mine fairly al dente, so that I’ve got room for further cooking in whatever dishes I’m going to make without getting mushy beans – Other folks want theirs soft at this initial cook – You do what you like.

Beans are a potential food safety hazard just like other proteins. They need to cool down from cooking temp to under 41° F in 4 hours or less. Employing an ice bath around your cooking pot is the quickest and easiest way to get there.

Bean broth is great stuff and shouldn’t be wasted. Use it in soups, stews, sauces and whatever bean dishes you’re making.

Beans can be stored in the fridge for 3 to 5 days safely, and can be frozen for up to 4 months with little degradation of flavor.

friEither way, put them in clean, airtight containers with most or all of the broth. We use glass storage containers with snap lids for both jobs – That lets you portion for about what you want for a meal easily, and allows for quick thawing and cooking when you need them.