Bean Fest, Episode 4: Frijoles Refritos

Refritos are not photogenic, so I decided to show the more tempting end use. Photo by Ernesto Andrade.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I can’t believe I’ve never made frijoles refritos--refried beans–before. All these years of scooping that suspicious stuff out of the can–what was I thinking??? Now I see refritos as the natural destiny of any leftover beans.

Refried beans (that name is a mistranslation–refrito means well cooked, not re-fried, but the name stuck) are simply cooked beans that are mashed in a frying pan along with some seasonings and fat. What makes them a little shady to the health conscious and vegetarian set is that they are traditionally fried in lard. But vegetable oil can be used just as well, and I’d add for the sake of fairness, that real, home cooked lard from well-raised pigs is not such a bad fat. For what it’s worth.

To make refried beans you just need to have some cooked beans on hand, the classic choice being pintos.  In Tex-Mex cooking the pintos meant for refritos are first cooked with onion, garlic and a pork rind. Considering that refritos are fried in a bath in oil, garlic and onion, you could theoretically start with very plain boiled beans. But on the other hand, if the beans are tasty at the start, they’ll just be all that more tasty after frying with yet more onion and garlic. Which brings us back to the idea of them being the perfect use for leftover beans. I think this would work well with any leftover beans, whatever the type.

I cooked up my pintos for dual purpose eating. Half were to go over rice, and half reserved for this experiment, so I my beans weren’t plain. Because I liked John’s Bastardized Puerto Rican beans from last week so much, I followed that technique and did a long saute of onion, garlic and parsley in the bottom of the bean pot, then added the drained, pre-soaked pintos and enough stock to cover the beans by about an inch. These I simmered uncovered for a little more than an hour until everything was tender, then I added lots of salt and pepper.

The leftovers from that batch were put in the fridge overnight to become frijoles refritos.

If you read a refried bean recipe, it will ask you to drain your cooked beans and reserve the bean stock. So if you have a pot of beans with lots of liquid, do that: drain and reserve the liquid. My cooked beans were cold, and whatever liquid they still had around them had congealed into a sort of bean gravy.  Don’t worry if that’s true for you–don’t worry about any of it. Refritos are so easy to make its impossible to go wrong. Keep reading.

Just get yourself a big frying pan. Heat up a couple tablespoons of oil or fat of your choice in the bottom. Add a good quantity of minced onion. (I used 1/2 an onion for 3 cups of beans). Saute until the onion turns translucent. Then add in a clove or two of minced garlic, if you like, and cook that for another minute or so. If you like spicy beans, at this point you could also add some chopped fresh hot peppers or some red pepper flakes.

Once this flavor base is established, add a couple of cups of cooked beans to the pan and mash them with a potato masher or back of a spatula, stirring as you go to mix in all the fat and flavor. Here’s a little hint: if you’re making a big batch, don’t put all your beans in the pan at once, because smashing them will become a nightmare. Start with a couple of cups, mash those, then add more bit by bit.

Your goal is to make the beans into a paste, so you have take them to the correct level of dryness–and that is going to be dictated by your own personal preference. So if you’re smashing up well drained beans, you’d add the reserved liquid back in 1/4 cup at a time, until the beans had reached the consistency you like. In my case, I couldn’t separate the beans and liquid in my leftovers. As it turned out, they mashed up a little too wet, but the excess moisture quickly cooked off. If they’d seemed too dry, I would have just added a little water–or stock, if I had some.

That’s really all there is to it. It only takes a few minutes. Taste the beans as you go and adjust the seasoning. More salt is always a good call. It’s up to you whether you want a chunky or smooth texture. Make the beans richer, almost silky, by adding a little more oil or fat as you’re mashing and cooking.

Once they’re done, they’re ready for all the classic applications: burritos, quesadillas, sopes, tostadas, dips. They’re also good eaten with a spoon, hot out of a bowl with a little cheese and maybe some diced tomatoes or avocado on top.

***

Bean Fest continues next Friday! If you have a favorite recipe, send it in.

Back on the Yogurt Train: How to Make Yogurt

This is how I want my yogurt.
Dadiah, traditional West Sumatran water buffalo yogurt, fermented in bamboo segments. Courtesy of Wikimedia. Photo by Meutia Chaeran.
Mrs. Homegrown here:
One reason I make a lot of my own stuff is because I’m trying to avoid plastic packaging. And as I’m sure you know, that’s pretty much impossible these days–but I do what I can. Lately I’ve realized that one consistent source of waste plastic in our kitchen comes in the form of yogurt tubs. This is a little silly, because we know how to make yogurt. In fact, I do believe we covered it in our book.
Thing is, back in the day when we made yogurt, it was Erik’s job. When he slacked on it, I didn’t even consider picking it up. Chalk it up to the mysteries of division of labor in a household.
Anyway, we went to see Mark Frauenfelder talk about his great new book, Made by Hand, and one of things he mentioned was how much he and his family are digging making their own yogurt–and how cost effective it’s been for them. He inspired me to get back on the yogurt train.
It’s so darn easy, we should all be on the yogurt train. One great thing about it is that it not only saves money, but it saves packaging, and gives you more bang for your milk buck. We only use milk for coffee around here, so sometimes our milk goes bad. Now we make most of it into yogurt and there’s no waste, no excess packaging. And if we make some of that yogurt into yogurt cheese or use it instead of sour cream, that saves more packaging.
How to Make Yogurt:
Here’s how I’m making yogurt these days–it might vary a little from Erik’s methodologies in our book, but all yogurt making is basically the same. You’ll need a cooler for this.
Gather together:
  1. A cooler to keep the yogurt warm while it ferments. I’m sure there are many ways to keep yogurt warm, but I find the cooler straightforward, and that’s what I’m going to describe here. We make two quarts at a time in a little six pack cooler.
  2. Very clean canning-type jars
  3. Hot water bottle (optional)
  4. Towel(s) for insulation
  5. Your last store bought container of yogurt. You need live yogurt to start the culture, only a few spoonfuls. The label should say something about containing live, active cultures. You’ll need 1 Tablespoon of live yogurt for every quart of milk you’re transforming.
  6. Milk, of course. Make sure your milk doesn’t say “Ultra Pasturized” or UP on the label. That stuff is just nasty. Otherwise, you can use whole, 2%, 1% — and even skim, I presume, though I’ve never tried it. How much milk? As much as you want. But it seems to me that for the trouble, a quart would be the minimum it would be worthwhile making. After all, it keeps a long time. 
The procedure:
  • Heat milk gently to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’ve got a thermometer, great. If you don’t, 180F is where the milk starts to simmer. Just watch for those first tiny bubbles to start rising. When they do, turn off the heat. (Heating the milk makes for thicker yogurt. You could skip this step if you like. I would skip it if I got my hands on some nice raw milk.)
  • Let the milk cool down to about 110F. This is the only hard part–waiting for it to cool. 110F is about as hot as a hot bath. You can put your finger in it and keep it there.
  • While you’re waiting, boil water to heat your jars. I like to fill my jars with boiling water, cap them, and let them sit until it’s time to use them, at which point I pour the water out. I know it’s not really sterilization, but it’s something, and it pre-heats the jars, which is important. You could also pull the jars straight from a hot dishwasher, or actually boil them. Also, you’ll want to pre-heat your cooler. Pour hot water in it as well and let it sit until the last moment. And fill up your hot water bottle, if you have one.
  • Stir in 1 Tablespoon of yogurt for every quart of milk in your pot. Use no more than that. Stir until dissolved.
  • Transfer the inoculated milk into warm jars, cap them, and stuff them into the warm cooler (which you’ve emptied of water). Do all this fast so you don’t lose much heat. Your mission is to fill the cooler up, so there’s no empty space, with some combination of jars of yogurt, towels and heating devices like hot water bottles or lacking one of those, just more jars filled with hot water. My routine is to put 2 quart jars in a six pack cooler, slide a hot water bottle between them, and pack the top of the cooler with an old towel, so that I can just barely manage to lock the lid in place.
  • The goal is to keep the yogurt very warm for about 8-12 hours. You might not be able to keep it at 110F the whole time, but it should be in that neighborhood. Certainly above body temperature. My set up described above seems to do that well enough. I’ve never checked the temp. inside, fearing to lose the heat. It just works.
  • After 8-12 hours the milk in the jars should look yogurty and taste yogurty. It might not appear thick enough, but remember that it is quite warm. It will thicken some after it goes in the fridge.
  • If it doesn’t look yogurty at all, add a smidge more starter, rewarm the cooler and everything, and try it again for another 8 hours. Consider that your starter–your store bought yogurt–may not be alive. Either that or the cooler wasn’t warm enough.

Bean Fest, Episode 3: Bastardized Puerto Rican Beans


Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s been a tough week here on the bean front. I had two beanfail incidents trying to come up with a recipe for this week. The first, an Armenian recipe for white beans, failed through no fault of its own but because the beans were hopelessly old. No matter how long I cooked them, they stayed crunchy, yet somehow also tasted overcooked. Shudder.

Meanwhile, I’d been obsessing on Cuban-style black beans, but fell into a deep well of confusion–as so commonly happens when trying to find practical info. on the interwebs. Vinegar, sherry or wine? Sugar–really? How much? When does the sofrito go in? Is pork truly optional?

Last night I set aside my Cuban plans in frustration and opened up Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian–a generally solid cooking resource. He had a recipe for black beans and rice cooked together in a pot in the oven. Intrigued, I gave it a try. I won’t disect the recipe here, but suffice it to say the results were perilously close to hippie slop. Erik thought it was not a bad recipe, just not one that can stand on its own. It was sort of like an extra hearty rice pilaf that perhaps wanted something big and savory to accompany it. We threw lots of Bulgarian feta on it and called it a night.

This morning I decided to try one more recipe for lunch, so I’d have something to post today. I’m glad I did, because it was super tasty. Hallelujah!!

It was sent in by one of our readers, John of Yome Sweet Yome. I’m glad he wrote in, because that way I discovered his blog. He and his partner I doing what I’ve always wanted to do: building their own house on a nice chunk of land in the beautiful Northwest. Go check it out. I think I might be doing some vicarious living via the blog reader for the next few months.

I like his voice, so I’m going to post the recipe as he sent it, rather than reshaping it into a more traditional recipe form, but I’ll add some of my own notes, and hope they’re more helpful than confusing.

John’s Bastardized Puerto Rican Beans

One of my favorite recipes is a bastardized version on a traditional Puerto Rican dish. It goes like so…

Start them nice and early in the day and invite friends over for dinner. Slow is the only way…. Everything tastes better with a heavy dose of expectation….

The bean does not humor any shortcuts. Soak (at least) overnight.
Start cooking pre-soaked beans in lightly salted water (or broth, if you’ve got it lying around and feel decadent). Give them a bit of a head start before you start the rest of the dish.

• I made this with black beans (though later he says he usually uses pintos or reds). My beans measured 1 cup unsoaked, and after overnight soaking, 2 cups. You’d probably want to use more beans than that, but this was all I had pre-soaked. I put them in a saucepan, covered them with water, about an inch over the top of the beans, brought them to a boil and then reduced them to a simmer. I didn’t salt the water, because I’m of the “salt toughens the skins” school. Do what thou wilt.

Finely chop up equal parts cilantro and parsley, stems and all. More than you think you’ll need. A good handful of each.
• He doesn’t mean a handful of chopped herbs–he means you should start with a big fat handful of stems. I used a full bunch of each, and it was not too much. See, you’re going to cook the beejezus out of them, so they’ll reduce. You need to start with lots. I really don’t think you can use too much.

Saute diced yellow onion in oil, or rendered bacon fat, should you be of the persuasion. When they get translucent, toss in a generous amount of chopped garlic and your parsley and cilantro.
• I used one big onion and 3 or 4 large cloves of garlic. And I’d keep that 1 onion to 1 cup of dried beans proportion if I made a bigger batch. I did all of my chopping in the food processor. I usually chop onions and stuff with a knife, but I was in a hurry. In retrospect, I think it was good that everything was chopped very fine. So if you’re knife chopping, put in that extra effort.

Cook until it turns somewhere between a hunter green and brown in color. Deglaze with white wine or stock.

• This made me laugh. Hunter green? I like that he was color specific because I am afraid of overcooking, so I tend to undercook. The herbs looked gorgeous when they hit the heat and turned bright green. That’s where I would stop cooking if left to my own devices. But I understood that deglazing means scraping yummy brown bits off the bottom of a pan, and that meant that the herbs had to cook toward brown. Or at least hunter green. What this all means is that you will have to attend your onion/garlic/herb mix over medium heat, stirring pretty frequently, as you watch the pretty herbs turn from bright green to dull green. The onions will become more golden, and the volume will shrink down. I didn’t take it to brown, but it was definitely drab by the time I called it quits. Sort of army green. I splashed white wine around the edges of the pan and stirred everything up to collect any caramelized bits. He says you can use stock to deglaze instead, but the wine really zings up the flavors. And the smell was heavenly.
Add some pureed tomato and mix until you have an applesauce-y consistency. Strain your beans and add them to the pan, adding just enough liquid keep them covered. Put the fire on low and let the whole shebang cook for a good long time, stirring it occasionally.


• Pureed tomato? hmmm… I wondered if he meant tomato paste. But I decided to throw some canned plum tomatoes in the food processor, since it was out anyway. I added about 1 cup of the resulting puree to the pan and mixed well. The result didn’t scream applesauce, but it was a festive red and green. And it was thick.

Then I strained the cooking water off the beans, combined them with the puree, add added enough veg stock to cover all of it, and returned it to a simmer.

My black beans must have been extra fresh, because after a half hour of cooking by themselves while I did the other stuff, they were already tender enough to eat. But I understood that this was supposed to be a long cooking recipe, that long simmering would allow the combined flavors to marry, so I let them cook on for about 30 or 35 minutes more, adding stock and stirring to make sure they didn’t burn. But I was starving and Erik was nosing around, so that was all the time they got. Still, it was gooooood. But there’s more instructions to come–salt and pepper make an appearance, as does sour cream….

This is usually where I throw a jalapeno or bell pepper on the fire and roast them for later.
• Oh yes–I scorched whole jalapenos in a cast iron pan while I cooked down the onions and stuff.
When the beans are cooked through, season with salt, pepper and cumin. Add your chopped up roasted peppers and serve over rice with a dollop of sour cream and call it Sofrito! Unless you’re serving it to a Puerto Rican, in which case don’t call it anything, and you didn’t get the recipe from me!

• Sorry John. Now the whole internet knows you’ve taken liberties with Puerto Rican cuisine. Good thing you live in some undisclosed woodland location!

So yes, toward the end I added plenty of salt and pepper and cumin, and for thrills another splash of white wine. I was cooking black beans, and I think they can taste kind of dull without the help of some acid. But other beans might not want all this wine.

I usually use red or pintos. For a twist, use chickpeas and add some diced potatoes and turmeric for a more middle eastern taste.
Hoorah!

• Hoorah is right. These are the kind of beans I love. Savory. Luscious with sour cream or yogurt. And they really weren’t hard to make at all. The long cooking of the onion, garlic and herbs at the beginning gives it a deep flavor underpinning that just doesn’t happen when you just sort of throw onions, beans and spices together and hope for the best. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

I only wish I’d made two or three times as much. 2 cups of soaked beans makes about enough to feed two hungry people. I wish I had leftovers, because I suspect it would have been better the next day.


Bean Fest, Episode 2: Falafel and Babaganoush Recipes

Welcome back to Bean Fest 2010, our ongoing celebration of the humble dried bean.

Last week we got a lot of great tips and hints in the comments. If you haven’t read those, I’d encourage you to take a peek. We also got a couple of recipes via email that we’re going to test out. Thanks, ya’ll! Again, if anyone has a favorite bean recipe, please send it this way ([email protected]).

One lesson to take away from last week is that beans do quite well in solar ovens, crockpots and the newer pressure cookers, and that if you eat a lot of beans, one of these devices would be a useful investment. I really wish I had any one of those items! We have a light, homemade solar cooker–as opposed to a more sturdy, enclosed solar oven–which is handy for grains, but really doesn’t have enough ooomph for consistent bean cooking. And we’re lacking in both space and money for new kitchen gadgets. So around here we’re stuck cooking beans on the stovetop. Seems everyone has their own bean cooking methodologies. This is mine, for what its worth:

  • Pre-soak beans for about 8 hours. Oversoaking can lead to mushy beans.
  • Rinse soaked beans and place in a heavy pot with 2 inches of water covering them. Simmer until done–however long that takes. Sometimes the bean gods are merciful, sometimes they are not. Never cook beans on a deadline. Cook them when you have plenty of time and other things to do around the kitchen.
  • Don’t salt ’til they’re almost done, because salt toughens the skins.

There seems to be a split in camps between people who a) cook the beans first, unseasoned, then incorporate them into a dish, b) throw onions & etc. into the water with the beans and let it all boil together, and c) people who do a saute of the onions & etc. at the bottom of the pan before adding the beans. I don’t know if any of these methods are better than the others, and admit to doing all three.

This Week’s Recipe: Falafel

The first lesson in food photography is not to consume your subject before you even get around to taking the picture. These few falafels were all we had left when we realized we needed to take a pic for this post.

I was thinking that a lot of people are just plain intimidated by cooking dried beans, so perhaps it would be fun to start out with a bean recipe that allows you to just skip all that trauma. Back in the day, Erik and I would sometimes make falafel out of that powdery stuff you buy in bulk bins. It tended to be salty and dry, but it was quick food. We were amazed to discover how easy it is to make real falafel–and how good the result is. Unlike bulk bin stuff, this falafel is moist and light and tender.

The secret is that it is made with raw chickpeas. They are soaked and ground up–but not cooked. This gives the falafel great texture and fresh flavor. You should not substitute canned or cooked beans in this recipe. If you do, the balls won’t hold together very well. If you must use canned beans, you’ll need to add some bread or cracker crumbs, and possibly even an egg, to create a dough which will hold together.

The other thing about this recipe is that it is very, very flexible. I’d encourage you to adapt this any way you think best.

We make this in our food processor. If you don’t have one, I’d suspect it could be done in batches in a mortar. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, then you’d have to come up with some way to squish the beans. Perhaps in a bag with a rolling pin? The greens and the rest could be minced and stirred into the bean mash.

You’ll need:

(This quantity will make wraps for 4)

  • Dried chickpeas (aka garbanzos), 1 cup
  • Chopped greens/herbs: about 3 generous fistfuls. We usually use 2 handfuls of parsley and 1 handful of mint. But if we don’t have that, we improvise. Any flavorful green would work: mint, parsley, cilantro, chives, basil, flavorful wild potherbs, etc. Arugula works too, and even less flavorful greens, like spinach, will do in pinch.
  • Garlic, 2 or more cloves
  • Onion, about 1/2 of a reasonably sized onion, chopped (optional, could also be replaced with green onion)
  • Salt, about a teaspoon
  • Spices to taste. Here things get really individual. Spice as you please. We usually add about a teaspoon of cumin and a couple of big pinches of cayenne pepper.

Soak the beans for about 8 hours. You can put them out to soak at breakfast to make falafel for dinner. The one cup of beans will expand to 2 cups when soaked.

Toss the beans, garlic, onion, salt and spices into the food processor, along with a glug of olive oil. Whirl until you can’t see whole beans anymore. Add another glug of olive oil and all the greens. Let it whirl until the greens are cut down to speck size. The mix should be a pleasant spring green. Taste and add more salt or whatever you think necessary. Don’t mix it until it turns to smooth paste. Stop while it still has a little texture. Add olive oil to smooth it out, as necessary. When its done, it will be wet and light, but you should be able to easily roll the mix into balls.

At this point it would be fantastic if you could let the mix rest in the fridge for an hour or two for the flavors to blend and the mix to stiffen up, but you don’t have to.

Roll up a bunch of balls, or small patties, if you’re a patty person. We make balls that are smaller than golf balls. More like big gum balls. Or mountain state hail.

At this point you can deep fry or pan fry the balls. You could probably bake them, too, if you want to be righteously healthy, but we can’t advise you on time and temp.

We usually cook them via a method I call “half-assed deep frying.” Being somewhat too guilty minded (and cheap) to actually cook up a whole vat of hot oil and fry the falafel like a good falafel should be fried, I pour about a half inch of oil (I use grapeseed) into my littlest cast iron frying pan and heat that till it sizzles when I drop a bit of falafel mix into it. Then I put the balls in, about 5 or 6 at a time. The oil covers them about half way. When the bottoms are golden, I flip them and cook the other side. It doesn’t cost much oil. And while it doesn’t give that perfect crispness of true submersion deep frying, it tastes pretty darn good.

Serve your falafels wrapped in some sort of flat bread along with salad fixins, especially chopped tomatoes and onions. Good toppings include yogurt, tahini, hummus and baba ganoush.

Do you know how to make baba ganoush? Baba ganoush is eggplant spread, a close cousin to hummus, but lighter, and to my mind, better.

A Quick Baba Ganoush Recipe

All you need is eggplant, garlic, tahini , olive oil and lemon.

Take one huge eggplant or a few smaller ones, prick a few holes in them so they don’t explode and put them in a 400-450 degree oven on a baking sheet for about 45 minutes, or until they wrinkle and go flat on the bottom. Then cut them down the middle and scoop out the flesh into a mixing bowl. The skins could go to chickens, worms or compost.

From here, you could mix everything in a food processor or blender, or just use a fork if you don’t mind a more stringy texture. Even if I use power tools, I try to keep the baba ganoush a little lumpy. Stir in tahini to taste. To me, that means that if I have 2 cups of eggplant goop, I’d probably add 1/4 cup of tahini.

Mince up your garlic fine and stir that in next. How much garlic depends on how much bite you want the baba to have. 1 clove minimum, much more theoretically. Add salt to taste, and pepper, or hot pepper, if you like. Add a swirl of olive oil to give it some richness. The finishing touch is fresh lemon juice, and it’s an absolute must. Try adding about half a lemon’s worth of juice, see how that tastes, and go from there.

Baba ganoush tastes best if its allowed to chill for a couple of hours before serving. It’s pretty easy to whip up a batch of falafel mix and baba ganoush at the same time, and then put it all in the fridge until dinner time. Then it only takes a few minutes to fry up the falafel, and you’re good to go.

Scarlet Runner Bean Stew

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Apparently a block away, Mrs. Homegrown has also been having bean cravings. Maybe there is something in the air. Maybe its just that beans are hearty, filling, inexpensive and all around awesome. I happened to get my hands on a bag of dried scarlet runner beans from Rancho Gordo specialty beans.

Scarlet runners are a favorite garden bean as they are great climbers and produce beautiful red flowers. If you want to grow a bean teepee or need to cover a chain link fence, they would be a good plant choice. In fact, my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown, grow them every summer.
 
I’ve never had scarlet runners as a dried bean before. But having lived in co-ops in Berkeley for many years, I am pretty experienced at cooking dried beans, other legumes and whole grains.
When it comes to dried beans I almost always do the overnight soak method. To soak beans overnight, simply place your beans in a large pot. Rinse them and pick out any stones or broken beans. Fill the pot up 3/4 of the way with water and let soak overnight or for at least five hours. After their soak you may need to add more water. The beans can soak up a lot. Then cook on medium to high heat for about an hour. Test a bean. How done you want your beans is rather subjective. If you want to use them in a salad, you may want them a little more firm. But if you want to make refried beans, they need to be extra soft. Just taste and see what you think. I like my beans nice and soft but not falling apart.
So to cook the scarlet runner beans I placed them in the 3 quart enameled pot that goes with my solar cooker, filled it the rest of the way with water and let the beans soak overnight. The next day I admired the fat, swollen beans. I threw in a few bay leaves and put the pot in the solar cooker around 9 a.m.. I arrived home around 4 p.m. and my beans were done.

They are big and meaty, but still rather bland. I’m going to eat them for dinner tonight and this is what I’m going to do to flavor them: I’ll keep the pot liquor (the water the beans cooked in). In a separate skillet I’ll heat some oil and saute onions, garlic, maybe a few pieces of celery then add some mushrooms. I really recommend cooking the onions and mushrooms in butter for extra flavor. But since I’m making tonight’s dish vegan, I’m going to cook them in coconut oil. Then I’ll add the cooked onions and mushrooms to the beans on low heat. Then add 1 -2 teaspoons of ground cumin and a dash of cayenne.Yum.

Bean Fest Begins!

Photograph by Luisfi

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve never figured out why sometimes the body craves junk food (e.g. salt and pepper ruffle chips dipped in sour cream with a side of home baked brownies) and other times it craves good food. But fortunately for my system, I’m craving good food now. I dream about fresh cooked beans, succulent greens and garlic laden pickles. The image above makes me salivate.

Yet…dried beans are also a bit of a mystery to me. A well-cooked pot of beans is a revelation: creamy, rich, flavorful. One of my most memorable meals ever was a simple plate of black beans over white rice. The black beans just happened to be spiced to perfection with some sort of rare cumin. It was delicious beyond describing. The cook had mastered the hidden art of beans. As homey and friendly as beans are, they can be tricky. Make a couple of misteps in cooking and you end up with bland hippie slop. These days I get it right more than I get it wrong, but I’m always looking to improve.

So I’m crowd-sourcing my bean quest. Let’s celebrate the humble bean and all its possibilities. Beans are the ultimate recessionary food, after all, and we’re all looking for ways to eat better and spend less. Every Friday from now through the end of September we’re going to be posting about beans.

What I’d like to hear from readers today is bean cooking tips–do you pre-soak or long cook? Do you cook in water or broth? When do you add salt? Which herbs pair best with which beans? What are your favorite beans to cook? What would you tell a newbie bean cooker? Who taught you how to cook dried beans?

Also, throughout this month we’ll be collecting and testing bean recipes to post on Fridays. If you have a favorite dried-bean-based recipe that you’d like to share, please send it in to our email address: [email protected] We’ll test it and post about it. We promise not to be mean! This isn’t Celebrity Bean Dish Slap-Down. This is group learning.

Let Bean Fest Begin!

Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe

Few plants have as many uses as the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica). In our climate it grows like a weed, with no supplemental irrigation, and produces a voluminous amount of edible pads and fruit. In addition to food, Opuntia provides medicinal compounds, a hair conditioner, building materials and habitat for the red dye producing cochineal scale insect. As for the fruit, you can consume it raw, dry it or make jelly. Several years ago I posted a recipe for prickly pear jelly. But the large amount of sugar in that recipe, in my opinion, covered up the subtle taste of the fruit. I’ve concocted a new prickly pear jelly using low-sugar pectin that substantially reduces the amount of sugar.

Low Sugar Prickly Pear Jelly
4 cups prickly pear juice (requires around four pounds of fruit)
1/2 cup lemon juice
3 cups sugar
1 package low sugar pectin (1.75 ounces)

1. Burn off the spines by holding the fruit over a burner on the stove for a few seconds.
2. Quarter the fruit and place in a pot. Cover with water (around 2 1/2 cups). Boil for ten minutes. Crush the fruit with a potato masher.  Update 12/5/2012: I now recommend using a food mill, though the boiling technique also works. See our post on using a food mill to juice prickly pear fruit.
3. Strain through two sheets of cheesecloth placed in a colander. Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and give the pulp a squeeze to extract as much juice as you can.
4. Pour four cups of the prickly pear juice into a pot and add a half cup of lemon juice.
5. Mix a quarter cup of the sugar and a package of low/no sugar pectin and add to the juice.
6. Bring the mixture to a full boil.
7. Add the remaining sugar and bring back to a full boil. Boil for one minute, stirring constantly.
8. Pour into six 8 oz jars.
9. Process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.

Prickly pear fruit (called “tuna” in Mexico) come in a variety of colors. My plants make an orange fruit that matures in August. I love the taste of the fresh fruit, but it’s a bit of an acquired taste due to the abundant seeds and the nasty spines (technically called glochids).

Unlike a lot of jelly recipes floating around the interwebs, I guarantee that this one works. It basically follows the ratios and instructions for red raspberry jelly as detailed in the Sure Jell pectin box. In my experience with jam and jelly recipes, sticking with the directions in the pectin box yields consistent results. And stay tuned for a video I shot on how to make this jelly.

Update: Green Roof Grower Bruce wrote to suggest using Pomonas Universal Pectin to reduce the sugar level of this recipe even further. I’m going to give it a try. In the meantime the folks behind Pomona’s have a very similar recipe for prickly pear jelly that uses less sugarhere (pdf).
Update 8/28/2010:  I tried the Pomonas Universal Pectin prickly pear jelly recipe linked to above. It works, and uses one cup less sugar than my recipe above. The color is also more vibrant due to the larger percentage of fruit. However, both Mrs. Homegrown and Homegrown Neighbor found the more gelatinous consistency of the Pomonas prickly pear jelly objectionable. Verdict: for now I’m going to stick with SureJell or equivalent.

More Fun With Food Preservation

Homegrown Neighbor here:

I realized the other day that I had too much produce and decided to do something about it. There is kale coming out of my ears, celery wilting in the fridge, lettuce is bursting out of the garden and some of my farmer friends gave me a bunch of bell peppers they were just going to throw away. So I decided to use one of the easiest food preservation techniques around- freezing.
The kale, celery, bell peppers and some sad looking carrots were the most pressing candidates for preservation. The kale I washed, roughly chopped, blanched in boiling water and then let it cool for a few minutes before putting it into freezer bags. Quick and simple. Now I can add the frozen kale to pasta dishes, eggs, soups, stir fry or many other dishes.
Then I diced the celery, bell peppers and carrots and a few cloves of garlic. I snacked on some slices of bell pepper along the way.
Next I placed the mixture into ice cube trays then filled the trays with water. The result is some lovely, colorful veggie cubes. After a night in the freezer I took the cubes out of the trays and put them into freezer bags as well. I have been using these to add to a lot of soups and sauces. The cubes impart a lot of flavor so I’m really happy with them. The frozen cube method is popular for preserving basil or pesto but can be used in so many fun ways. I encourage you to get creative and let whatever is sitting in the fridge or wilting on the kitchen counter inspire you.

Kale, Pomegranate and Persimmon Salad

Homegrown Neighbor here:

Season’s Eatings.

I made this salad for a party recently and again for Thanksgiving. I had so many people asking for the recipe, I figured I might as well share it with everyone. I love the deep green of the kale with the bright orange of the persimmons. The colors feel very festive and seasonal. Kale may not be a vegetable you think about eating raw. If so, this salad will change your mind. All of a sudden, I can’t eat enough raw kale.
I feel fantastic after loading up on a big bowl.
The recipe:

1 bunch black kale (also called Tuscan or dinosaur kale)
2 medium sized fuyu persimmons
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

For the dressing:
1 tablespoon olive or grapeseed oil
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon, a dash of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. You can use soy sauce or tamari, but I think Bragg’s is best.
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil

Wash and chop kale. Cut the tops off of the persimmons and cut into chunks, about 1/2″ cubes. To seed the pomegranate, place it in a bowl of water and cut in half. Then proceed to remove the seeds. This takes the mess out of the pomegranate. If you remove the seeds underwater, you never get stains on your clothes. The seeds float to the bottom and the white pithy part floats. Mix everything together in one big bowl, serve and enjoy.
Variations: You can always use apples instead of persimmons for that slightly sweet crunch. Shredded carrot
could also be nice and colorful. Adding a tablespoon of either tahini or peanut butter to the dressing adds flavor and makes it creamier. But if you are doing
the tahini or peanut butter dressing, I recommend mixing the dressing in a jar first so that everything
melds together. A little dash of mustard helps emulsify the dressing.

Prickly Pear Fruit Chips

Prickly pear fruit chip–some specimens are purple, our produces orange fruit

It’s prickly pear fruit season. I know this both by the view out our front window and from the comments trickling in on an old post on how to make prickly pear fruit jelly. Thanks to a tip from Oliva Chumacero at the Farmlab, I now have another way of dealing with an over-abundance of this spiny fruit: slice it and dry it to make prickly pear fruit chips.

  1. First remove the nasty spines (technically glochids, which are barbed and much more painful than the spines on the pads). I disarm the glochids by burning them off over a burner on the stove.
  2. Cut the fruit into thin slices and hack off the skins.
  3. Place in a dehydrator. We have a solar dehydrator, but a commercial one will also work, of course. If you live in a dry desert climate you can dry fruit in the sun under screens, but here in Los Angeles the air has too much moisture in it. Fruit would mold before it would be dry enough to store. I’m not a fan of oven drying either since there’s not enough air flow and you run the risk of cooking rather than dehydrating. A dehydrator, either electric or solar, is a great investment if you’ve got food to put up.
  4. When the prickly pear fruit has a leather-like consistency, enjoy. You swallow the hard seeds, making prickly pear fruit somewhat an acquired taste for some.
  5. Chumacero also mentioned that the young pads, “nopalitos” in Spanish, can also be dried for later use.

A note to the permaculturalists out there. It’s worth emphasizing that the prickly pear cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica, in my personal experience, is the single most productive plant in our small lot. It’s also the easiest to propagate, and thrives on neglect. It provides a tremendous amount of food for no work and no supplemental irrigation. We’d all do well with more of it around. In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying a winter of Opuntia chips.