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BEANS: They're easy to cook, and easy on the budget

Beans, high in folate, fiber and antioxidants, can help lower cholesterol. (Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star)
Beans, high in folate, fiber and antioxidants, can help lower cholesterol. (Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star) MCT

Beans, beans ... they're good for your heart, your budget and your palate.

One of nature's most nutritious foods — full of fiber and protein, and virtually fat free — they also are one of the market's cheapest. A pound of dried beans (easily enough to feed four people) costs less than $2; a 15-ounce can (the basis of a fine meal for two) runs about 75 cents. And because they are such a great and healthy value, pretty much every culture has come up with a delicious way to cook them.

Few culinary tasks are as easy as opening a can of beans, but cooking dried beans from scratch is a close second. Kitchen lore about cooking beans abounds — soak, don't soak, salt, don't salt — all of which makes it sound a lot more complicated than it is.

SORTING AND RINSING: Before you cook them, go through the dried beans to make sure there are no pebbles or other foreign objects stowed away in the package. You also should remove any discolored or shriveled specimens.

Rinse the beans by putting them in a bowl, covering them with cold water, then scooping them out with a slotted spoon.

SOAKING: Soaking beans speeds up the cooking because the beans have already started to absorb water before you start to cook them.

Traditionally, beans are either soaked in cold water overnight or are subjected to an equivalent "quick soak" in which they are placed in a pot with a few inches of cold water to cover, brought to a boil for two to three minutes, then taken off the heat to sit, covered, for an hour.

When I happen to think about beans a day in advance of cooking them, I might soak them overnight. But I usually don't soak them at all.

SALTING: Another bit of traditional wisdom says you shouldn't salt beans while they cook because it will toughen the skins. I can find no scientific basis for this, and I have never found it to be true. What I have found to be true is that beans cooked in unsalted water taste like nothing. As they cook, beans triple in volume, and that increase is from the water they absorb. If that water has no taste, neither will the beans. I add about a tablespoon of kosher salt to the water in which I cook a pound of dried beans. (The presence of acid in the cooking water will toughen the beans, so add any lemon juice or tomatoes at the very end of cooking.)

COOKING: You can cook beans in just salted water, or you can get fancy and add some aromatic vegetables. Make sure whatever else you put in the water is large enough to retrieve when the beans are done — the aromatics will be far too tasteless to serve. Quarter an onion through its root end and put it in the bean pot along with a couple of cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of parsley or a rib of celery, a carrot, a few bay leaves and/or a ham hock, a chicken carcass, an expended rind of Parmesan.

Cover the beans with at least 2 inches of salted water, bring the whole works to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer. Set the pot's cover askew, and then go do something else. Check on the beans every so often to make sure there is always some liquid covering them — if the level dips below an inch, add water. Keep cooking until they are tender — this can take from one to four hours, depending on the size of the beans and how old they are — and if there's too much liquid left at that point, uncover the pot, turn up the heat and boil, stirring often so the beans at the bottom don't burn.

SERVING: Once the beans are cooked — or you have succeeded in opening a can — add them to a pan in which you've sautéed some onions, carrots and celery, and serve the mixture over rice or pasta. You could add some cut-up sausage as well. Or extend the mixture with some broth and make a soup, some of which you could purée in the blender or with an immersion blender. Or chill the beans and combine with some chopped onion and celery and herbs and maybe some canned tuna for a hearty salad.

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