A person whose opinion I greatly respect once wrote me a letter sharing a lot of nice things, among them noting my “deep, abiding love of beans.” And let me tell you: Truer words have never been written. (I may have cried a little, too. It’s nice to be seen.)
As someone who’s dabbled in vegetarianism on and off for years, I’ve never met a bean I don’t like. They’re appropriately filling and, when seasoned well, deeply flavorful—not to mention a third of the cost of meat. While I’ve always been one to stir a can of beans into soup or use to top a tray of cheesy nachos, I really first got into making huge pots of beans—from dried, not canned—when I started living on my own in New York. I always had a job (or jobs), but let’s be honest: I’ve never stopped being on a budget.
Back then, instead of going out to dinner (which was bound to cost a lot), I started inviting friends over to eat. And that dinner was, more often than not, a pot of beans. These days, I’m not having friends over, and while I yearn for a pandemic-free reality, I’m still eating on the cheap.
It varies depending on where you shop, of course, but this meal, this gorgeous pot of beans, is the opposite of pricey. A pound of dried beans—which can easily serve four people—typically costs under $2. And for $4, you can get some alliums, a lemon, and a head of greens (whatever’s on sale). I jazz them up with dried chile, olive oil, and salt from the pantry, plus a Parm rind from the freezer (free flavor; don’t toss ’em!). I think they’re best served with crusty bread, either bought fresh (about $4, and you won’t eat the whole thing tonight) or revived from the freezer.
Belly-filling, yet easy on the bank account.
As for the beans themselves, you can of course adapt as you’d like. I tend to use cannellini, great northern, white lima, pinto, or chickpeas in a pot like this, but really, anything goes. Unless they’re very large, I rarely soak beans in advance (prehydrating overnight can shorten the cooking time, which, great, but I always forget)—but if you’d like to do it anyway, just to feel something, then follow all of Step 1.
Some like to cook beans with celery or with a huge pile of herbs, but after many (many) pots, I’ve found that these additions don’t impart that much extra flavor. Sure, if I happen to have a handful of herbs on their last legs or a few stalks of limp celery hanging in the crisper, I’ll certainly toss them into the pot. But ultimately, I like to save buying those ingredients fresh for when they can be the star of the show. And this dinner definitely stars beans. —Rebecca Firkser
Test Kitchen Notes
Nickel & Dine is a budget column by Rebecca Firkser, assigning editor at Food52, and major bean fan. Each month, Rebecca will share an easy, flavor-packed recipe that feeds four (or just you, four times)—all for $10 or less. —The Editors
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 1 hour 20 minutes
- Serves 4-6
dried beans, such as cannellini, pinto, or chickpeas
olive oil, plus more, for serving
large onion (red, yellow, whatever you have) or 2 large shallots
head garlic, halved crosswise (don’t worry about the skins!)
lemon, halved crosswise
fresh chile (halved and seeded if preferred) or whole dried chile, optional
kosher salt, plus more for seasoning if necessary
Freshly ground black pepper
Rind from Parmesan cheese, optional
head sturdy greens, such as kale, broccoli rabe, or escarole
1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
Crusty bread, toasted (and rubbed with a clove of raw garlic if you have one), for serving
- Pick through the beans for any debris, then rinse well in a colander or strainer. Optional step (but recommended if using very large beans, like corona or gigante): Place the beans in a bowl and cover with filtered water by 2 inches. Cover, transfer to the refrigerator, and soak the beans overnight, or up to 12 hours. When you’re ready to cook, drain the water and rinse the beans.
- Heat the oil in a 5- or 6-quart Dutch oven or pot over medium-high. Quarter the onion (no need to peel, but you can if you want), keeping the root end intact; if using shallots, halve lengthwise. Gently place the onion, garlic, and lemon in the pot, cut side down. Cook until charred (you can do both sides of the onion if you want), about 5 to 8 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat a kettle filled with water or bring a medium pot of water to a simmer over the stove.
- Add the beans and chile, if using, to the pot along with enough simmering water to raise the liquid to about 2 inches from the top of the pot, or cover the beans by about 5 inches (about 7-9 cups, depending on the size of your pot. Keep more simmering water on hand, and replenish if the water dips lower than 2 inches from the top of the pot—using preheated water helps keep the bean-cooking liquid hot throughout the pot, therefore making the beans cook faster.)
- Stir in the salt (yes, 1/4 cup is correct!) and several grinds of black pepper and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, or whatever heat your stove needs to keep the beans at a simmer.
- Stir in the Parmesan rind, if using, and half-cover the pot with a lid. Cook the beans for 30 minutes, then taste the liquid. Does it need more salt? Add more! Is it too salty? Add more water by the cup until it tastes right. If using a green with firm stems, strip the greens from their stems, chop the stems finely, and add (only the stems) to the pot now, as they are edible.
- Continue cooking for another 30 minutes, then taste a bean. If it’s at all crunchy, keep cooking, checking every 30 minutes until the beans are creamy all the way through, which can take anywhere from an additional hour to several hours, depending on the size and age of your beans.
- When the beans are cooked to your liking, turn off the heat. Find the halved head of garlic and use a spoon to smash the cloves against the side of the pot, then remove the spent root end of the garlic and discard. Scoop out the lemon halves, and Parmesan rind and spent dried chile if using, and discard. Roughly chop or tear the greens and stir into the mixture to gently wilt. Stir in 1 tablespoon of vinegar, adding more to taste.
- Spoon the beans and greens into bowls with plenty of broth and serve with a drizzle of olive oil, several grinds of black pepper, and toast.