Taking the right pulse

Beans can be delicious, but need handling with care for the best results.

A stew made with dried beans is one of the few hearty dishes that suit any season. It warms in winter, yet is good summer fare, too, perhaps because of associations with south-western France or Tuscany. It does not have to be an expensive and elaborate cassoulet; a poor person's version, made with cheap cuts of pork or bacon, offers the satisfactions particular to thrifty dishes. The beans thicken their sauce, and take on an unctuousness thanks to pork fat and olive oil.

It is simple food, but not as straightforward as the term implies. First, there is the advance preparation. Soaking the beans - white kidney, haricot, or cannellini - plumps them up and helps them to cook quickly and evenly. Then you must start cooking well ahead. Some beans are ready within 60 minutes, while others take several hours to soften. You can never be sure how they will behave, and you cannot trust any guidelines you read on the packet. I recently bought some little organic haricots that, in spite of an advertised cooking time of 45 minutes, refused to tenderise in less than three hours.

There are other issues. Red kidney beans contain toxins called lectins; you disable them only if you soak the beans overnight and then boil them furiously for ten minutes. You may find recipes advising you to fast-boil white beans, too: the point appears to be to eliminate substances called protease inhibitors. But there is no definitive nutritional evidence to support this procedure. Protease inhibitors can block the digestion of proteins; but they offer their own benefits - including, some say, anti-cancer properties. My advice is: soak the beans, drain them, bring them to the boil in fresh water, and simmer until tender.

Recipes warn you never to salt the water in which you are going to cook beans and pulses. Salt hardens them irrevocably, writers assert. My experiences suggest that the instruction is alarmist; but I have found that beans cooked in salted water tend to be mealy, whereas unsalted ones have a creamy texture. So: salt the dish at the end of cooking.

When you are on holiday, as we are now, you do not want to spend the afternoon worrying that you will not get home in time to start cooking. So I recently placed my beans in the oven on a very low heat, with chicken stock to cover them and a couple of unpeeled garlic cloves. Sure enough, they had absorbed all the liquid by the time we returned; but they had not dried out completely, and they were also soft. I added a little more stock until I had a thick stew, stirred in the meat from a cooked bacon hock, some olive oil in which I had softened another clove of garlic (chopped), and added some salt and pepper. I covered the dish with breadcrumbs, and baked it at gas mark 6 (200°C) until the top was browned. Simple.

Nicholas Clee's food blog is at: http://nicholasclee.blogspot.com

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Road fix