Desperate for candle holders one day, I set tapers upright in small glasses filled with dried pinto beans. They were surprisingly beautiful, and caused me to pay closer attention to dried beans. An amazing variety exists!
I admit, beans have been a "should" food in my kitchen (they are rich in iron, protein, and fiber), sitting patiently on the cupboard shelf until I run out of more interesting menu ideas. And then there is the, well, explosive quality to beans that--they say--soaking solves. So what about this earthy food?
Favas, lentils, and chickpeas (garbanzos) were among the few legumes eaten in the Old World before Columbus and his sailors took home the beans that are now familiar to all of us--pintos, kidneys, limas, white, and black beans. Add to the list black-eyed peas, pigeon peas, split peas, cranberry beans, flageolets, and the evocatively named "heirloom" beans that have staged a comeback--Maine Yellow Eye, Indian Woman, European Soldier, Rattlesnake, Wren's Egg, Jacob's Cattle, Pueblo, Black Turtle, Appaloosa, Cargamento--and you have quite a selection. But please do more with these beautiful, gem-like beans than make candle holders out of them!
For starters, most dried beans need a four-hour soaking to tenderize the seed coat. Use plenty of cold water, at least three times as much volume as you have beans. Never salt the soaking or cooking water, because salt will toughen the skin and prevent the beans from softening, as will acid-containing ingredients such as tomatoes or lemon juice. Add such things only after beans are cooked as soft as you want them.
A quick-soak method is to cover dried beans with two inches of water, boil them in a saucepan for 10 minutes, and then soak for 30 minutes to one hour. Drain, rinse, and cook. Lentils, split peas, and black-eyed peas have thin skins and only need soaking if you wish them to be ultra-digestible.