Cooking with dried beans

My love for beans knows no bounds. They’re cheap, filling, easily available, simple to cook, packed with nutrition and utterly delicious. Seriously, what more could you want? There’s a good reason rice and beans are the staple food for well more than half the world’s population.

I’m on a personal mission to encourage people to cook dried beans, rather than canned. Look, I’m a big fan of having a well-stocked pantry, and if storing a couple of cans of black beans or chickpeas in yours means you’re more likely to whip up a quick soup or homemade hummus, then I’m all for it. But for sheer value and flavor, you can’t beat dried beans. They’re way cheaper, they’re not difficult to cook and they really don’t take more time – you just need to plan in advance. There are a lot of fairly strong opinions on how to cook dried beans, so if you already have a way that works well for your household, keep it. I’m here to tell you how I do it and why, but ultimately it doesn’t matter to me how you prepare your dried beans, just that you do.

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Apparently we have quite a few different dried beans in our pantry.

Spoiler alert (and controversial bean-cooking tip alert, too): I cook all of my beans the exact same way, in a slow cooker (also commonly known as a Crock-Pot). And I no longer soak the beans in advance. Plus, I salt them at the beginning. That’s right, friends: I don’t soak my beans. And I salt before they’ve started cooking. I have spent years and years cooking dried beans, and I’ve tried every method: simmering on the stove, pressure cooker and on and on, and I’m personally convinced that the slow cooker, with its incredibly gentle simmer and moist, low-heat environment, is perfect for beans. And I get to skip the soaking step, too. (I don’t have an InstaPot, and I’m not going to buy one, but if you have it and you like it, then use it for beans.)

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How to make granola

Let’s be honest, there isn’t a whole lot new to say about granola. It’s not as though I’ve come up with some shockingly revolutionary way to make it, or some secret superfood ingredient that makes all granola healthy. Instead, I’m here to explain my simple three-question decision-making process for making something instead of buying it. It definitely applies to granola, and hopefully, you’ll apply this theorem to your own cooking and baking.

The three questions are as follows, and can be applied to pretty much any food or drink item, in my extensive experience:

  • Can I make it cheaper?
  • Can I make it healthier?
  • Can I make it taste better?

Certain items, like bread or jerky or hummus or jam or yogurt, are an automatic yes, at least for us. Others, like kombucha or crackers, might get two of three (cheaper and healthier), especially if there are specific storebought products you really like. And then there are the tricky ones, the ones that take years to master, the ones even I don’t tackle. This list is intensely personal, but for me it includes high-level precision fermentation: most ripened and aged cheeses, plus beer, wine and liquor. Yes, I could theoretically make any of these, but other people are doing it better, and I’d rather devote my kitchen experimentation time to other things. I’m happy to leave these to the professionals.

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Meat your maker

We eat very little meat these days. This shift has come about for a number of reasons, primarily concerns about our own health and that of the planet’s – truthfully, the best thing you can do for the world (besides avoiding disposable straws at all times) is to reduce or eliminate your meat consumption. We also went vegetarian for our round-the-world adventure last year, and when we returned home it was easy just to carry on eating plant-based.

What meat we do eat comes from sources we know and trust, primarily wild-hunted game and animals raised on friends’ farms and ranches. We know how these animals lived and also how they died, and that matters. A lot.

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Tools of the trade.

As we prepare to move from our first house, we’re not only downsizing books and furniture and knickknacks – we’re also downsizing a fairly impressive pantry. I’ve always kept a lot of food on hand; this habit stems from our time on the boats, where we traveled to some pretty remote places; often, we didn’t know when we’d be able to provision, or what would be available when we got there, so I tended to stockpile. I’m focused right now on cooking with what we have, and part of that plan involves using up the remainder of a bull elk hunted by a former client of ours.

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You can tell this is wild game by the almost total lack of fat in the meat.

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Ready for the grinder.

When you’re accustomed to cooking with standard American feedlot beef and pork, wild game – most commonly deer and elk in these parts – takes some getting used to. As a general rule, you either slice it thin and cook it super-fast and hot, such as for a stir-fry, or you cook it low and slow, as in a stew or braise, to tenderize the tough fibers. Because we’re not really eating meat as the centerpiece of our meals any longer, I think the highest and best use of lean game such as this elk is making it into jerky, and thankfully N agrees. Once it’s made into jerky we can keep it indefinitely, and it’s great to have along for road trips and other adventures.

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