The Skinny on... Beans
Economical, nutritious and tasty, beans should be one of your pantry staples.
Also called “turtle beans” or “Venezuela beans,” black beans forge an excellent balance between earthiness and creaminess: a musky, somewhat mushroomy flavor balanced by a velvety texture. Black beans are great in soups and stews; canned versions are perfect for dips and salads. One warning: Dried black beans will leach their color into a soup or stew, staining the broth. If you want a clear or light-colored broth, choose another type of bean, particularly one of the white beans.
One of the most common versions of white beans and an Italian staple, these beans are kidney-shaped and ridiculously creamy, even smooth, with a slightly nutty flavor. However, that flavor is very subtle and easily overpowered, so they are not a great choice in chili and curries but a better choice in fresh tuna salad, green salads or light soups. Navy beans are a fine substitute, although navies tend to be smaller and a little drier, less creamy.
Great Northern beans
A variety of white bean but smaller than cannellinis, these are not quite as creamy, a little grainy, and so a better foil in soups against velvety roots like celeriac, carrots or parsnips. Great Northern beans are not as sturdy as some other beans and so make a good choice for stews that require little stirring. Because of their small size, they cook quickly. They are the traditional bean used in baked beans (they turn pink from the tomatoes and molasses in the pot).
Sometimes called “chili beans,” these are small and rosy-hued but turn dark (reddish-brown) when cooked. They’re the beans cowboys ate around the campfire! They hold their shape well when long-cooked — but can also be mashed with the back of a wooden spoon. One great way to thicken a soup with pink beans is to whir some with a little of the broth in a mini food processor until smooth, then stir this purée back into the pot.
These beige, brown-streaked beans turn pinkish-brown when cooked and lose their characteristic mottling. Common in Tex-Mex cooking, these are often the beans in burritos or enchiladas. They take a good while to cook because they’re so sturdy — however, they soon get very soft and creamy. Consider using these as the bean of choice in any beans-and-rice mix.
Red kidney beans
“Kidney beans” are not really a specific bean but actually a large family of beans characterized by that distinct, kidney-like shape. However, most people think of this dark-red variety as the standard “kidney bean” — robust, big-flavored and earthy, much favored on salad bars, in chili recipes and bean salads, and often mixed with cheese in casseroles.
Not peas at all but actually beans (and sometimes called “cow peas”), these are small, beige, kidney-shaped beans with a black dot in the indent. They cook quickly. In fact, they do not require any presoaking — they’ll cook in the same amount of time, soaked or not. Originally from Africa, black-eyed peas are not as sweet as some other beans and go well with stewed or sautéed greens or all varieties. You can sometimes find them fresh at farmers’ markets.
These pale, white beans with a celadon hue are much favored in French cooking — and are the traditional beans used in cassoulet. Flageolets have a sweet creaminess that stands up well to big flavors like those in lamb or game birds — and even work well in curries and spicy dishes. They have a green tint because they are actually harvested a bit before maturity.
The one bean you can assuredly find fresh, canned or dried, these large, thick beans (also called “butter beans” or “broad beans”) are meaty and strong-flavored yet quite sweet. Fresh fava beans need to be shelled — and even peeled when mature, their tough, membrane-like skins slipping off after a few moments of blanching. Dried ones can also be peeled after soaking. Dried favas will almost melt into a stew, tagine or braise, thickening the broth and offering a creamy richness without much effort.
Also called “garbanzo beans,” these are the classic beans whirred into hummus or ground for falafel. Common also in Indian curries and often fried in Italy for an appetizer called
chickpeas are starchy and beige, shaped sort of like hazelnuts. They offer a nutty, musky flavor. Dried chickpeas are sometimes ground into a flour that has a distinctly smoky flavor, best in small doses and mixed with other whole-grain flours (like spelt flour).
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