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Colder weather practically begs for slow-simmered foods. Yum.

Beans, for example. Beans prove an excellent source of lean, inexpensive protein. Their versatility and adaptability means they can play prominently in main-dish salads, creamy soups and hearty stews. 

Canned beans top my list of great convenience foods. They save the day for many a meal. But I posit that cooler days prove a perfect time to master cooking dried beans.

First, know that all dried beans are not created equal. The fresher the dried bean, the more flavor it will have and the less time it will take to cook to perfect tenderness.

I buy beans in stores that sell a lot of them — black and pinto beans from a bustling Hispanic market are far more likely to be fresher than the beat-up, plastic-bagged beans sold on the bottom shelf of the local supermarket. I also buy beans at specialty stores so I can experiment with variety. Check out Rancho Gordo online. 

No matter where you procure dried beans, always rinse them well and pick through them carefully for stones. Soaking is really up to you. They certainly cook faster if soaked. Many older recipes instruct us to discard the soaking water to prevent gas. Current thinking advises us to retain the soaking water lest we discard vitamins and flavor. When the beans have a luscious dark color, such as black and red beans, I always cook them in the soaking water for maximum color retention. (Note that for less bitterness, I recommend discarding the soaking water when cooking dried garbanzo beans.)

In the end, cooking dried beans proves easy — they simply need water and time to soften into goodness. I usually cook 1 pound of beans in my 5 1/2-quart stainless steel Dutch oven. When I’m not around to stir the beans and check water levels, I employ my slow cooker. When pressed for time, I use a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, always following manufacturer’s directions.

When the beans are tender to the bite, the fun begins. Beans take to seasonings like ducks to water. Just know that it’s best to add the seasonings after the beans are soft; some acids and salt can interfere with the softening process.

Bean cooking liquid proves a useful commodity. It can enrich soups and stand in for water when cooking rice and other grains. 

Kitchen notes: 1 pound dried beans yields 6-plus cups cooked beans (it depends on the size and shape of the beans) and about 4 cups bean cooking liquid.

All of these recipes can be made with canned beans (a 15-ounce can yields about 1 1/2 cups beans) but at some point play around with cooking dried beans. Good quality dried beans have a richer flavor than canned and you can easily control the texture.

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Beans 01

The red beans and chorizo stew tastes great topped with a scoop of red rice. Okra gives the stew additional texture. 

Red beans and chorizo stew

Prep: 25 minutes

Cook: 2 hours

Makes: 6 servings

This bean stew tastes great topped with a scoop of the red rice recipe that follows, or add a fried egg and serve with slices of toasted, crusty bread. The okra gives the stew a great texture; cooked green beans, shelled edamame or sauteed zucchini work too.

Ingredients

1 pound dried red beans, such as Domingo Rojo

2 smoked ham hocks (or 4 ounces chopped smoked bacon)

1 3/4 teaspoons salt

12 ounces uncooked Mexican chorizo or spicy Italian sausage, removed from casing

1 medium red onion, trimmed, chopped

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 cups diced fresh mushrooms

1 poblano or red bell or yellow bell pepper, cored, diced

1 tablespoon chili powder

1 bag (12 ounces) frozen cut okra

Chopped fresh cilantro

Red jasmine rice, optional

Directions

Rinse beans well and pick through them for stones. Put beans into a large (4 to 6 quart) Dutch oven or deep saucepan. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches. Heat to a boil, then remove from heat and let stand 1 hour.

Add water if needed so beans are covered by 2 inches. Add ham hocks. Heat to a boil, then reduce heat to very low. Partly cover the pan and let simmer, stirring often and adding water as needed to always keep beans covered by at least 1 inch. Cook until the beans are tender to the bite (you’ll need to taste them), usually 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and simmer 10 more minutes. At this point you can refrigerate the beans for several days in their liquid. Remove the hocks and pull the meat off the bones and chop it finely and reserve.

Meanwhile, put chorizo and onion into a large, deep saucepan or deep skillet. Set over medium heat. Cook and stir to break up the chorizo until golden, about 10 minutes. Stir in garlic; cook 1 minute. Stir in mushrooms, pepper and chili power.

Strain beans over a bowl to catch their liquid. Stir 3 cups of the drained beans, 1 cup of the bean cooking liquid, the chopped ham hock meat and the okra into the chorizo. (Save remaining beans for another use.) Simmer, partly covered, over medium heat about 10 minutes. Season to taste with the remaining ¾ teaspoon salt. Serve in wide bowls topped with rice and cilantro.

Nutrition information per serving: 444 calories, 24 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 51 g carbohydrates, 5 g sugar, 35 g protein, 906 mg sodium, 16 g fiber

Red jasmine rice

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes

Makes: 6 servings

This also is terrific with black bean cooking water. If you like, stir 1/2 to 1 cup cooked beans into the finished rice.

Ingredients

2 cups white jasmine rice

2 2/3 cups red bean cooking water

1 teaspoon salt

2 cloves garlic, crushed

Chopped fresh herbs for garnish

Directions

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Put rice, bean water, salt and garlic into a rice cooker. Cook according to manufacturer’s directions until rice is tender.

Let stand 10 minutes. Fluff with fork. Serve garnished with fresh herbs.

Nutrition information per serving: 215 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 47 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 4 g protein, 392 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

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Beans 02

Pintos make a classic beans-and-greens match-up. They cook up with garlic and sage and are finished with a few handfuls of chopped kale.

Pinto beans and greens

Prep: 15 minutes

Soak: 1 hour

Cook: 2 hours

Makes: 8 servings

I like to serve this with a tangy, vinegary red pepper hot sauce — not Sriracha, whose sweetness doesn’t seem right here. Crumble cornbread or tortilla chips on top if desired. Crumbled or shredded cheese is delicious, too.

Ingredients

1 pound dried pinto beans or yellow eye beans

2 to 4 tablespoons bacon fat or olive oil

2 large cloves garlic, crushed

1 large sprig fresh sage or thyme (or 1/4 teaspoon dried)

Salt

3 to 4 cups loosely packed, chopped or thinly sliced kale

Red pepper hot sauce

Directions

Rinse beans well and pick through them for stones. Put beans into a large (4 to 6 quart) Dutch oven or deep saucepan. Add cold water to cover by 2 inches. Heat to a boil, then remove from heat and let stand 1 hour.

Add water if needed so beans are covered by 2 inches. Add bacon fat, garlic and herb sprig. Heat to a boil, then reduce heat to very low. Partly cover the pan and let simmer, stirring often and add water as needed to always keep beans covered by at least an inch. Cook until the beans are tender to the bite (you’ll need to taste them), usually 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Add 1 teaspoon salt and simmer 10 more minutes. At this point you can refrigerate the beans for several days in their liquid.

Reheat beans if necessary. Use a potato masher to lightly crush a few of the beans; usually 3 or 4 mashes does it. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt. Stir in the kale and simmer until it is tender, about 10 minutes. Serve hot in bowls with plenty of hot sauce.

Nutrition information per serving: 228 calories, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 3 mg cholesterol, 37 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 13 g protein, 303 mg sodium, 13 g fiber.

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