SPILLING THE BEANS

A few weeks ago I made an amazing discovery about beans that flies in the face of everything I’ve understood for the past 45 years! But you’ll have to wait til next week to find out what that is. First enjoy this article I did for the LA Times Syndicate about 15 years ago. The recipe below will be perfect for summer dinners.

Dried beans are beautiful. They are also healthful and delicious. But there are 2 secrets about beans and knowing them makes all the difference between firm, tender beans and bullet hard ones that never soften. * Beans that are over about a year old will never rehydrate or soften. * Beans that are simmered with salt will never rehydrate or soften. I found out these secrets the hard way and became so discouraged in the process, I avoided bean cookery for years.

My first venture was as a young bride about 30 years ago. I saw a recipe for baked beans in a major national food magazine. I still believed, at that point, that a printed recipe was like the 10 commandments: if you followed every detail religiously, it would work. This particular recipe called for something like 8 different spices, which is those days meant driving from store to store to find them all, not to mention justifying to my new husband why I was spending so much money on all those spices when I only needed, in some cases ¼ teaspoon. But not knowing anything about the way cooking worked, I feared that if I left out even one, for some esoteric chemical reason the recipe just might not work.

After soaking the beans overnight, as advised by the recipe, and mixing together all the many ingredients, I placed the bean pot in the oven, feeling utterly warm and secure in the anticipation of enjoying an exceptional meal. But a few hours later, when I tested the beans, they were not even beginning to soften. Puzzled, I planned something else for dinner but continued cooking the beans. Two hours later and they were still as firm as bullets. I ended up cooking them for 24 hours at which point my husband said that the electricity consumption just didn't warrant further experimentation.

It wasn't until many years later that I read in another publication the enlightening warning: never add salt to beans until they have finished cooking or they will never soften. (A handy fact to know when you want them to stop cooking and not become mushy!) I went back to cooking beans and for years I was safe until one day when once again the beans would not soften. This time I called the company listed on the back of the package and found out the rest of the story: old beans are no longer capable of softening. Since then, I have had no more unpleasant surprises when cooking beans and have joyfully gone on to create some new favorite recipes with them.

This cold marinated bean salad has become a summer regular on our menu because it is especially delicious with little sweet bursts of fresh corn kernels.

Makes: 10 cups Serves: 4 as a main course, 8 as a side dish

Make ahead preparation: Beans must be soaked before cooking, either overnight, or use the 1 hour quick soaking method. The bean salad should marinate at least 2 hours up to 3 days.

1-1/4 cups/ 8 ounces dried black beans 2/3 cup scant
4 ounces dried chickpeas 2/3 cup scant
4 ounces flageolet*
1-1/2 cups 4 ounces fussily pasta
(3 medium corn) 1 ¾ cups, 9 ounces freshly cooked corn, off the cob
1-1/2 cups chopped onion (1 medium onion)
18 half pieces sundried tomatoes in oil, drained (2 tablespoons oil reserved) and chopped (3/4 cup)
Vinaigrette:
1/4 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons cider vinegar
a pinch of sugar
a sprinkling of cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1-/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 medium cloves garlic, peeled and minced (4 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, preferably flat leafed
optional decor: a few fresh basil sprigs

Wash the beans and pick out any stones or shriveled beans. Place each type of bean in a medium saucepan or bowl and cover with 2-inches of fresh unsalted water.

To soak overnight: Place the beans in a cool spot or refrigerate them to keep the beans from fermenting.

To quick soak: Bring the beans to a boil and boil 2 minutes. Cover; remove from the heat and allow to sit for one hour.

When ready to cook: Drain the water, rinse the beans and cover them again with 2-inches of fresh unsalted water. Bring the water to a boil, turn the heat to low and cook at a bare simmer, partially covered, until the beans are just tender but still firm. Add more water if necessary so that the beans are always covered. Test a bean by cutting it in half to see if it is cooked through.

Flageolets take 20-75 minutes; black beans 30-45 minutes and chickpeas 45-55 minutes.

Remove the beans from the heat and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt to each bean pot. Allow the beans to cool completely in the cooking liquid. (You may instead drain the beans and cover them with plastic wrap to prevent cracking.

Pressure Cooker Technique: This is a speedy way to cook the dried beans but because cooking time varies with each batch, start with the minimum time and continue cooking without pressure, or for just a minute or so under pressure until tender.

Soak the beans as above. Bring the pressure cooker up to full pressure and cook 10 minutes. Stop the pressure at once by running cold water on the lid. Test a bean by cutting it in half to see if it is cooked through. It should look mealy with no hard central core. Continue cooking if necessary until tender.

Boil the pasta in lightly salted water as per package directions, 8 to 9 minutes. Drain and rinse it under cold water. Place the well-drained pasta in a medium bowl.

To cook the corn, boil it in unsalted water for 9 minutes or until just tender. (Salt toughens the corn.)

To the pasta, add the corn, onion and sundried tomatoes and mix them together. In a 3 quart bowl, whisk together the reserved sun-dried tomato oil and all the remaining ingredients for the vinaigrette. Add the bean mixture and mix together until everything is evenly coated with the vinaigrette mixture. Cover the bowl tightly and set it aside for 2 hours at room temperature or refrigerate for up to 3 days, stirring every day.

Shortly before serving garnish with fresh basil sprigs.

Serve: Room temperature. Keeps: leftover bean salad freezes well for up to 3 months but the pasta should be removed as the texture alters.

Pointers for Success * Beans from a current crop (it will be written on the package) require no soaking but should be brought to a boil and drained to avoid flatulence. Older beans require either a quick 1 hour soak (see above) or at least 8 hours for full rehydration.

* The older the beans, the longer they take to get tender which means that it is necessary to give a range of time for doneness. It's best to start checking at the minimum time and continuing cooking as necessary.

* Beans will never soften if they are salted while cooking. In fact, once the beans are fully cooked, adding salt to the water keeps their outer shell from absorbing more water, thereby keeping them from further softening.

* For the most evenly tender but firm beans, overnight soaking is best although the quick soak method works almost as well.

* To keep the outer shell of the beans from splitting, the cooking water should be just barely simmering.

* When pressure cooking a large quantity of beans, add a teaspoon or two of oil to the water to prevent foaming which should plug the valve.

* Allowing the beans to cool in the cooking water keeps them moist and prevents splitting.

* The best way to drain the beans is with a slotted spoon so that the beans remain whole and uncrushed.

* Marinating the beans for at least 2 hours allows the flavors to penetrate, making it unnecessary to flavor the beans during cooking.