Let’s get one thing straight.
Canned beans are never going to be as good as home-cooked dried beans, no matter how many seasonings you add to your pot.
You can do a whole lot better for not much more work cooking your own dried beans, once you get over the notion that they are fussy or in any way intimidating. Cooking up a pot of beans is one of the easiest ways to get dinner on the table. It may not be the fastest, but you can’t get any simpler.
Whether your resolution for the coming year is to eat more healthfully, cut back on meat, be more frugal, do more home cooking or prepare food ahead for the week, simmering a big pot of beans will help you get there and then some.
Even the simplest recipe for dried beans yields amazing results. Rinse your beans, put them in a pot covered with water and a spoonful of salt — yes, salt; more on this later — and let them simmer until they are tender but not mushy. This can take as little as 15 minutes for red lentils or as long as four hours for large, recalcitrant lima beans. Keep simmering. They will come around.
You don’t really need to soak your beans.
Soaking does have benefits. It will help beans cook faster and more evenly, and it can help leach out the intestinal-distress-causing sugars that some people are particularly sensitive to (though as you eat more beans, your gut adjusts). But it’s not do or die. If you are a planner or have a sensitive digestive system, go ahead and soak. You don’t need to do this the day before; even four hours of soaking will help the cause.
More spontaneous cooks can skip this step and just cook the beans a little longer; an extra hour or two should do it depending upon the variety of bean. One thing to note: Adding salt to the soaking water helps speed up cooking by breaking down the beans’ skins.
Whether or not you’ve soaked your beans, be sure to use lots of water for cooking them, covering them by at least 2 inches. And keep the water at a simmer (tiny bubbles) rather than a vigorous boil (rapidly bursting large bubbles). Cooking them gently stops them from moving around too much in the pot, which can burst their skins and make them mushy and waterlogged on the surface but still crunchy within. You’re aiming for uniformly creamy beans, and a low and slow simmer will get you there.
North African Bean Stew With Barley and Winter Squash
Yield: 8 to 10 servings; total time: 1 hour 45 minutes
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white and green parts, diced
1 bunch cilantro, leaves and stems separated
1 cup finely diced fennel, fronds reserved (1/2 large fennel bulb)
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 1/2 tablespoons baharat (found in Middle Eastern markets), or dashes of coriander, cumin, cloves and/or paprika
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 quarts chicken or vegetable broth
1/2 cup pearled barley
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, more as needed
4 cups cooked beans or chickpeas
2 cups peeled and diced butternut squash (1 small squash)
3/4 cup peeled and diced turnip (1 medium)
1/2 cup red lentils
Aleppo pepper or hot paprika, for serving
In a large pot over medium heat, heat oil and cook leeks until they begin to brown, 10 to 12 minutes.
Finely chop cilantro stems. Stir into pot, along with diced fennel and garlic. Cook for 2 minutes. Stir in baharat, cinnamon and tomato paste, and cook until paste begins to caramelize, about 2 minutes.
Stir in broth, 3 cups water, the barley and the salt. Bring to a gentle boil, stir in saffron, if using, and reduce heat to medium. Simmer uncovered for 40 minutes. Stir in beans, squash, turnip and lentils; cook until barley is tender, about another 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, if desired. Remove cinnamon stick.
Ladle stew into bowls. Garnish with cilantro leaves, fennel fronds and Aleppo pepper or paprika.