Getting Back to Bean Basics

There tends to be debate over time/convenience/cooking meals quite often on message forums and even within your own home. Many of us lead busy, multi-tasking filled lives that do not allow for proper meal preparation, nutrition, or even just sitting down to eat at all. I find that the act of sitting down to eat a meal in the evening, whether it be at 7PM or at 9:30PM, is relaxing and rejuvenating at the same time.There is certainly something to be said for preparing a meal and enjoying the final outcome- you created it for yourself and family/friends; it was your desire to provide without the ruling hand of someone else leaning over you. Even after a long day at work, the act of cooking can be something that calms us, inspires us, and brings us back to homeostasis. I placed a picture of chickpeas (and an awesome skull shot glass) at the top of this post for the following reasons: 

a) to show that it is easy to master a task that is viewed as unattainable by some
b) to encourage you to adopt more basic, homespun, wholesome elements into your cooking process. 

Recently I became involved in a discussion on a message board regarding cooking beans and fitting it into a weekly/nitely dinner schedule. Many people on the board felt that cooking beans took too much time to invest in on a day to day cooking basis, even though the cost was considerably less expensive for organic dried beans, the taste and texture superior to canned, and added BPA and other chemicals non-existent (I don't need to tell you about BPA's, do I?) . Now allow me to offer up a bit of reality: Frank and I both work full-time jobs and engage in other outside activities as well. Granted we are only providing for the two of us, but time is still a precious commodity. And yet after a whole winter of talking about it last year, we managed to incorporate cooking dried beans into our weekly dinners this year. Here are some time-saving tips and ideas for you to incorporate punk-rock kick-ass home cooked beans into your schedule:

-We buy our beans in bulk, and for organic beans, they are less expensive and fresher than the non-organic Goyas that sit on the shelves for months at a time. Fresh dried beans will cook in very little time, especially with a nice long soak. We soak the beans from the morning when we leave for work (so 7:30), or if we remember, the nite before. This gives the beans at least a solid 10 hours of soaking time. With this amount of time, even chickpeas cook up for us in under an hour.

-Many people will cook beans in a pressure cooker; if that works for you, great. We live in an apartment in Brooklyn, and while decently sized, apartment dwelling keeps unnecessary owning at bay. Thus, we cook them on the stove, the boring way. Stove top cooking is greatly benefited by the use of a cast iron pot that will maintain even heat.

-Cooking beans in bulk and freezing for future use or using them throughout the week is a great way to maximize time. Conversely, if the thought of cooking 2 pounds of beans scares you, or you are the menu-planning type who also leads a busy schedule, figure out a day that is most convenient for you to cook your beans. Some people prefer weekends, etc. That way, when you need the beans later in the week for a quick meal, they are there.

-Start cooking your soaked beans either when you get in from work (you aren't going to start cooking right away, are you?!) or as you start prepping your vegetables, etc for your meal. Most beans do not need to be added until the end of cooking a dish anyways. 
If you put the beans up to cook when you get home, you can do whatever you need to do to unwind, and by the time you start dinner, they should be done. How easy is that? Not only did you just listen to your newly purchased She & Him record, but you have food too! Beans are pretty low key if you allow them to be. And they totally dig records.

-If you are intimidated, start with quick-cooking no-soak beans like lentils, black-eyed peas, and split peas.

So now! Go cook some beans!

Pop Art Stuffed Peppers

The winter here has been a bit bogged with mundane slumps and wretched snowstorms, which I am sure many of you are familiar with. How does one escape from winter? We could say vacation in exotic locales, listening to tropicalia music, or we could even say reading a fantastic book (I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett comes to mind), but I am a firm believer that colorful, exciting food helps as well. Hence, stuffed peppers. But not any stuffed peppers. Pop art. They are boldly colorful and just as flavorful, and in a winter where peppers have been at times 4 dollars/pound and tomatoes are reaching the throes of $6/pint, this warming south western-tinged dish is a breath of fresh air. The dish is even prepared a bit exotically by using a stovetop steaming for the peppers, which is perfect for a weeknite dinner for Frank and myself.  Serve with a contrasting green vegetable and perhaps a dollop of your favorite non-dairy sour cream for extra flair.

Pop-Art Stuffed Peppers

3-4 red, yellow, or orange bell peppers (3 if super big, 4 if normal-sized)
1 small yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. marjoram
1 tsp coriander
1/2 tsp cumin
1-2 chipotle peppers, depending on your heat tolerance
2 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 cup quinoa
24 oz. stewed or canned tomatoes (preferably golden tomatoes for contrast- ours were frozen from our CSA)
1 1/4 c. pinto beans

Directions for peppers: 
Cut peppers in half, either into long boats or into cups. If cutting into cups, leave stem tip in so pepper remains sealed. 
Trim out membrane and seeds, and place facedown in a 12-inch skillet filled with water. Steam over medium heat until crisp-tender, roughly 20-25 minutes.

Directions for quinoa filling:
In a medium sized dutch oven, steam saute onion and garlic until soft. 
Add in spices and chipotle, toasting for 1 minute. 
Stir in quinoa and tomatoes, bring to a boil, and then lower heat to simmer until liquid has been absorbed. The tomato liquid will act as a water substitute in this recipe; if you need more liquid add in water by 1/4 cup until quinoa is soft. When quinoa mixture has finished cooking, stir in beans to heat through.

To serve:
Using tongs, remove pepper halves from pan, and place in a colander to drain of excess water. Move peppers to a cutting board, and spoon filling into each pepper half. Place 2 halves on the most colorful plates you own alongside a green of your choice.

On Re-Discovery

Bear with me while I get a bit philosophical for a few minutes. The following story can be viewed as both a concrete and metaphorical tale, so read wisely. I think that I can safely count myself in as part of the 'It's a Vegan Cookbook, OMG!' crowd. I tend to limit my purchases to a few significant ones per year rather than buying each and every book that comes out, but you get the idea, I'm sure. So now, I am going to tell you the story of World of the East Vegetarian Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey. I purchased this book at least 3 years ago, and up until this past month, do you know how many recipes I had made out of it? One. YES, one very good dish. Now it's not as if these recipes are particularly demanding time or technique-wise (I have cooked more from the Millennium book than this one), or that they even require a hefty amount of exotic ingredients (one well planned trip to the Indian grocery should take care of your needs). No, it's just that I was *intimidated* by the idea of cooking "exotic" cuisine, even though I love love love it so very much. The recipes in this book are not part of my Italian roots, and they are not strictly the Nouveau Contemporary Vegan that has risen in the past 15 years. These are dishes filled with culture and heritage that I am unfamiliar with. I should not be cooking them, I should be cooking Italian!

So now I ask you all: how many of you have purchased a book, or on a larger scale, a more significant item that simply sits on your shelf because you feel intimated by the prospect that it presents? Whether it be technique, requirements, cuisine, time etc etc, I feel that we have all done this at some point. Why does this happen for you, and how do you come to change this realization? (Now if you
really would like to get philosophical, apply this to your daily lives, and one element that you lack / ignore / find intimidating. How can you work through this?)

After hearing me complain about wanting to utilize this book more in my cooking so that I can learn and experience everything from it, Frank finally made the bold statement that we should work to cook one dish per week from it. What a novel idea! And guess what? We have survived! From Creamed Eggplant to Okra with Tomatoes, each dish that we made from the book has been delightful. Now, when we have extra of a particular vegetable, we include WOE into our option searching. And along with this re-opening of a cookbook has come an opening of the mind.

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