On Sundays, while I pick up around the house, a hefty stockpot bubbles away on the stove. The same thing is always inside: beans. Pinto, black, kidney, cannellini, Great Northern, Christmas lima or flageolet. Chickpeas and lentils are also a possibility. So what if those are technically pulses? In my mind, they all belong to the same category: the “tastes delicious and makes my life easier” one.
When I was growing up in the Dominican Republic, no meal was complete without red beans stewed with oregano and tomato paste, black beans fragrant with cubanelle peppers and bay leaves, or lentils cooked with cilantro and bacon. And while most Dominicans treat meat as the headlining act, I’m perfectly happy with a plate of rice and beans. (Though some avocado and sweet plantains wouldn’t hurt.)
When I travel back to Santo Domingo, I watch my mother chop red, yellow and green peppers into a vibrant mound, then add them to a pressure cooker with red beans, cilantro, garlic paste and oregano. But whenever I try to replicate the dish in Washington, the flavors taste as muffled as the Justin Bieber songs that too often escape my neighbor’s apartment.
Years after I moved to the United States, my love for beans hasn’t waned. It has diversified. So on Monday mornings, I grab my cooked beans and throw them into a container with whatever else I dig out of the fridge: farro, herbs, roasted vegetables left over from last night’s dinner. That’s a five-minute lunch. On weeknights, I toss black beans into a skillet with garlic and cumin, add some white rice and have a meal ready in 20 minutes or less. I don’t discriminate. If I forgot to cook dried beans on Sunday, I’ll even reach for a can.
Beans dress up nicely, but they’re not snobby. When I need a quick appetizer for a dinner party, I smooth out a batch of hummus in a wide bowl and top it with za’atar and pine nuts toasted in butter. No friend of mine has ever hesitated to dive into that big bowl of beans.
When a meal seems anemic without another side dish, I throw together a lentil salad with generous amounts of herbs and even more generous amounts of goat cheese. For something simpler, I heat olive oil in a pan with garlic and chili flakes, then drizzle it atop white beans with Parmesan.
I don’t care that beans lack the sexiness of chocolate and pasta. There’s no food I eat more consistently — or enjoy as wholeheartedly. Beans are there for me when I’m sleepy in the morning and don’t want to think about what to pack for lunch. They’re there for me during dinner parties when I don’t want to spend the whole evening cloistered in the kitchen. And, above all, they’re there for me when I need a reminder of home.