Not everyone knows "how oats, peas, beans and barley grow," as the children's song goes, but we do know where they go - into the pot.
In my kitchen, they sometimes visit the freezer too; frozen cooked beans provide a fast solution to preparing substantial meals in short order.
I got the idea of freezing cooked beans after a friend told me she buys pricy frozen cooked steel-cut oats at an upscale grocery store, as steel-cut oats are more time-consuming to cook than ordinary oatmeal. I began thinking about other long-cooking ingredients that can be frozen to make meal preparation more efficient; and indeed, the answer lies in the oats-and-peas ditty - all sorts of grains and legumes.
Beans and whole grains are healthy and satisfying, perfect in salads, as well as in hearty soups and stews for the cold weather season. Legumes are ideal when I am looking for a protein-rich food to act as the center of a meal, either for a meatless supper or to complement an entree that has just a bit of meat or chicken.
Because most beans and many whole grains require long simmering, it makes sense to cook them in large batches, enough for several meals. If you're cooking for yourself or for a small family, you may not want to eat the same kind of beans day after day. With beans in the freezer, you can take them out in a few weeks, when they are welcome once again.
Simply microwave the frozen beans until thawed and add them to vegetable or chicken soups or meat stews. Heat them with pasta, cooked vegetables and a little broth to make a quick version of Italian pasta e fagioli, or pasta with beans, or turn them into appetizer spreads like humous. Make easy main courses like chickpea and spinach stew or frankfurters and beans in tomato sauce.
Sure you can open a can, but there are more varieties of beans available dried at supermarkets and at the shouk. They differ from each other not just in color and size, but in flavor and texture. Besides, dried beans are the most economical beans you can buy.
Sally and Martin Stone use the freezing technique in their book The Instant Bean, and note that cooked beans keep for months in the freezer. They have several suggestions for freezing and thawing beans:
Freeze beans in recipe-portioned containers; they find 2-cup sizes are the most convenient.
Frozen beans can be added to soups right from the freezer.
I usually freeze beans in freezer-to-microwave containers and thaw them by microwaving them briefly in their covered container. The Stones suggest some other methods:
Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight or at room temperature for an hour or two.
Blanch them in boiling water for a minute or two until they separate, then drain well.
Empty a container of frozen beans into a colander and run under hot tap water for 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until the beans are separated and thawed enough to use in recipes; drain them and add to cooked dishes, allowing enough extra time for the beans to heat through.
Many people soak dried beans before cooking them. I generally soak only soy beans and fava beans to soften their skins. You can soak other beans if it's convenient or if you've had them for a long time; doing so will slightly cut their cooking time. If cooking beans in advance, you can add salt when you are heating them with other ingredients.
450 gr. (21⁄4 to 21⁄2 cups) dried white, red, pink or black beans or chickpeas
7 cups water, more if needed
Pinch of salt (optional)
If you'd like to soak the beans, put them in a bowl and cover them generously with cold water. Soak them overnight in a cool place or, if the weather is hot, in the refrigerator. Drain them before cooking.
Put beans in a large pot and add 7 cups water or enough to generously cover beans. Bring to a boil. Partially cover (to prevent the foam from boiling over) and simmer over low heat until tender, about 11⁄4 to 11⁄2 hours for most beans and about 11⁄2 to 2 hours for chickpeas, adding hot water occasionally to keep beans covered with water; if adding salt, add it halfway through cooking time.
If cooking beans ahead, refrigerate them in their cooking liquid. You can freeze beans with or without their cooking liquid. Reserve cooking liquid for soups and stews.
Makes 5 or 6 cups cooked beans, about 6 servings.
CHICKPEA AND SPINACH STEW
Greens and chickpeas are a popular healthy combination in the Mideast and in India. This dish is very easy to make if you use packaged spinach leaves and frozen or canned beans and is surprisingly tasty for so little effort. Serve it as a vegetarian entree with rice or as an accompaniment for chicken, beef or lamb.
450 gr. spinach or 285 gr. rinsed spinach leaves
1 to 2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 tsp. paprika
a 400-gr. can tomatoes, diced and drained
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1⁄3 cup vegetable broth or water
3 cups cooked chickpeas or other beans or two 425-gr. cans, drained
salt and freshly ground pepper
cayenne pepper to taste
Discard thick spinach stems. Rinse leaves and small stems. Cut or tear in bite-size pieces.
Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat for 7 minutes. Add garlic and paprika and saute 1⁄2 minute. Add tomatoes, tomato paste and stock and stir until blended. Bring to a simmer. Add chickpeas and return to a simmer. Add spinach, cover and cook over medium-high heat, stirring often, about 3 minutes or until spinach is just wilted. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
TURKEY FRANKS AND BEANS IN TOMATO SAUCE
Sausages - even in small amounts - do wonders to perk up the bland taste of beans. Use any kind you like - turkey, chicken or beef franks or spicy lamb sausages, or vegetarian hot dogs for a meatless dish.
1 to 2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, diced
1 tsp. paprika
1⁄4 tsp. dried red pepper flakes or a
few shakes of cayenne pepper, or to taste
5 large garlic cloves, minced
two 800-gr. cans diced tomatoes with their
2 tsp. dried oregano salt and freshly ground pepper
4 to 5 cups cooked white beans or three 425- gr. cans, drained
350 gr. to 450 gr. turkey frankfurters
2 Tbsp. chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion and green pepper and saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes or until onion is golden brown. Add paprika, pepper flakes and garlic and saute 1⁄2 minute. Add tomatoes, oregano, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, about 20 minutes or until sauce is thick. Add beans and heat through.
Cover frankfurters with water in a medium saucepan and bring just to a
simmer. Cover and cook over low heat 5 minutes or according to package
instructions. Drain well. Leave whole or cut in chunks if you like.
Add frankfurters to pan of beans, cover, and cook over low heat for 5
minutes to blend flavors. Add cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast