Dry beans (Recipe: everything-from-the-pantry bean soup)
By nature and by habit, I am a decanter.
Not the kind with an hourglass figure (don't I wish?) and a cork stopper.
No, I am a person who decants almost everything in my pantry into clear jars so I can see how much of each item I have on hand. I've never been able to divine, just by looking at a box on the shelf, exactly how much sugar, or rice, or bulgur wheat, is left in the box. The smaller jars, mostly one-quart canning size, hold the things I use in smaller quantities: lentils, cocoa powder, arrowroot, table salt for baking. In medium jars, I keep various kinds of rice, and breakfast cereals. The large jars hold the basics: sugars, kosher salt, flours.
My favorite jars are what I call the amalgamators: the jar that holds leftover odds and ends of dry pasta, and the one that gathers dry beans. I only allow like-minded beans — those that cook in approximately the same time, or have the same texture or color — to cohabit. Today, my bean jar contains red kidneys and Anasazi beans, and a few navy beans hiding at the bottom. At other times, it might have cranberry beans, if I'm lucky enough to find them, or pink pintos. By the way, the United States is the world's leading producer of dry beans; I never knew that.
As kids, we were taught (by whom, I can't remember....): Beans, beans, good for your heart/The more you eat, the more you f***/ The more you f***, the better you feel/So eat your beans at every meal.
It's also true that there are well-known consequences to eating beans at every meal. Beans contain enzymes that produce flatulence and, while it's said that the more often you eat beans, the more your body acclimates to the enzyme, it's an indisputable truth that the gas will escape from your body from time to time. You can mitigate the gas by changing the soaking or cooking water occasionally. Pouring off the water helps gets rid of the indigestible complex sugars that create gas in your intestine. And there's always Beano, for those who'd rather fight one enzyme with another.
And if, like I do from time to time, you find some really old dry beans languishing at the rear of the pantry shelf, give them a second chance — they make fabulous pie weights.
Everything-from-the-pantry bean soup
On a visit to New York many years ago, I was foraging in my friend Joyce's freezer (don't you do that when you're visiting??) and came across a container of something she called French Market Bean Soup. It was hearty and healthy, and I've modified her recipe a bit and made this soup often. This tastes best if made at least one day ahead — and it freezes very well. Serve with a green salad and crusty bread. Make it a vegetarian dish by using vegetable stock, and eliminating the chicken and sausage. Serves 12, at least.
15 oz dried beans, a mix of red kidney, Great Northern, navy, Anasazi, or whatever's in your bean jar
1-1/2 quarts water
1-1/2 quarts chicken stock (homemade or low-sodium canned)
1/4 cup smoky barbeque sauce
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp oregano
1/2 Tbsp thyme
28-oz can whole pear tomatoes, drained, seeded and roughly chopped
2 cups chopped onion
2 cups chopped celery
1 clove garlic, minced
Tabasco or other hot sauce, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
8 oz chopped chicken breast (optional)
8 oz sliced smoked sausage (optional)
Wash and pick over beans, and soak in water to cover for at least 2 hours or overnight. Drain. Place in a large stockpot, and add water, chicken stock, barbeque sauce, bay leaf, oregano and thyme. Simmer, covered, for 2-1/2 hours. Add tomato, onion, celery, garlic, Tabasco and pepper, and simmer, partially covered, for 1-1/2 hours. Add chicken and sausage, if desired, and simmer uncovered another 40-60 minutes.