Do you soak dried beans for 12 hours before you cook them? Or do you reach for the canned stuff because a) you cant be bothered b) you don’t plan your meals that far ahead?
Take heart. A slew of recent cookery articles has confirmed what some people have believed for years – beans don’t really need to be soaked before cooking. Melissa Clark in the New York Times is one such Non Soaker. In a recent article she exhorted readers to ditch canned beans for dried because dried are so easy to cook from scratch: just simmer in salted water until tender without soaking first, she suggests. The keen beans at Epicurious quickly jumped on the no-soak bandwagon too.
As a Soaker I was intrigued – the conventional wisdom, echoed by many fine food writers, is that soaking beans slashes the cooking time and softens the skins. But after a little experimentation myself, involving several pans of butter beans and different cooking methods, I’m converted. By all means, soak beans if you have the time or inclination, or cheat-soak by bringing your beans to the boil, turning off the heat and leaving them to sit in their water for an hour. But really, soaking them first will save you barely any cooking time at all.
Another thing my experiment confirmed is that salting the water in which you cook the beans does not make them tough, just tastier; tossing in an onion and some bay leaves makes them even more flavourful. And this is where beans cooked from scratch have the edge over canned. Melissa Clarke describes canned beans are “a wan simulacrum, fine in a pinch but never transcendent.” While I love her description, I don’t agree – good quality tinned or canned beans can be perfectly lovely. But there is something wonderfully calming about a pan of beans in its own starchy broth; the liquid is a delicious thing to add to soups and other bean dishes (as Rachel Roddy explains so well in her wonderful cookbook Five Quarters).
I generally cook whole packets of beans at a time these days, rather than leave oddments in the larder, and either keep the cooking pan (with the beans and liquid) in the fridge for cooking meals throughout the week (as per Roddy’s suggestion). Or else I freeze what I’m not using immediately, for reheating in fresh water later. This is handy because if you have beans to hand you have a meal. Beans slurp up flavours, so I cook them all sorts of ways. I often blitz them into a creamy puree in the blender adding some of the bean cooking water to loosen, then maybe some herbs and spices, yoghurt or olive oil, a garlic clove or maybe even a little saffron crushed in hot water. To make soup, stir in lots of hot stock, or leave it thick and creamy to serve in lieu of mashed potatoes with meat (lamb chops!) or for dunking vegetables.
Beans are also fantastic in the soup pot – with or without a bacon bone – and lots of lovely vegetables, or used to bulk out stews if you’re trying to cut down on meat. I’m rather fond of the recipe below – it’s a bean stew in its own right, although the addition of bacon and/or chorizo really elevates it into something wonderful.
Spicy bean stew with mozzarella puddles
You can easily make this a vegetarian version just by leaving out the pancetta or chorizo
- Olive oil
- 200g pancetta or cooking chorizo
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 tins tomatoes, chopped
- 1 red pepper, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chipotle paste
- ¾ tbsp dried oregano
- 600g cooked white beans + 1 cup of cooking liquid
- 120g mozzarella or labneh balls (or 2cm cubes)
- salt and pepper
Warm a good splash of olive oil in an ovenproof frying pan and add the pancetta or chorizo. Cook, stirring often, until the pancetta is crispy at the edges and starting to turn golden. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Add the onion and a pinch of salt to the pan and cook very gently for 10 minutes, until very soft and golden. Add the red pepper and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more. Stir in the pancetta and chipotle paste so it’s combined with all the ingredients and lovely and aromatic. Add the tomatoes and oregano, squash any big bits with a wooden spoon, and season well with salt and pepper. Add 250ml of the bean cooking liquid (or water if you don’t have any) and simmer for 10 minutes or until thickened slightly. While this is happening, preheat the grill to high. Add the beans to the tomato mixture and simmer for 5 minutes more, until warmed through. Dot the top of the mixture with mozzarella or labneh all and set under the grill for 5 minutes, or until melted into creamy puddles.
You think you know a little bit about food production and then someone like Alastair Butler puts you right. This second generation pig farmer, part of the family behind acclaimed Blythburgh Free Range Pork, tells me less than 1% of the pork we eat in the UK is free range. So all that bacon, pulled pork, belly, gammon and ham hock we’ve been scoffing? Chances are it’s from animals whose lives haven’t been great, unless you make it your business to seek out the highest welfare free range porky stuff.
We all do it. We spot “outdoor reared” or “outdoor bred” on a package of supermarket pork and toss it in the trolley, happy (and possibly smug) to pay a bit more for meat supposedly reared in higher welfare conditions. The truth is that “outdoor reared” or “outdoor bred” are terms used to describe pork from animals that are born in fields but moved into sheds after weaning, so much of their lives is actually spent indoors. It’s misleading, confusing and should have been addressed by regulators years ago. When it comes to imported pork, just avoid: it’s all produced from animals who never see the light of day.
It’s not surprising that Blythburgh Free Range Pork is favoured by leading UK chefs like Heston Blumenthal and Mark Hix. During a recent food writers’ visit to Suffolk, I was lucky enough to see how the animals contentedly snuffle in the dirt, race round their fields and snooze on fresh straw in large airy tented barns. This pork really is different. The extra space and freedom to behave instinctively and roam free allows the animals to lead active lives, which burns more calories and results in slower growth than sedentary pigs fattened quickly indoors.
The Butlers turned their conventional pig farm into a free-range venture in the 1990s after Waitrose persuaded them to give it a try. Alastair’s father Jimmy was initially unconvinced – he had never eaten free-range pork and doubted it would taste much different to the meat he had producing for years – but the experiment was hugely successful. By 2000, the family had reverted completely to free range production and moved away from supplying supermarkets to work with specialist butchers and caterers under their own Blythburgh Free Range Pork brand.
“Supermarkets believe you can’t have fat in pork products, that it will put customers off,” Jimmy says. “But fat is where the flavour is – it tastes horrible with no fat. Intramuscular fat especially is vital for flavour.”
No longer hampered by supermarket demand for lean pork from animals bred and fattened quickly, the family was free to focus on animals that produced flavourful, high quality, slow-grown meat. They changed the genetic design of the pigs, and altered the feeding and breeding regimes to give the animals 6 months rather than 18 weeks to fatten. The result is amazing flavour that’s now sought after by specialty butchers (click here for online suppliers) and restaurants.
The recipe below was inspired by third generation butcher Gerard King, from craft butcher Salter and King, who gave us a butchery demonstration during our trip to Suffolk. This would obviously be wonderful as a hearty winter feast, but I’m very partial to roast meat in summer, when I serve it with a couple of salads – including one made with grains, with the pan juices (skimmed of fat) drizzled through as a kind of dressing.
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- leaves from 2 thyme sprigs
- 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
- 2 garlic cloves
- olive oil
- 1.5-2kg Blythburgh pork belly, skin on and scored
- 140g chorizo cooking sausages, skins removed and meat chopped
- 2 onions, peeled and quartered
- 2 carrots, chopped
- Preheat the oven to its hottest temperature. While this is happening, pop the fennel seeds, herbs and salt into a mortar and pound until crushed and well combined. Scoop out half this mixture and set to one side, then add the garlic cloves and a splash of olive oil and pound to a paste.
- Place the pork belly skin-side down on a chopping board and spread the garlicky, herby paste all over. Scatter over the chorizo and gently press it into the meat with your palms. Roll up the belly into a tight cylinder and tie with the kitchen string in 3 places. You can neaten off the ends with a sharp knife if you like, although I don't bother. Rub the reserved herbs and salt into the top of the scored skin.
- Put the ribs in a large baking tray and add the onions and carrots. Place the rolled pork belly on top and drizzle with a little olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes, then reduce the heat to 140C and cook for a further 3.5 hours, or until meltingly tender. Perfect served with garlicky mash in winter, or a grain salad for a summer roast.
I hated asparagus as a child because I only ever knew it from a tin. Sludge-coloured, stringy, pappy and limp, my grandparents in Australia regularly served it as an accompaniment to salad. Vile. I didn’t taste proper fresh asparagus until I moved to the UK – and what an eye-opener that was. Maybe it’s the climate or the TLC that goes into growing it here – asparagus takes years of nurturing before it offers up the first emerald spears, which are said to be able to grown 6 inches in a day – but very fresh British asparagus is pretty hard to beat.
Sweet and slightly grassy in taste, the best way to cook asparagus is gently steam it, then drown it in butter, add lots of salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. That’s it. But there are other delicious ways too. Steamed asparagus served with a foaming hollandaise and a poached egg is a magnificent breakfast, as is a boiled egg with asparagus soldiers for dunking. Toss asparagus in a a risotto with freshly podded peas, beans and lots of freshly grated lemon zest for the perfect risotto primavera. Or don’t bother cooking it all: make asparagus shavings with a vegetable peeler and sprinkle raw in salad, or dunk uncooked spears in aioli and gobble raw as a crudites.
Asparagus is fantastic cooked on the BBQ or griddle as it takes on a lovely smokey flavour – I don’t bother steaming the spears first if they are very young and tender, although it might be wise with the fatter, tougher specimens. Just brush the spears with oil, place directly on the hot bars of the grill and allow them to char before turning. You could easily cook the recipe below on a BBQ but as we speak the weather holds no promise for outside cooking, so I’ve done it in griddle pan. You could use a simple vinaigrette instead of the miso dressing, but it’s lovely for something different.
- 1 tablespoon red miso paste
- 30ml (1¼fl oz) rice vinegar
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon dashi or stock
- ½ teaspoon wasabe paste
- ½ small garlic clove, grated on a Microplane
- ½ teaspoon very finely grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, ground in a mortar
- 60ml (2fl oz) vegetable oil, plus extra for frying
- 20 fresh asparagus spears
- Combine the miso, vinegar, soy sauce and dashi in a bowl and mix well to amalgamate, pressing down on the miso paste with the back of a spoon to break it down.
- Stir in the wasabe, garlic, ginger and ground sesame seeds until smooth. Very gradually add the oil, whisking as you go, until emulsified.
- Heat a non-stick griddle pan until very hot, brush with a little oil, and cook the asparagus, turning frequently, until tender and lightly charred, about 5 minutes.
- Transfer the asparagus to a serving plate and spoon over some of the dressing, according to taste.
Whoop whoop! My cookbook, Easy Vegan, has just been published in the UK and it looks beautiful.
Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m not actually vegan – which is why I was approached to write the book in the first place. The publishers wanted to create a vegan cook book that appealed to everyone – not just people committed to eating plant-based foods exclusively all of the time.
I loved the idea. We all need to eat less meat for a host of health, environmental and animal welfare reasons. So there are loads of recipes in here that I hope non-vegans will enjoy. The project also gave me a chance to explore plant-based ingredients in a way I had never done before. I learned a huge amount in the process – including how to get the very best out of fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, pulses and grains.
If you are thinking of becoming vegan, or would like to eat plant-based some of the time, there’s a useful section at the front of the book to explain how to go about it. It’s important to make sure you eat a balanced diet, so I’ve covered some of the key health and nutrition issues. I’ve also provided a handy store cupboard guide so that you can stock up on ingredients that will make vegan cooking easy. It also has some tips on how to veganize non-vegan recipes.
Here’s just one of the recipes in the book. Although French toast often contains eggs and dairy, you don’t notice the absence of these ingredients here at all. And I thought that since it’s Mothering Sunday in the UK on March 15 it would make a lovely breakfast in bed for someone special.
If you’re interested in ordering Easy Vegan, just click here!
- 4 slices thick white bread
- 250ml coconut milk
- 90ml unsweetened almond milk
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup, plus extra for drizzling
- 1 tablespoon plain flour
- ½ teaspoon cinnamon
- a pinch of salt
- coconut oil, for frying
- mixed berries, to serve
- icing sugar, for dusting
- Lightly toast the bread. Meanwhile, whisk together the milks, the syrup, flour, cinnamon and salt. Arrange the bread in a single layer in a wide shallow dish and pour over the milk mixture. Turn to coat and set aside for a few minutes.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the soaked bread slices and cook for a couple of minutes each side, or until golden. Serve immediately with berries, a drizzle of syrup and a dusting of icing sugar
- Make sure you use lovely thick slices of bread here. If the bread is a little bit stale, all the better, as this will save you toasting it before frying.