from "Living Within", March 2014
We have taken a bit of a battering over this winter but, when in crisis, we Brits are very good at calling for someone to start boiling water. Instead of steaming cups of tea or cleaning up operations, I am thinking bean-feasts and calling for the pulses - bastions of all that is cheap and tasty and good for you. There is much scope from a pulse in terms of versatility and good husbandry and only small amounts of effort involved in the cooking.
Dried bean pulses come in many guises: cannellini; aduki; broad; black or red kidney; garbanzo; green flageolets; butter, or pinto, amongst many others. They require a bit of forethought although not a lot of effort. The night before you want to cook them, they should be washed and soaked in cold water, and, on the day, they will require an hour or so to cook through to tenderness. Once washed and soaked (on a sliding scale from about 8 hours for a bean to nothing at all for some lentils), discard the soaking water, rinse the pulses, and then cover in about twice their volume of clean fresh water and add some aromatics for flavour. There are certain things that will toughen up the outer skins and make beans and lentils harder to cook - salt in the water is one of them, acid is another, so in spite of all those Italian grandmothers and Jamie Oliver telling you to add a tomato to the cooking water, I would leave the tomato until later in the process. Add instead aromatics more appropriate for a light stock. Any or all of: a halved onion; whole garlic cloves; celery; bay leaf; thyme; parsley stalks; carrot; cloves, or peppercorns can be added to the water - then bring the whole, gently, to a boil.
Gently is the watchword of cooking pulses. While boiling point is needed to get the cooking process started, and in the case of kidney beans a 10 minute boil a necessity in cooking out potentially harmful toxins before simmering, with this exception, the more quietly you get there and the more calmly you leave the whole simmering, the more even the resulting pot full of tender pulses. As the beans come to the boil, they will give off a layer of foamy scum at the surface of the water, skim this off (it stops forming after the water is boiling) and when a sure boil is reached, turn the heat right down and put a lid to at least partially cover. Check the beans for tenderness from about 45 minutes onward, and in about 10 minute intervals thereafter, to decide when they are ready. Once cooked (the process will normally take between an hour or two depending on many factors including size and age of the dried bean) the pulses should be left in the cooking water to which salt is now added (a teaspoon or two - or more - as always, seasoning is a personal affair so I will leave exact quantities to you) and the beans allowed to cool; they will take on more flavour as they do so.
When you are ready to serve, drain an appropriate amount of beans from their cooking liquid (from which you have discarded the aromatics) and re-heat in a pan with a dressing of a little butter or olive oil (add a few tablespoons of the cooking water too to help loosen and heat the beans without having to fry them); do taste the beans at this stage and adjust salt and pepper levels as you see fit. Finally, when they are warmed through and ready to hit the plate, you can dress them with some chopped fresh tender herbs to complement whatever else you may be eating (parsley, mint, thyme, chervil …, you get the picture) or with some sautéed chopped tomatoes, and use to accompany or bulk out almost anything. Roast lamb, potatoes, squash, root vegetables, salads, cold cuts, soup - the list is almost as long as your imagination.
You can buy your pulses ready cooked and canned, it is easy and still cheap to use them this way, but nothing beats the flavour of those you have spent a tiny bit of effort on cooking for yourself, and almost nothing could be easier to do.