I never want summer to end, so I look on the bright side: Autumn weather practically begs for slow-simmered foods. Yum.
Beans, for example. Beans prove an excellent source of lean, inexpensive protein. Their versatility and adaptability means they can play prominently in main-dish salads, creamy soups and hearty stews. They pair terrifically as rustic side dishes to our fall grilling and roasting recipes.
Canned beans top my list of great convenience foods. They save the day for many a meal. But I posit that cooler days prove a perfect time to master cooking dried beans.
First, know that all dried beans are not created equal. The fresher the dried bean, the more flavor it will have and the less time it will take to cook to perfect tenderness.
I buy beans in stores that sell a lot of them — black and pinto beans from a bustling Hispanic market are far more likely to be fresher than the beat-up, plastic-bagged beans sold on the bottom shelf of the local supermarket. I also buy beans at specialty stores so I can experiment with variety. Check out Rancho Gordo online. I joined its Bean Club and receive a quarterly supply of super-interesting dried beans. From the giant stunning Scarlett runner to the itty-bitty alubia blanca, these "fresh" dried beans inspire me to simmer a potful for the week's meals.
No matter where you procure dried beans, always rinse them well and pick through them carefully for stones. Soaking is really up to you. They certainly cook faster if soaked. Many older recipes instruct us to discard the soaking water to prevent gas. Current thinking advises us to retain the soaking water lest we discard vitamins and flavor. When the beans have a luscious dark color, such as black and red beans, I always cook them in the soaking water for maximum color retention. (Note that for less bitterness, I do recommend discarding the soaking water when cooking dried garbanzo beans.)
In the end, cooking dried beans proves easy. They simply need water and time to soften into goodness. I usually cook 1 pound of beans in my 5 1/2-quart stainless steel Dutch oven. When I'm not around to stir the beans and check water levels, I employ my slow cooker. When pressed for time, I use a pressure cooker or Instant Pot, always following manufacturer's directions.
When the beans are tender to the bite, the fun begins. Beans take to seasonings like ducks to water. Just know that it's best to add the seasonings after the beans are soft; some acids and salt can interfere with the softening process.
Bean cooking liquid proves a useful commodity. It can enrich soups and stand in for water when cooking rice and other grains. My daughter's favorite childhood side dish uses the black bean cooking water to make a stunning black rice much enjoyed in Mexico. Seasoned with a little garlic and finished with chopped fresh cilantro and green chile, the black rice is gorgeous next to a piece of grilled fish or steak. She stirs in spoonfuls of cooked black beans and shredded cheese for a main meal.
These days, I'm crazy for slow-simmered, meltingly tender beans enriched with something green near the end of cooking. That might be from leafy greens, chopped green vegetables or a green salsa or sauce. Think pintos and kale, garbanzos and pesto, red beans and okra, white beans and arugula. The green element adds rich flavor, textural variation and nutrients. Believe me, these recipes will take the sting out of autumn days.