A large pot of beans is one of the most satisfying things to cook when you’re working from home or otherwise home-bound. It requires little to no chopping, will bend itself to whatever is in your kitchen, and the main tasks required of the cook are “checking in on things” and “futzing around”, which are wonderful but generally harmless distractions for anyone feeling restless at their desk.
Here is how I tell people to make beans, which is usually how I make beans. First—most importantly—you need beans. Beans are cool now, which means there are myriad fancy heirloom beans to find on the internet, but I also like a big floppy sack of Goya brand Lima beans or Goya brand chickpeas from the regular grocery store.
If you are thinking ahead, soak your beans overnight (or for, I don’t know, a few hours). Sometimes I’ll add a few big pinches of salt to the cooking water. I have absolutely no idea if this makes things better, but I do not think it makes them worse.
The path of least resistance is this: take your soaked beans, plop them into a big pot—sometimes I add in the soaking water, again, I have no idea if this is good or bad but it hasn’t killed me yet—and top off with water or stock so that the liquid reaches 2-3 inches above the beans. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently, like really really gently because apparently a gentle simmer is really the key to a nice flavor here, and stop cooking once they’re done. Add salt throughout the process, in fits and spurts, until you feel that the broth is tasty but not salty.
This will give you a pot of cooked beans. Sometimes you don’t need much more but sometimes you want more. In which case, do this:
Soak your beans, then strain them. Chop up an onion or two, some garlic, some carrots if you feel like it—whatever soup-appropriate vegetables you have on hand. Pour a lavish glug of olive oil into a pan. Really just get wild here. Heat it over medium heat, then add the vegetables, and cook them until they are soft and glossy and translucent—otherwise your pot of beans will include crunchy onions, which is not really my thing.
At this point you can add some salt, some spices. I like smoked paprika, it really does a lot here. Then add the strained beans, and swirl them around. Again, I don’t know if this is true, but I tell myself that this gives the beans a second to really start soaking up the flavor of all the stuff in the pan. It’s nice to feel productive.
Now you take your stock or your water and you dump it into the pot. I like to make stock from whatever vegetable scraps and chicken bones I keep in the freezer. Some people consider boxed broth to be an abomination and say water is better if you don’t have homemade. But the world is ending, so go with what you have. Bring it to a boil, reduce to a simmer.
Here is where you really get to freestyle. Maybe you go back to sit at your desk, then think of something to add to the pot, then add it give it a few purposeful stirs with a spoon, then go back to your desk, and so on. Here are some things you can add at this stage, and which you will later remove:
- Parmesan rinds (like paprika, these give you a lot of bang for your proverbial buck)
- Bay leaves
- A piece of bacon (I just ordered some Benton’s, which I freeze by wrapping pairs of bacon strips in parchment and keeping them in a ziploc so they don’t stick together—I forget whose idea this was but it wasn’t mine)
- Now that I think of it, maybe some dried mushrooms?
- Roasted garlic
- More olive oil!
- Sprigs of herbs (thyme is nice, especially if you have a clamshell of thyme that accidentally dried out in the fridge because you forgot to use it)
- You get the idea
Avoid adding anything super acidic, like anything tomato-based, until the end. People say acidic ingredients will keep the beans from cooking properly, and they will stay hard. Who knows.
Usually the beans cook for about an hour. Every fifteen minutes or so I’ll come back to the pot and taste the bean cooking liquid. I’ll usually add a little pinch of salt. Try not to oversalt your beans, because that always makes me feel sad.
The best part of cooking a big pot of beans is not the beans but the liquor. Bean liquor is delicious. It’s like stock but better. Here’s what I like to do: take a scoop of beans and some bean liquid—enough that this looks like soup, not stew. Bring to a boil in a little pan, then add tiny, tiny pasta. I like ditalini (fun to say). Cook until the pasta is cooked, then top with a little olive oil, a tiny squeeze of lemon juice, and some parsley. This is just regular old food but it will make you very happy.