We often keep a pot of brothy beans in the refrigerator (they’ll keep nicely for up to 5 days). It gives us an instant leg up on putting a meal together. We usually use cannellini but often cook what we have on hand or what sounds good to us. Canned beans are okay in a pinch, of course, but don’t really have the fresh sweet flavor and just-tender, somewhat toothsome texture of beans that you have cooked yourself. You get the point. Cook a pot of beans on Sunday, and we’ll show you how to eat well all week—cassoulet our way, braised escarole and beans, tuna and sausages with white beans, beans with spicy black olive vinaigrette, beans on toast with olive oil and fried sage.
NOTES ON DRIED BEANS
We cook beans all the time, but we do it instinctively. To verify that our methods were up to scratch, we dove in and did a little bean research. Turns out our instincts were right. Here’s what we found out.
BUYING: Choose beans that have been recently harvested and dried; this may be the most important factor in cooking a good pot of dried beans. As beans age, their outer shell becomes tough and impermeable. Sometimes really old beans will never get tender, even after hours and hours of cooking. Shop at a store that moves a lot of beans off their shelves, ensuring that you’re buying from a current crop. Though it may be hard to spot, look for an expiration date on the package.
SOAKING: To soak or not to soak, that is the question. Soaking hydrates and softens the dried beans, giving them a jump start. But you have to think ahead and remember to soak them in the first place. If you choose to soak your beans, they only need about 4 hours (the oft-used phrase “soak the beans overnight” is more about convenience). Or you can use the “quick” soak method: put the beans in a pot, cover them with cold water, bring the water to a boil, and remove the pot from heat. Cover the pot and let the beans soak for 1 hour. Drain, then cover the beans with fresh cold water and gently simmer them until tender. This method will shorten the cooking time a bit and leach out some of the indigestible carbohydrates that cause flatulence (unfortunately, some of the beneficial vitamins and minerals will also get poured down the drain). If you forgo soaking, just put the unsoaked beans right in a pot, cover with cold water, and onto the stove they go. But be sure that you cook them at the gentlest simmer so their skins don’t break.
SALTING: Kitchen lore has it that adding salt to beans while they cook will inhibit them from ever becoming tender, but it’s just not true. In fact, salt accelerates the cooking time by tenderizing the bean skins.
COOKING: For plump, creamy beans that hold their shape, cook them slowly over low heat in plenty of water.
BASIC COOKED DRIED BEANS
makes 9 cups
It is your preference whether to soak or not to soak. MH likes to hydrate the beans before cooking; CH believes that with the gentlest cooking you can jump right in without a soak. Look for the “Best Used By” date when buying a package of dried beans. The fresher the beans, the more quickly they’ll cook. One pound dried beans will yield about 6 cups of cooked beans. Cooked beans freeze beautifully.
3 cups dried beans, unsoaked or soaked
for 4 hours or overnight
1 onion, halved
1–2 cloves garlic
1 branch fresh thyme, optional
2 bay leaves
Really good extra-virgin olive oil
Drain the beans and put them into a medium, heavy-bottomed pot. Cover them with cold water by 4 inches or so. Add the onion, garlic, thyme, if using, and bay leaves. Bring the beans just to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low and very gently simmer them until they are swollen and tender, 30–90 minutes (or more), depending on the freshness of the dried beans. The beans should remain submerged while they cook, so add more water to the pot, if you need to. Remove the pot from the heat. Stir in a generous pinch of salt. Add a good glug of olive oil. Let the beans cool to just warm or to room temperature in the cooking liquid. (The beans will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
To make a traditional cassoulet—the emblematic “pot of beans” from France’s Lengadòc region—it takes a special earthenware pot, at least five different kinds of meats, and three to four days of fussing and tending to prepare and cook. When we don’t have the luxury of time, we make this simplified version. If we don’t have our own confit of duck to use for this simple cassoulet, we buy it already prepared from the market. It’s an easy weeknight meal and satisfies our hunger for the real thing.
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 fresh Italian sausages, pricked
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
3 cups cooked white beans, with a little of their cooking liquid
Confit of 2 duck legs
1 large branch fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 350°. Heat the olive oil in a medium, heavy ovenproof pot with a lid over medium heat. Brown the sausages all over, about 5 minutes. Transfer the sausages to a plate and set aside. Add the onions and garlic to the pot, season with salt and pepper, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the plate with the sausages.
Add half the cooked beans to the pot. Arrange the sausages and duck legs on the beans, then add the onions and garlic. Add the thyme and bay leaf, and cover with remaining beans. Add about ½ cup of the bean cooking liquid.
Toss the breadcrumbs with the melted butter in a small bowl. Scatter the breadcrumbs evenly over the beans. Cover the pot and bake for 35 minutes. Uncover the pot, and bake until the breadcrumbs are golden, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10–15 minutes before serving.
When we use canned beans, we like to give them a little love before we dress them. Drain them into a sieve, give them a good rinse under cold running water, then drain well and toss with a drizzle of olive oil and season with salt. Then go in with your dressing.
½ clove garlic, minced.
¼ cup finely chopped pitted black olives
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley leaves
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
¼ cup really good extra-virgin olive oil,
plus more for drizzling
Pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper
2 cups cooked cannellini beans
Stir together the garlic, olives, parsley, vinegar, olive oil, and red pepper flakes in a medium mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add the beans and toss gently to coat. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Transfer to a serving platter and drizzle with more olive oil before serving.
Escarole always needs a good soak in cold water to rid it of the dirt trapped between its leaves. We wash it just before preparing this classic Italian dish so that the leaves still have water clinging to them when they are added to the skillet. This way, when they meet the warm oil they wilt gently instead of frying. Either of the smaller variety of dried white beans—navy or great Northern—work just as well as the more traditional cannellini here.
1 head escarole, dark green outer leaves discarded, inner leaves separated and trimmed of dark green tops
¼ cup good extra-virgin olive oil
1–2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1–2 cups cooked white beans with some of their cooking liquid or a small ladleful of water
Salt and pepper
Wash the escarole leaves well and shake off some of the water. Put the olive oil and garlic into a large nonreactive skillet and warm over medium heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the escarole and cook briefly, turning the leaves as they begin to wilt. Add the beans and some of their cooking liquid or water, season with salt and pepper, and braise just until the beans are warmed through and the escarole is still bright and colorful, 3–5 minutes.
We love beans with either canned tuna or good sausages. But here, we poach fresh tuna in good olive oil and serve the tuna and sausages together to make one of the best surf ‘n’ turf dishes we know.
One 8-ounce piece fresh tuna
Really good extra-virgin olive oil
1 bay leaf
A few black peppercorns
2 Italian sausages
2 cups warm cooked white beans
Freshly ground black pepper
1 handful parsley leaves, chopped
Season the tuna with salt, put it into a small pot, and barely cover it with olive oil. Add the bay leaf, the peppercorns, and a strip or two of zest from the lemon. Poach the tuna over low heat until it turns pale and is just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let the tuna cool to just warm or to room temperature in the poaching oil. Grill the sausages over a hot charcoal fire, gas grill, or in a skillet over medium-high heat until they are browned all over and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Spoon the beans onto two plates and season with salt and pepper. Divide the sausages and the tuna between the two plates. Moisten the beans with some of the poaching oil from the tuna. Scatter the chopped parsley on top and serve with wedges of lemon.
By week’s end, there aren’t enough beans left in the pot to make much of a meal, so we spoon the last of them over toast rubbed with garlic and seasoned with salt and olive oil. We fry sage leaves for extra flavor and scatter them on top of the soft starchy beans. Finally, the beans get a last drizzle of good olive oil. Now that’s a perfect meal to end the week.
Rub 2 thick warm slices of toasted country bread with a raw clove of garlic. Put the toasted bread on two plates, drizzle with some really good extra-virgin olive oil, and sprinkle with a little salt. Put a generous spoonful or two of warm cooked beans on top of each piece of toast. Drizzle with more olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Meanwhile, heat ¼ cup vegetable oil in a small pot or skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Fry a small handful of fresh sage leaves, a few at a time, in the hot oil until fragrant about 5 seconds. Transfer the sage with a fork to a paper towel to drain. Season with salt. Garnish the beans with the fried sage.
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