Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Cheap Eats: Black Beans

We are on a student budget while Joel is getting his MBA, so sometimes I have to be a little creative to get our grocery budget to stretch. One thing we really like to have is black beans. I prepare them from the one pound bag you buy at the grocery store.

It is a little daunting to start cooking with dry beans, but there are numerous health benefits to adding them to your diet. You can cook up a whole bunch at once and freeze them. They are great to add to soups or casseroles to make the other ingredients stretch a little, and they add great flavor. There is no real recipe, but here are the cooking tips I've used:

(Don't be scared! It looks like there are more steps than there are, and while it takes them a while to cook, you actually only have to help them along for a few minutes--your stove does all the work!)

  • Wash the beans off and make sure there are no small rocks or twigs in the bag (yes, it can happen, but it's normal).
  • The fresher the beans, the more quickly they will cook. You can expect it to take anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 2 1/2 hours for older beans.
  • If you would like to reduce cooking time, you can soak the beans overnight in a covered pot by covering the beans with water (make sure the water is two inches higher than the beans). If your kitchen is very warm, it is advisable to put the pot in the refrigerator so the beans don't ferment.
  • If you are planning to use these beans for a salad or other recipe where they must absolutely remain whole, do not soak them overnight, as this can result in beans that fall apart more easily.
In the morning, you can pull them out, drain the water, fill up the pot with fresh water, and simmer on the stove for a couple of hours.

If you did not pre-soak the beans, this is a good way to cook them:
  • Combine 1 pound of beans with about 8 cups of water. Simmer for a few minutes, then turn the stove off and remove from heat. Cover and let stand for one hour. Drain and rinse. Add more water and bring back to boiling; reduce heat. Cook for an hour or two until the beans are tender.
  • Do not salt the beans until they are done; the salt will prevent them from getting tender.
  • When they are done, you can pull them out and serve them with salads, rice, or any number of things.
HOWEVER, my favorite way to have these beans is to follow these next steps (it's more effort, but well worth it.)
  1. take the beans (with a little water from the pot) and put them in an oven-safe dish with a lid. Add salt, pepper, diced onion, minced garlic, and if you have it on hand, a few strips of bacon laying on top of the beans.
  2. Cook at 350 for an hour or two or until the beans become even more tender. They will have just started to fall apart which results in a nice, thick "saucy" texture amongst the remaining whole beans.
  3. Remove from oven and top with freshly chopped cilantro.
This last step with the oven really adds some good flavor and texture to the beans. You can eat them like this plain or over yellow rice. We also like to put it in quesadillas on those nights we feel like having something a little different (you'll never want to go back to regular refried beans after this).

Remember, you can cook these up on a free day and keep them in your freezer for a quick add to soups or other recipes. At a little over a dollar for a pound of beans (yields 6 cups cooked), it is a real bargain, especially if you use it as the main protein in your meal.

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