Eat This Week: A hill of beans
These culinary powerhouses are easy, cheap and healthy, making life just a little bit better
Eat This Week — Mondays in the Vail Daily
Tired of new year’s resolution stories yet? Me too. Be better, work on yourself, focus on gratitude — yes, we know the drill. All worthy endeavors, by the way. But 2021 didn’t wipe 2020 clean, and here we are, mid-climb and tired, with a fair bit of trail still in front of us. And so instead of creating a list of virtues and avoidances — exercise daily, stop spending so much money, no screen time on school nights — I’ve decided to choose a couple of things and put them on a Yes List. The concept being, instead of saying no to something, you figure out what you want to say yes to.
And one of the things I’m saying yes to is eating beans — frequently. They’re cheap. They store beautifully. They’re native to the Americas. They’re packed full of fiber, which has a multi-tiered list of health benefits. And growing them is good for the environment, as opposed to something like beef, which stresses it. And the kicker for a working mom? They’re easy and delicious.
I’m a believer in the value of nutrition, or real food, versus popping a supplement. There are apothecaries throughout China where you go in and speak to the pharmacist and get a “prescription” for yin or yang foods, for ginger, garlic, cilantro — all in response to whatever ails you, to be eaten as part of a meal, not in a capsule. And beans respond beautifully to herbs and spices, amping up their powerhouse capacity. Black pepper, rosemary, turmeric, ginger and more are natural compadres for beans, whether you’re opting for an Indian dish, as in dal, or a South American one with simple “pot beans.” As with all things, it’s the habit, not a one-off meal, which provides healthy benefits.
And so here are three workhorse recipes, ready to be customized to taste, in order to get more legumes in your diet.
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Originating in southeastern France/northeastern Italy, socca (called farinata in Italy) is based on chickpea flour. After adding water, olive oil, pepper and salt, the transformation is somewhat stunning. To think a little package of bean flour can create such a delicious dish, and with so little effort, too. Bob’s Red Mill has a good product, and is available in local grocery stores. But when possible, I like to get the chickpea flour from an Indian grocer — usually called gram flour or besan — because of the nutty, sweet flavor. Socca is great as a cocktail appetizer, alongside a mixed green salad with vinaigrette, alongside soups and stews or even cooked blini-style as little crepes for crème fraiche and smoked salmon or caviar, in which case you’d omit the onion and rosemary.
- 1 cup chickpea flour
- 1 ½ cups water
- ¼ cup olive oil, divided
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (less if using fine table salt)
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
- ½ cup thinly sliced onion
- Freshly grated parmesan cheese for serving
Step 1: Whisk together chickpea flour, water, 2 tablespoons olive oil, pepper and salt. Let sit for a few minutes, or up to half a day, to meld.
Step 2: Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Add remaining 2 tablespoons to oven-safe skillet — a 10-inch glazed cast iron skillet works beautifully, as does a nonstick skillet, as long as it’s oven safe.
Step 3: Add in rosemary and onion to batter, then pour into prepared pan.
Step 4: Bake 15-20 minutes, until the pancake is set and starting to brown on top. Don’t undercook it, or it won’t be as tasty.
Step 5: Cut into wedges and serve with parmesan cheese, if desired, or flaky salt and more fresh pepper.
Red Lentil Dal with Tadka
There is no easier legume to prepare than the lentil. No soaking, no prepping; it also keeps wonderfully in the fridge for several days after cooking. At its simplest, Indian-style dal is some form of lentil — and there are many options — water and salt. I like to cook my dal with turmeric, an antioxidant that helps combat inflammation and is a natural foil for lentils. But to give it an extra boost, the sort that has you eating spoonful after spoonful, chasing flavors, try adding a tadka, or tempered oil, after cooking. All you do is heat oil or ghee, add in spices and/or aromatics, and then pull it off the heat. Swirl into the dal, and boom: pure deliciousness.
This dal is excellent as part of an Indian meal, but makes a wonderful simple lunch, especially with a side of rice or store-bought flat bread, warmed in the toaster, and some plain yogurt and sliced cucumbers.
- 1 cup split red lentils
- 3 cups water
- ½ teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon salt
Tadka: The most important flavors in this tadka are the mustard seeds and curry leaves. That said, anything can be left out and it will still be delicious. You really just want to amp up the flavor a bit, so don’t let a specialty ingredient or trip to the grocery store stand between you and this dish.
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil, olive oil or ghee
- 1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- ½ teaspoon cumin seeds
- 4 whole dried red chiles
- 1 serrano chile, minced
- 1 sprig curry leaves
- 1 garlic clove, minced
Step 1: Rinse lentils, then put in a saucepan with turmeric, salt and water. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down and simmer, covered, until they are soft. This could take anywhere from 15-30 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of your lentils. If you like a thick dal, cook it down more. If you prefer a thinner one, maybe add a bit more water — it’s a very forgiving and easily customized dish.
Step 2: For the tadka, heat the oil in a small saucepan over medium to medium-high heat and add the mustard seeds, cooking for 15 seconds. They will pop, so be careful; you can use a lid for the pan to keep the oil from spattering overmuch. Add the cumin seeds and cook for another 30 seconds, swirling occasionally. Finally, add the chiles (dried and fresh), garlic and curry leaves, cook for a few moments and then pull off the heat. Note that the curry leaves will also cause the oil to sputter rambunctiously, so be careful.
Step 3: Add the tadka to the dal, and serve.
Pot of Beans
Canned or frozen beans are all well and good, but nothing can compare to a pot of freshly cooked beans. I use the pressure cooker if I’m going to puree them for a dip or refried beans — especially if I’ve forgotten to soak them ahead — but honestly the best way to cook beans is soaked ahead of time and then slowly simmered on the stove. Not only do you get tasty beans, but also a bean broth that can be used in a variety of ways — served with the beans in a bowl, as an enchilada-style sauce or as you would consommé, perhaps in little espresso cups.
There are many wonderful ways to embellish beans, and the classic way has you adding beans and water to a mirepoix, a dice of onion, celery and carrot. But for the best bang for your buck, just go for diced onions and a couple bay leaves during the initial cooking. Then add extra flavors with a sofrito afterwards.
Conventional wisdom says salt or acid inhibits the cooking process, but according to Steve Sando, who grows and distributes heirloom produce, salt doesn’t seem to affect the cooking or texture. Therefore, I like to pre-salt my beans when soaking.
Serve these in a bowl during taco night, or simply with some warmed tortillas as a light supper.
- 1 pound beans such as pintos, yellow eye, Rio Zape or any other meaty bean
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- Half a bunch of cilantro, sliced, tender stems plus leaves
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup tomatoes, chopped
- 2 serranos or jalapeños, minced
Step 1: Pick over and then rinse the beans. Add to bowl with 2 tablespoons salt and 8 cups water. Soak beans for 12 to 24 hours. If you don’t have time to soak the beans, they will need to cook longer, and might not hold their shape as well — but it is not a big deal.
Step 2: Drain the beans. Heat oil in large pot, and sauté onions until it starts to brown. Add in beans, 6 cups water and last teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to low and simmer, covered, about an hour, until the beans are tender. Peek in on them occasionally, to make sure they have enough liquid.
Step 3: Meanwhile, make the sofrito. Heat oil in sauté pan, then add onion and sauté until it deepens in color. After about 5 minutes, stir in garlic and cilantro and stir for about 30 seconds. Then add the tomatoes and chiles and cook until the tomatoes are quite soft and burnished in color, and the juice has evaporated. Take off the heat.
Step 4: When beans are done cooking, add the sofrito and meld the flavors. This is good the day it’s made, but is even better the following day.