It’s easy to get enough protein from a plant-based diet, even if you don’t eat legumes (beans, lentils, and peas). In fact, the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece thrived on a purely plant-based diet, even though they refused for philosophical reasons to eat beans. Nevertheless, beans are cheap, tasty, and nutritious and play an important part in many traditional cuisines. The only problem is that dried beans can be hard to cook. I’ve tried several different methods and have had good luck with all of them.
If you want to use dried beans instead of canned beans, you’re going to have to think ahead and allow time for the beans to soak and cook. I usually soak them overnight and then cook them the following day. I often cook a huge pot of beans and then use the cooked beans in various recipes over the next few days. For example, I mash some of the beans with a little bit of chili powder and salt and use them as sandwich filling. Or I can add chick peas or other beans to a salad.
If you want to cook chick peas, use soft water, such as rainwater. If you use hard water, the chick peas will never soften! We have really hard water, so I use water from a reverse osmosis filter when I cook chick peas. I can use regular tap water for other kinds of beans.
The first step in cooking dried beans is to sort through them to make sure that no pebbles are hiding among the beans. I simply pour them into my hand a few at a time and then toss them into a bowl. For small beans like lentils, I scatter them a handful at a time onto a white plate and pick through them before tossing them into the bowl. You can cook lentils and peas right away. I soak larger beans overnight before cooking them.
I use any of several methods to cook beans. The traditional method used by the Native Americans of New England was to put the beans and water and maybe some maple syrup in a crockery pot and leave it by the fire. The Puritans of New England adopted a similar practice because they strictly observed the Sabbath, which meant that they couldn’t work on Sundays. They realized that they could have a hot, cooked meal on Sundays if they left a pot of beans and a crockery of coarse bread dough in a hot brick oven on Saturday night. The fact that nearly everyone ate beans on Sundays is why Boston is called Bean Town.
With the rise of the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and the resulting Triangle Trade involving Boston, Bostonians started using molasses and brown sugar to sweeten their Boston baked beans and their Boston brown bread. This struck me as deeply hypocritical. It meant that people turned a blind eye to human trafficking and slavery but frowned on free people doing household chores on Sundays. As Haitian-American author Edwige Danticat points out, we still have a lot of work to do in addressing human rights violations in the sugar cane fields before we can enjoy sugar and molasses in good conscience. Also, some vegans refuse to use products made from white cane sugar because charred animal bones are used in the refining process. They use raw sugar, molasses, or maple syrup instead.
If you don’t heat your home with wood, you can use an electric crockpot to cook old-fashioned baked beans. In the spring and summer, I use a Sun Oven® solar cooker to cook beans and brown rice. The solar oven never burns things, never boils over, and doesn’t heat up the kitchen. However, you do have to turn it as the sun moves across the sky. For more information about solar cooking, and to help spread the use of solar cookers internationally, check out Solar Cookers International.
In winter and during cloudy weather, I use a pressure cooker to cook beans. My Presto® pressure cooker is about 20 years old. Two years ago, I bought it some new gaskets and a new handle for the lid. Pressure cookers are great! They save time and energy. Here’s a chart that gives the pressure cooker cooking times for various kinds of beans. Pressure cookers are particularly useful for people who live at high elevations, such as in the Rocky Mountains. That’s because water boils at a lower temperature if the air pressure is low.