I’ve been writing and testing recipes for almost four years now. It’s long enough to make me think that this was a career choice, instead of just a convenient and fun job. Whether working in an office on a corporate budget with corporate ideals or from my own kitchen on the whims of my desire, I’ve regularly pursued the art of recipe perfection.
Cooking is science, after all. Shouldn’t there be a correct technique for preparing just about everything? Shouldn’t we be able to figure out the best way to teach, to explain, to build upon current knowledge? I certainly used to think so. I have, in fact, written more than a few recipes with “the best” or “perfect” in the title.
A few recent events have started to change my tune. Matt is trying to learn how to cook more food on his own, and put in a request for simple, staple recipes. Another friend is working with her housemates to master a few house “specialties” that they can all cook without stress. New clients have helped me understand the reality of many food-loving yet kitchen-fearing adults.
I fear that in this recipe-obsessed, chef-worshipping food culture in which I’ve found myself immersed does more to scare people away from the kitchen than it does to draw them in. I fear that the strict rules we place on ourselves—one should only ever buy organic produce from the farmers’ market, one can only cook chicken by pan-roasting, one shouldn’t enjoy pasta unless it is perfectly al dente—dissolve the boundaries between nourishment and skill, requiring both at all times. I’ve discovered that too many of my friends, and even Matt at times, are scared to cook much of anything for me simply because I have chosen to spend my days in the kitchen.
Fear is no way to develop a lifetime cooking habit. There’s no reason why one can’t enjoy pasta that’s a little overcooked or over-sauced. It is in the act of preparing dinner and feeding ourselves that true appreciation for the food that sustains us is born. Our cooking doesn’t have to be the best to be good.
So in the spirit of resolutions, I am going to attempt to transform this space into one of learning filled with simple staple recipes that still work amidst much fumbling and distraction. I want to write recipes that beg to be memorized, tucked away into that file of culinary knowledge that has slipped away in the last few generations, recipes that are barely recipes at all.
I start with beans, the humble staple of so many humans. Nourishing, warm, and endlessly variable.
Beans for everyone
First, buy a bag or two of dried beans. The only (yes, only) important element in the purchase of beans is to look for the freshest you can find. It may seem like an oxymoron to look for fresh dried beans, but those that have been sitting dusty on a shelf for who knows how long will stubbornly remain hard no matter how long they are cooked. So search out the bulk bins with high turnover or the brand-new clean bags on the grocery shelves. Heirloom beans, like those from Rancho Gordo, are wonderful but absolutely not necessary.
Next, soak the beans. There are arguments all over the Internet for skipping this step, and such arguments sure sound tempting when time is an issue—however, forgoing soaking is a sure path towards bloating and other unfortunate side effects. Luckily for time-press folks, you can “quick soak” the beans and save yourself 8 hours or so. The biggest disadvantage to the quick soak is that some of the beans will inevitably burst during cooking. If you don’t care about perfect beans (and, really, who does?), quick soak away.
For the quick soak: Cover a pound of beans with about 2 inches of water in a big pot. Add a big handful of salt (the same amount you’d use to salt pasta cooking water). Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. As soon as the water reaches a boil, turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let the beans sit for an hour. Drain.
For those who are serial planners and have the time for a long soak: Cover a pound of beans with about 2 inches of water in a big pot. Add a big handful of salt (the same amount you’d use to salt pasta cooking water). Cover and let sit 8 hours to overnight. Drain.
Once the beans are nice and soaked, it’s time to cook them. Cover the soaked beans with about 2 inches of clean water. Add a little less salt than before.* Also add half an onion, a garlic glove or two, and any spices or herbs you’d like. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, partially cover, reduce the heat to low/medium low (you’re looking for a very gentle simmer), and cook until the beans are tender, somewhere between 1 and 2 hours. You can eat the beans right away, or let them cool in their cooking liquid before storing in the refrigerator or freezer.
That’s it—beans that’ll keep you happy for at least a few meals.
Tell me, how much of this can I mess up and still have something for dinner? You can mess up most anything and still have good beans. You can under-soak, under-season, and overcook the beans without too much consequence. Just make sure you cook them long enough for the beans to be totally tender. And watch the water levels in the pot. If there’s not enough water in the pot, the beans will scorch—scorched beans are totally not fun to clean up. When in doubt, add more water.
*I like to re-use the bean cooking liquid as vegetable stock, so I don’t like to add too much salt as the beans are cooking. Some salt is good, and will keep the bean skins from bursting. Just add enough that the water tastes good, not like salt water.