Bean Cookery: One Size Fits All

When it comes to making a pot of beans, nothing could be simpler.  Because even though there are literally hundreds of dried bean varieties, they can all be cooked in the same way.

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Oh, to be sure, there will be a few minor differences in the amount of water added or total cooking time, but the method is the same.  Small beans cook up faster than larger ones for the most part.  Older beans take longer than fresher ones.  Once you gain some experience with a particular bean, you’ll be a better judge of how much time you’ll need to get the job done.

There’s the question of whether one should soak beans before cooking. Soaking will reduce cooking time a bit.  I have always soaked beans, usually overnight, before cooking. But according to Mark Bittman, one of my favorite cookbook authors, it is completely optional.

While I couldn’t quite break myself of this habit cold turkey, I did concede to a partial soak. I covered my beans with water, brought them to a boil and took them off the heat to stand for a measly two hours.

A watched pot never boils.

A watched pot never boils.

I’m not sure what potential calamities I envisioned from this brief bath.  Beans cooking for hours and remaining hard and inedible? Chalky, tasteless beans? My frown lines were definitely showing.

After rinsing and adding fresh water, I put them back on the burner. It took about one and a half hours for the beans to reach my preferred doneness. And guess what?

They were perfection!

Easy Beans

1. Place rinsed beans (soaked, partially soaked or not soaked at all) in a pot and cover with water by an inch or two.  Bring beans to a boil and then lower heat to a gentle simmer.  Cover.

2. When beans finally soften a bit, add salt.  For one pound of beans I use 1 teaspoon of salt. Adding salt too early creates a tougher bean.  

3. Stir occasionally, testing for doneness.  I like my beans a little more firm than what comes out of a can.

My advice? Don’t mess around with only a cup at a time. Prepare at least a whole pound. Eat them, refrigerate them (they’re good for several days), freeze them.  Beans can be enjoyed in many ways.  They’re extremely useful to have on hand.

  • Add to soup and stew
  • Toss with salad
  • Top a bowl of beans with a scrambled egg
  • Roll into a tortilla with cheese
  • Blend into a dip for crackers

And while canned beans are certainly handy to have about for last-minute dinners, nothing can beat basic home cooked beans for texture, flavor and price.

How do you like to eat beans?

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#1 Best Food Buy for Your Money

I ate a lot of beans in college. Money was tight, and beans were cheap.  A big pot went a long way in those days towards filling my belly without emptying my wallet.

I’m not complaining.  I happen to like beans.  My family likes them as well. As it turns out, there’s a lot to like:

Nutrition:  It’s no wonder, since Jim became a vegan, that we are consuming more beans than ever.   According to ChooseMyPlate.gov, 1/4 cup of cooked beans = 1 ounce of animal protein. They’re also a great source of vitamins A and C, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, folic acid and iron. Did I mention that they’re high in fiber and low in sodium and fat?

Low cost:  Despite how incredibly healthy beans are, somewhere along the way they picked up a reputation for cheapness. As in not fashionable. They seem to conjure up images of dirty-faced, Depression era children in faded, patched overalls scraping them up from tin plates.  But, considering the aforementioned nutritional benefits, they are literally worth their weight in, if not gold, then cold hard cash.

Look for them in the bulk section of your grocery store for even greater savings.

Versatility:  Beans are the Marlon Brandos (or Matt Damons, depending on your age and inclination) of the food world.  Hand them a script and they’ll play their part with academy award winning aplomb.  From main dish to dessert there are literally bazillions of tasty recipes out there.

Here are a few I’ve found online that have made repeat performances at our table:

Stored in tightly sealed glass jars/plastic tubs, they have an almost unlimited shelf life. But make a point to consume them in at least year’s time for best flavor. While the unassuming bean may never be chic, it’s an inexpensive, nutritional powerhouse  that deserves a starring role in your meal plans.

And for most versatile performance, the award goes to....

And for most versatile performance, the award goes to….

5 Surprising Foods to Keep in the Freezer

You’ll save money and waste less with the freezer as your friend.  These five foods are handy to have on hand:

1. Tomatoes  When you find a great source for tasty tomatoes (your garden?), and you want to preserve the flavor of summer, it’s a simple matter to pack them clean and whole in a freezer bag.  When needed, simply rinse under warm water, and the skin peels right off.  Core and chop to the desired size while still semi-frozen.  When thawed they will be comparable to canned tomatoes.  Use in soups, stews, casseroles and sauces.

All that's left from last summer's garden.

All that’s left from last summer’s garden.

2.  Avocados  Simply wash, slice in half and peel.  Pop them into a freezer bag just like this.  Alternatively you could mash them up with a little lemon juice and freeze.  The texture of this fruit does change from its fresh state, but previously frozen avocado makes a great guacamole.  I like to use mashed avocado on my sandwich as a replacement for mayo.

Peel and freeze!

Peel and freeze!

3.  Grains  When you have time, make an extra-large batch of your favorite grain.  Let them cool thoroughly, spread out on a baking sheet before freezing.  Then divide grains into small portions in freezer safe bags.  Squeeze out all extra air in bag to avoid ice crystals and freezer burn.  Keeps in freezer for two to three months.  Use as the basis for a quick dinner, an addition to casseroles or soups, or as a breakfast cereal.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

Cook then freeze your favorite grains: bulgur, quinoa, farro, rice and more.

4.  Milk  When I started buying organic milk on a regular basis, it was a shock to the pocketbook.  But then I found out that I could buy it on sale and stick the extra jugs in the deep freeze.  Yes, the texture does change.  It may be slightly “grainier” and needs to be shaken before use to blend the fat back into the milk.  Not great for drinking a glass with cookies but fine for cooking/baking, and I happily use it on my cereal.

5.  Ginger  We love cooking with ginger.  Unfortunately, it always seemed that we didn’t use it up before it went bad.  Then I stumbled on a tip in my Cook’s Illustrated magazine that changed my despair to, well, if not joy, then satisfaction…  Peel and freeze.  Easy.  Frozen ginger makes grating simple.  Also, check out this page from Lunch In A Box for more ideas about freezing ginger.

What do you find that works well coming out of the freezer?

Leftovers? Hard Boiled Eggs 5 Ways!

Growing up as a young child in the late 60’s and 70’s, snacks were pretty simple.  There was a lot of grape jelly Wonder Bread, buttered saltines, sliced bananas in milk and, of course, hard-boiled eggs. My mother had four children to tend to, and in those days, snacking didn’t receive the attention (or advertising) it gets today.

And as Easter approaches, I start thinking about those hard-boiled eggs. Definitely one of the least processed food items of my youth.  Eggs offer a fair amount of protein and vitamin D.

file5681298361896If you’re flooded with hard-boiled eggs over the upcoming holiday weekend, here are a few tasty ways to put them to use:

1. Breakfast or snack.  I know, obvious.  But they are so great to have on hand for a quick breakfast, to pack in a lunch, or snack on after school with a grind of salt and pepper.

2. Deviled.  This is the one dish I take to an event that is always well received. Simple to make.  A food processor is handy here, and I found a cake decorator at a yard sale to do the filling. This is the recipe I use.

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Makes those deviled eggs look almost too good to eat.

3. On salads.  When I add sliced egg, garbanzo beans and pumpkin seeds, salad becomes a one dish meal.  Love this slicer.

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4. Egg salad sandwiches.  Comfort food for me.  Dice up a few eggs. Add mayo or an oil based dressing. Mix in whatever you like. Fresh herbs, olives, celery and onion all work well.

0025. Frijole Mole.  Another type of egg salad I chanced upon in Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Click the link to get the recipe.  It calls for green beans and lots of basil, but these days I use broccoli and cilantro because it’s what I have.  I prefer diced red onion, raw, for color and crunch. Delicious on bread, sandwich style, or with crackers and veggies.

What’s your favorite way to use surplus Easter eggs?

Hippity, hoppity...  Easter's on its way.

Hippity, hoppity… Easter’s on its way.

Family Project: Yogurt Cream Cheese

In If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, you learn that if you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want some milk.  And when he gets the milk, he’s going to ask for a straw.  And when he’s done, he’ll need a napkin. I’m sure you see where this is going.  And if you have children, you’ve lived it! One thing leads to another until you’re right back  to cookies.

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Well, in my case it started with a realization that we were spending quite a bit of money on organic yogurt.  Sam was going through record amounts and I was *cough* indulging a bit as well.  So I met the challenge head on and made it myself!

Once I made the yogurt though, I discovered that I could make cream cheese out of it.  Imagine that.

Using The Encyclopedia of Country Living as my guide, I followed a few very simple steps:

Step 1:  Pour one quart of freshly made yogurt into the center of a length of cheesecloth spread over a bowl.  (Optional: Mix in 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt to yogurt beforehand.)

001Step 2:  Pull the ends together to create a “ball” of yogurt.  I used rubber bands, of which we have plenty, to close off the cloth.  I used the remaining ends to create a loop (again with rubber bands) which I could hang from a yardstick.  Use whatever materials you have on hand to hang the yogurt.

As you can see, the liquid will drain into the bowl.  I had to dump mine periodically so the yogurt wasn’t sitting in it, but you could hang yours differently so that it isn’t quite so low.

006Step 3:  Hang for 6 to 48 hours in a cool airy place (sooner is safer). This ball of yogurt cream cheese was hanging for at least 17 hours in my cold, unheated kitchen—from the afternoon of the previous day and through the night.  Peel off cheesecloth.

It’s ready to eat!  And honestly, it’s tastes better than store bought cream cheese made from cream and just slightly (and deliciously) tangier.  No complaints from the head taster, my 13 year old son.

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And, naturally, if you make some yogurt cream cheese, you’ll have to make some bagels to go with it. 🙂  It’s as simple as that.

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The Week in Lunch

It’s Friday!  Since I have lunch on the brain, I thought I might send out the pictures I took of Sam’s lunches last week.  Leftovers definitely figured into the equation but so did fresh fruits and vegetables.

Monday Sam had leftover whole wheat pesto pasta with Parmesan cheese, chopped red cabbage, sliced apples and almond butter for dipping.  Aside from a little knife work, there was little to prepare.

Monday

Monday

Tuesday was pizza pockets day: whole wheat pita bread spread with jarred pasta sauce and layered with cheese slices.  I put them on a hot pan to crisp the outside (which keeps them from getting soggy) and melt the cheese inside. If I have spinach, I chop some up and throw it in before putting the pockets over heat. We were out of all fruit except bananas, so in they went with a little cinnamon on top.

Tuesday

Tuesday

Since Tuesday is my shopping day, I was able to stock up on the basics for Wednesday. The menu included an almond and apple butter sandwich on high fiber whole wheat bread, a sliced pear, leftover roasted brussel sprouts and yogurt (the plain variety, flavored at home).

Wednesday

Wednesday

Valentine’s Day fell on Thursday.  Notice the dark chocolate candy?  It’s not a typical lunch box treat but, hey, I never said I was perfect.  Anyway, the day’s entrée was a cheese and avocado quesadilla on a whole wheat tortilla.  Carrots are easy–especially if you buy the ready-to-eat “baby” ones.  And kiwis are great this time of year.  Sam calls them “green strawberries”.

Thursday

Thursday

Friday is pizza day at school.  Sam complains they taste dry this year because they are making them with 100% whole wheat flour.  And yet he still asks for lunch money in the morning.  I’m intrigued.  I think I’ll take a field trip to the school cafeteria to check it out.

I guess the take away message here is that making a healthy lunch is pretty easy and doesn’t have to involve a lot of convenience food.  It’s easier on the wallet and definitely better for growing bodies. It doesn’t have to be fancy. The challenge is getting kids to eat it. Serving healthy foods at home is the first step to getting kids to eat them at school.

What did you send in your child’s lunch today?

The Secret to Packing School Lunch

In a word?  Leftovers.

On occasion, I show glimpses of a type A, “Mother of the Year” persona and whip out lunch box specialties, but honestly, it’s usually about what’s handy.  And what’s at hand is what we ate for dinner the night before.

Soups, spaghetti, grilled chicken, even salad.  It all goes in if I’ve got it in the refrigerator.  If it’s meant to be hot, I might warm it up before packing so it isn’t stone cold.  Sam is happy to eat normally hot foods at room temperature (and so am I).  It’s along the same line as cold pizza.  Sometimes it’s just as good that way.

One family dinner that translates well to school lunch is the slow cooker Hoisin and Ginger Shredded Pork from the Kitchn.  It’s great on so many levels: easy to make (love my crockpot), flavorful and super lunch friendly.

Served over farro with salad and broccoli.

Served over farro with salad and broccoli.

I always sleep easier knowing that lunch is practically made.  And with a whole wheat tortilla, some leftover salad and few sprigs of cilantro, this pork wrap comes together in a minute.

006Add in leftover pan cooked broccoli, a sliced blood orange (Jim brought them home from a colleague’s tree) assorted nuts and, voila, a healthy lunch from home.

The lunch that prepares itself!

The lunch that prepares itself!

Do you send leftovers for lunch?  Which ones pack well for school?