Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easy Peasy Dried Beans

Two of the biggest questions I often hear about going vegan involves expense and meal planning - specifically, how do you figure out what to cook and keep the cost reasonable?

Like any diet you pursue, vegan or otherwise, planning ahead is one of the best things that you can do to tackle both of these problems.  If you live in the real world, though, "planning ahead" may not be in your habit pattern or, frankly, your vocabulary. While I certainly don't want to discourage you from planning ahead, there's no need to feel guilty if you can't think past your next meal, much less what you will be eating for a week.

I am one of these latter folks. Some weeks, I've got a perfect meal plan all set up on Sunday, with the shopping and food prep done, and we are ready to execute. Then there are other weeks where I open up the fridge and desperately hope there's at least a container of Whole Soy & Company yogurt in there so at least I have breakfast worked out, and whatever you do DON'T ASK ABOUT DINNER.

One of the best tricks I've figured out for both of these meal planning scenarios is to have some beans on hand. I'm not going to get into the merits of beans - there has been enough written on their awesomeness that I don't need to get into much detail here. They are also extremely versatile, which I plan to tackle in future posts. But let's be real - they can also be super annoying.

How can the humble bean be annoying? Basically, you've got to make a decision: canned or dried. You can't beat the convenience of canned beans; crack open that can and you're ready to go. If you prefer minimally processed food, though, then there's no question that dried is better than canned. Canned beans are also relatively more expensive: I can spend $2 on a one-pound bag of organic dried beans and end up with multiple cups of cooked beans, or I can spend $1.19 on a can of organic beans and yield, well, a can of beans. Now, with this said, in the processed food/expensive spectrum, neither of these violations are particularly egregious, so if you prefer to keep canned beans in the house, I tip my hat to you. If, however, you prefer to go the dried bean route, you will end up with healthier product at a fraction of the price.

But oh, dried beans, what a pain you are to make, what with your soaking and rinsing and boiling and taking several hours to get done. Ugh. That is, until I watched one of my close friends make a delicious dinner, using a slow cooker and zero soaking of beans. ZERO SOAKING OF BEANS. So I found the recipe, adapted it a bit, and realized I could use the crock pot to prep my beans and stick them in the fridge or freezer or ahead of time with almost no effort.

I admit, I still have to make these ahead of time, but I can prep these beans on a whim, without planning for soaking time or being close to the stove at all times. I can basically rinse out some beans, pop them in the slow cooker, and run errands or go about my day while the beans are preparing themselves. And Greg often prepares these beans, too; he will notice that our bean supply is low, so he'll just knock out a quick batch while he's working on other things. It's a huge help! I used to stray away from the slow cooker for making beans because I've read all kinds of things online about getting an uneven product, but I have to tell you, I have now prepped beans this way countless times and never had a problem.

So here we go!

First, figure out what beans you want to use. This recipe should basically work for any bean; Two BIG warnings though:
- NEVER use this recipe for red kidney beans. Kidney beans contain a naturally occurring toxin that the old version of bean prep knocks out...but I'm not confident that the slow cooker can neutralize this toxin. As a result, in my house, we eat canned kidney beans, where this toxin is never a problem. In my mind, it's worth the slight extra cost for the peace of mind.
- There is no need to use a slow cooker to prep lentils or split peas; these are quick cooking, non-soaking beans that should just be prepped on the stove (although there are plenty of delicious slow cooker recipes that utilize lentils or split peas - and in those cases, have fun!).

Anyway, for this example, I used about 2 cups of black beans. Two cups is pretty standard in my house, but I've used more and less; I find it doesn't really matter.

 Place the beans in a strainer and give them a good rinse, sorting out beans that are broken or just generally look unappetizing and removing any rocks that may have accidentally gotten in there. (I remember reading that tip once, thinking it was weird and unlikely, and then one time actually finding rocks.)

Place the beans in the insert of any slow cooker, then fill up the insert with water until it's nearly full (leave maybe an inch or two at the top.

Cover and cook on high - that's it! Check after about 3 1/2 hours, but the beans should be pretty well cooked after four hours. You'll know they are done because they are soft and tender to bite into without dissolving into mush, or, if you are a visual person, you should be able to pull on the skin of the bean and it easily pulls away.

When the beans are done, dump them in the strainer and rinse them with cold water. This does two things. First, it stops the cooking process. Second, if you are like me and sometimes (which means often) forget about the beans and they are a bit overcooked, this will help firm the beans back up. (In related news, if you think you overcooked your beans, fear not! They will be fine, usable, and still delicious after the cold water rinse! If you're still not convinced, pop them in the freezer. I promise - it's really okay.)

At this point, do as you please! I usually put some in the fridge and the rest in the freezer, and then they are ready for my use when I am having a meal prep panic attack.

Happy Bean Eating to you  and yours!!

Easy Slow Cooker Beans

Up to one pound of beans (do NOT use kidney beans/red beans or lentils or split peas)

1) Place up to one pound of beans in a strainer. Rinse and pick through the beans to remove broken beans and anything that shouldn't be in there.
2) Put beans in a slow cooker insert; fill with water, leaving 1-2 inches of space at the top.
3) Cook beans on high for 3 1/2-4 hours, until beans are soft and tender to bite. You should be able to pull on the skin of the bean and it easily pulls away.
4) Rinse beans in a strainer with cold water.

Beans are now ready to go in any recipe or can be put in the fridge or frozen.

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