Most people claim I’m an old ass who’s quick to fuss about any damned thing. Let me confirm that base accusation by pointing out that when cooking New Orleans-style red beans most people insist on using the wrong beans.
Yes, that’s right. Instead of honest-to-goodness red beans, most people—even most vendors—use kidney beans, which are yes red, but they aren’t the right red. You’ll see small kidney beans marketed as red beans all the time; even the Camilla brand red beans are kidneys, as are those used by the Blue Runner people, but most markets in the mid-South will have honest-to-goodness red beans sold simply as red beans, and if you look under the ingredients, you’ll find “small red beans”, not kidneys as you’ll find on the Camilla package or on the Blue Runner can.
It’s only a whisker’s difference between the two, but it’s crucial, a matter of veracity and refinement if not to say taste.
Rombauer writes that dried beans are “on the dull side and much like dull people respond readily to the right contacts.” In my experience, dull people rarely respond to anything with any degree of alacrity and never seem to benefit as a result. Once a schmuck, always a schmuck, I say. Dried legumes, however, respond beautifully to moisture and heat, and with the addition of other ingredients, these wallflowers in the pantry dance on the table.
Dried beans are cheap and can be stored for a long time, but after a year they aren’t able to absorb enough moisture to be palatable. You can probably plant them, but not eat them. Dried beans are also easy to cook, but like most cooking, it’s a matter of procedure. First the beans must be cleaned. On every bag of dried beans, you should find a warning stating something like, “Beans are a natural agricultural product. Despite use of modern cleaning equipment, it is not always possible to remove all foreign material. Sort and rinse beans before cooking.” I cannot stress how important it is to sort and pick through dried beans before washing. Spread the beans in a single layer on a cookie sheet and pick out everything that isn’t a bean. You’re likely to find pebbles, little clods of dirt, sticks, and stems, none of which should find your way into your mouth. Put the sorted beans in a colander and rinse them twice, then pour into a container and cover with water. Remove any beans that float. Pour the cleaned, sorted beans back into the colander to drain.
While most people hydrate beans by soaking them overnight, you can simply dump dried beans in twice the amount of water and cook them for three or four hours on a moderate heat, adding water as necessary. It takes much less time if you cover beans with water, 2:1, bring to a hard boil for five minutes then shut off and soak for an hour. Again, cook beans in twice the amount water, but you may find you need to add more as they cook. Do not add salt. If you add salt in the cooking water before the beans are cooked, the skins will be tough. Salt when the beans are cooked through. This might not seem a big deal, but it is. Also do not add tomatoes or tomato sauce until the beans are done; some people will tell you that if you soak the beans, you can add tomatoes, but I’ve found it takes much longer for the beans to cook if you do. I always add one cup chopped onion and a couple of smashed chopped cloves of garlic per two cups (1 pound) dried beans.
I always use a flame-buster and a moderate heat when cooking beans. If you scorch a pot of beans, I don’t care who says you can save them and how, trust me when I tell you to throw them away and start over. Different types of beans cook differently, but generally speaking, a cup of dried peas or beans will make two to two and a half cups cooked.