My father told me that during the Depression of the 1930's his family ate mostly beans. He made himself a promise that when he was grown he would no longer eat beans. He kept that promise for many years. My mother complied by not preparing beans in our house. Daddy hated beans…or so he thought.
Then one day it happened. He was at a family gathering where beans were served, and being a polite person, ate his share. His love affair with beans began. He couldn't get enough of beans. And by beans, we mean the pinto bean variety. "Beans and cornbread can't be beat," he would say.
Aside from this, my father had a remarkable memory despite years of bad health. Even into advanced age he could recall events and names with clarity. His mind remained sharp his entire life. He had no idea that the beans he hated, and then loved, probably played an important role in helping him retain his memory.
New research suggests that foods rich in folic acid can boost brain power, and possibly protect against Alzheimer's disease. In a study at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, researchers tracked the diets of 965 people 65 and older for six years and found that participants whose diets were rich in foods such as green leafy vegetables, beans of all types, citrus fruits, and fortified breads and cereals, foods containing the highest amount of folic acid, had the lowest risk of developing Alzheimer's. It seems that beans are truly a "magical fruit".
Some say that dried pintos need to be soaked for several hours so the "gas" in them dissipates. I have not noticed any difference, whether I soak the beans for hours or prepare at the last minute. I'll explain both methods and you can judge for yourself.
Buy the cheapest bean available. There is no difference in quality. Look through the dried beans as you put them into a large bowl, discarding any bad beans, lumps of dirt, or rocks you find.
If soaking the beans to soften, cover with water and set aside on your counter, either overnight or for several hours before cooking. This process can be speeded up by covering the beans with very hot water for about an hour. Pour beans into a colander and rinse before putting the beans into a large cooking pot. Cover beans with water, bringing the water level to about two inches above the beans in the pot. Add a generous shake of salt.
Some people like to season with smoked pork. A small package of salt fat pork is available at grocery stores for this purpose. Bacon can also be used. Simply cut up a few strips of bacon into bite-size pieces and add to the pot. I like to use a product called Better Than Bouillon ™ Ham Base, made by Superior Touch. It is concentrated ham broth and comes in a glass jar which should be kept in the refrigerator after opening. For a pound of beans, I put in about one hefty teaspoon of ham base. This adds the flavor of salt fat pork or bacon without the fat. It contains salt so do not put too much in the pot in the beginning.
Bring the beans to a rolling boil, reduce heat slightly and let boil for 30 minutes to an hour. Lower the heat to simmering and cover. If covered, you can let the beans simmer for an hour or so before checking for tenderness. The beans should be tender, retaining their shape, but not be either crunchy or mushy. This is also a good time to adjust the seasoning. Be aware that if the beans need to cook longer, more ham flavor will be absorbed but also more salt will be absorbed.
If cooking with the pot uncovered, you should check the beans ever 15 minutes or so to make sure the water does not completely boil off. Keep the liquid level at about one inch above the beans during the cooking process.
I read somewhere that beans and cornbread make up a complete protein and can be a low-fat, low-cholesterol substitute for meat at a meal. Whether it does or not, this combination can't be beat. It's not a fast meal but it is a cheap meal and is always a welcome addition to the family menu for the budget-conscious. (more recipes and information about Better Than Bouillon ™ on their web site at www.superiortouch.com