As I’ve said before, pre-cooked dried beans are one of the more versatile, time-saving things you can keep in your refrigerator. I won’t go through all the dozens of applications: Pick up just about any general cookbook and look up “Beans” in the index.
To give one simple example, you can go from basic cooked beans to fabulous bean soup in just a few minutes: Chop some vegetables, sauté them in butter or oil, add beans and bean broth (and maybe some fresh herbs and extra liquid), and you’re done. It’ll take an extra 40 seconds if you decide to thicken the soup by pureeing some of the beans.
And, of course, you can always just adjust their seasoning and eat them as is, either hot or tepid (but never refrigerator-cold unless you like that crumbly feeling in your mouth).
What you need to do if you’re going to get maximal mileage out of a potful (or pressure-cookerful) of beans is to keep the seasonings fairly neutral. North American/pan-European, let’s call it: You can safely start with onions, carrots, maybe celery in moderation and a few flakes of dried chili — and perhaps a tiny bit of garlic. Olive oil is fine, and so are all-purpose herbs such as parsley, plus a hint of thyme or sage or even rosemary. But if you start thinking too hard about any specific cuisine, your beans are going to read your mind and taste, say, Mexican. (This will actually be a result of the cumin, oregano, cilantro and extra chilies you’ve automatically added.)
Then you can take your beans in almost any direction, either by adding them to another dish, such as a stew or soup, or by adding something to them – like mix-ins at an ice cream stand. And like ice cream, beans really do change their identity when exposed to other ingredients for just a few minutes. Include them in a paella, and they become Spanish; in a cassoulet, and they become French; or in a lamb stew, and they become Italian. Caramelize some sugar, deglaze it with vinegar, add tomato and perhaps bacon, simmer the beans for a few minutes, and you’ve got something along the lines of baked beans — admittedly a rough approximation but still pretty good. Sauté some chorizo and the aforementioned south-of-the-border aromatics, add the beans, and you’ll soon have the makings of rice and beans. (This is easily taken down the Cajun trail, too.)
This adaptability can continue right up to serving time. Recently, I made a small batch of indeterminately seasoned black beans — containing no ham, sausage or bacon, which made them suitable for vegetarians, indeed for vegans. Spooned over (or mixed into) rice, they’d have made a good basic plate of rice and beans.
But “basic” is sometimes not enough, especially if rice and beans are going to be your whole dinner, as they were going to be ours. I could have made a simple mojo — raw garlic, olive oil, lime juice and salt — to drizzle over it, but there were a couple of ripe tomatoes on the counter and two strips of bacon in the fridge just begging to be used. So I used them to make a quick mix-in: I blanched and peeled the tomatoes, then cut their outer flesh into “fillets” and sliced the inner parts, with all the seeds and flavorful goo intact. The bacon I cut into squares and fried them until browned and somewhat crisp — not splinteringly crisp, which too often means burnt.
Then I dumped out 90 percent of the bacon fat, turned up the heat and added the tomatoes, which took a minute or less to cook — less ripe tomatoes might need a little more cooking. I checked for salt, stirred in a handful of chopped parsley and had a quick, deep-tasting, juicy tomato condiment. This topped the plain black beans, which in turn topped our rice, and when we mixed it all up, it was as though the beans and tomato-bacon sauce had known each other since kindergarten: They were very comfortable together.
The five-minute tomato mixture is also great on pasta or grilled bread; you could include some fresh or dried chilies, especially if the tomatoes are not top-notch. And shrimp would make for a delicious variation: Sauté them for a minute or so, then add the bacon-tomato sauce and cook just until heated through.
In other words, what you’ve got is a versatile condiment for a versatile base: The variations on variations could be dizzying!