Like many rural residents, Dave and I live surrounded by trees and shrubs: the double windbreak planted by my grandfather in the 1940s – caraganas, Manitoba maple, and linden – with ornamental crabapples, lilacs, blue spruce, white paper birch, fruit trees, highbush cranberry, columnar aspens added since. I love our trees. In the tough climate we live in, they offer protection from wind and sun for us and the birds. In an old house devoid of air conditioning, I am extra grateful. In fact, our favourite dining room is outdoors, sheltered from the wind and shaded by a maple.
My cooking style shifts in hot weather, as does when I cook: morning, before the heat, making a “cold supper”, as Dave calls it. His taste runs to deli classics, like egg salad, tuna salad, potato salad. Mine runs to white or black bean salad, chickpea salad, lentil salad, all of which improve as they stand in the fridge for several days.
Beans take time to cook, so I cook extra: it’s faster to thaw the extras than to cook a new batch. Use home-cooked beans, not canned, for the best texture, flavour, and control of salt content. Do not pre-soak your beans or lentils, as the practice strips out the nutrients. Just cover them in plenty of water, add a snug lid, and simmer without adding any salt, which toughens them and lengthens their cooking time. How long to cook a bean depends on the age of the bean: the older the bean, the longer the cooking time and the more water needed. This makes a convincing case for not hoarding! Best to buy the new crop – we do live in a country that produces massive amounts of beans and lentils (mostly for export and as livestock feed), after all. When you find a local grower, or if you grow them yourself, buy the new crop and compost whatever you have left in your cupboard jars. As a rotational crop, pulses kick nitrogen back into the soil; as a dietary staple, lentils and beans and chickpeas are high-protein and high-fibre, low-fat, and low on the glycemic index, thus ideal for managing blood sugars.
During cooking, don’t let your beans boil dry – nothing rescues a burnt bean. It’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as an al dente bean. If it’s at all crunchy, not only will it give you gas, but its vital nutrients will not be available to your body for uptake. So cook beans until they are tender, as long as it takes. Some types of lentils are tender within an hour, and my favourite beans, great northern white, are usually tender within a couple hours, while chickpeas can take considerably longer. (If you have a pressure cooker, use it now.)
When you make a bean or lentil salad, think of the four pillars of seasoning: salt, acid, sweet, heat. Add generous amounts of olive or another flavourful oil, salt, and vinegar or citrus juice to the dressing. I also add grated carrots, roasted vegetables, minced onions or chives, minced fresh herbs, mustard, something sweet and flavourful (liquid honey, maple syrup, pomegranate molasses), and often, some spices I like – roasted and ground cumin and coriander, smoked or sweet paprika. Of course you can add cooked, flavourful meats – smoked ham or ham hocks, for example – but remember that beans are a protein, so any meat should serve primarily as a flavour agent.
Vary the seasoning to suit your mood and the type of bean. Make enough vinaigrette that the beans and their accompaniments are taking a bath, then remember to stir the whole mess several times while it stands in the fridge making friends of its ingredients. It keeps, so make enough for a few days’ suppers. Add fragile garnishes when you serve. So first we eat under a shady tree, then we can compare notes on our best beans.
Black Bean Salad with Totopos and Watermelon
Totopos are crispy bits of corn tortilla, fried in oil until crispy, an ideal garnish for a black bean salad. Make extra – they tend to get gobbled up. Serves 6-10
2 -3 cups cooked black beans (refer to cooking tips above)
1 cup grated carrot
½ cup minced chives or green onions
½ cup minced fresh basil
½ cup minced fresh cilantro, a bit saved for garnish
½ tsp. smoked paprika
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
2 Tbsp. Lea & Perrins
½ cup olive oil
½ cup red or white wine vinegar
2 Tbsp. mustard
2 Tbsp. maple syrup or pomegranate molasses
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups diced watermelon
1 cup crumbled feta cheese
2 cups totopos (1 6” corn tortilla per person, diced and sautéed in olive oil until crisp)
Combine all ingredients except the garnishes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Mix gently, refrigerate for several hours, stirring several times, and garnish at time of service.