Dried beans offer the same fiber and protein as their canned counterparts, with the advantage of no added sodium. "And, if you buy quality, artisanal dried beans, you will taste the difference," says Cesare Casella, dean of the Italian Culinary Academy at the International Culinary Center.
"They're grown on a smaller scale, harvested more carefully, and likely to be fresher." Casella is so particular about dried beans, he imports Italian varieties for use in his restaurant Maremma in New York City, and sells beans online. We asked him for advice on selecting and preparing the best.
- Look for beans with uniform color. Discoloration indicates aging.
- Pass up packages with broken beans or shed skins. "Those are signs of careless processing," Casella says.
- Store in a cool, dark place, and use within a year.
- Before cooking, soak four to 12 hours, depending on bean size (the smaller, the less time needed). Dried beans swell as they absorb water. After draining, rinse thoroughly and proceed with cooking. Dried artisanal beans are available at ethnic markets, health food stores, and some specialty groceries, or at www.chefshop.com."
Know Your Beans
Qualities: Tender and savory. Because of their small size and thin skins, lentils require no soaking and cook quickly. Some varieties, like French green, retain their shape better than others.
Serving suggestion: Simmer with potatoes and seasonings to make a savory stew.
Cannellini (white navy beans)
Qualities: Versatile with a delicate flavor and texture. Cook gently to avoid mushiness.
Serving suggestion: Good choice for soups like pasta e fagioli; pair well with tomatoes.
Borlotti (cranberry beans)
Qualities: Creamy texture; earthy flavor; thin skin.
Serving suggestion: Season with sage and garlic, and serve as a side with steak or pork.
Qualities: Slightly mealy texture and meaty taste. Best in recipes that call for long, slow cooking.
Serving suggestion: Combine with tuna, onions, and olive oil in a main-course salad.
Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
Qualities: Nutty flavor. Their firm texture holds well when cooking.
Serving suggestion: Think beyond hummus; sauté with bitter greens, such as broccoli rabe or kale.