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hill o' beans 
how to cook dried beans 

by Yee-Fan Sun
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I don't know if it's like this for most folks, but with me, at least, food tells a story. Ask me about the foods I love to cook and what you'll get is a little glimpse into how I grew up and where I've been, people I've met along the way. When I'm searching for some new recipe to try out, it's often because I've been thinking about some meal an old friend once whipped up for me, some specialty I enjoyed while traveling, some dish I used to like to get at a favorite restaurant from back home, an old childhood staple my mom would make when the weather turned chilly, or when the outside temperatures were unbearably hot, or when I was sick with a cold. I love to eat because I like the way things taste (and because I get horribly, horribly cranky without enough food in my stomach), but my love for cooking is just as much about memory and nostalgia as it is about flavor or basic dietary requirement.

Dried beans are one of those foods that I never bothered cooking until I moved halfway around the world from Tucson, and couldn't get my favorite black beans pre-cooked and ready-to-eat at every grocery -- heck, even convenience -- store. I'd been in Edinburgh for about two weeks before I found myself hankering for those black-bean-and-veggie burritos that were such a staple of my life in the Southwest; I can still remember the crushing disappointment I felt when I discovered that my only canned bean options appeared to be kidney beans, cannellini beans, and something labeled haricots, none of which seemed remotely close to an adequate substitute for what I was looking for. Standing in the canned goods aisle of grocery store number three on my quest for black beans, I tried to reconcile myself to the fact that my favorite beans might simply not exist here in the UK. I felt so homesick I wanted to cry. Months later, I was thrilled to finally encounter a can of those ever-elusive black beans in a little shop that specialized in Mexican and other international eats -- and shocked when the price sticker revealed that the teeny-tiny can was going to cost me well over 3 US dollars. I splurged; I savored; I figured black beans would just have to become a rare treat.

Then one day, I was poking around the whole foods market when I happened to spy a bag of glossy black beans in the shop's dried goods section. The beans were cheap; they came in packages large and small. I promptly grabbed a big bag, and brought it up to the cashier. Back home, I pored through my trusty dog-eared copy of How to Cook Everything, and set out to cook up my first big pot o' beans. In reading the directions, I was skeptical; it seemed an awful lot of time and effort for a food that I had once been able to obtain with just a few turns of the can-opener. But cooking the beans proved surprisingly painless; moreover, the bag of dried beans I'd originally thought seemed enormous yielded an even more gargantuan pot once cooked. Since then, I've become a huge fan of dried beans. On a cold and dreary Scottish weekend, when my cooked bean supplies are running low, I'll set aside some time to make up another big ol' pot. It's easy; it's relaxing; it's so much more economical than relying on the canned stuff.

Want to save some money and start cooking up some dried beans on your own? Check out this handy guide to dried bean basics…

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