My love of beans, lentils, and all pulses has been expressed many times. They are nutritious, delicious and so flexible, they are a dream for anyone who loves to cook. They can become soups, dips, stews, patties and burgers, the dried beans can be ground into a flour and become pancakes and lots of other wonderful things. Take the humble chickpea, and all its possibilities. Falafel, chickpea burgers, hummus, panelle, socca, before we even consider what we can do with it when it is simply its joyful self.
I wrote about my love for beans in my first book and how I batch cook them and freeze them to be used as and when I need them. Home cooking dried beans may seem like a fiddle, but all it takes is time, no intricacy, and the results are far superior, cheaper too. Beans are the ultimate frugal food, and for this reason maybe they don’t garner as much respect as they deserve. The underdog of the kitchen cupboard, some countries know how good they are and they elevate them. Principally Spain, I adore wandering through markets dotted with sacks of varied pulses, proud and shiny, and I always bring kilos of them home. Italy too, also France, and that is just looking at our nearest neighbours.
You may have been put off cooking them because of time, but that is all it takes. Soak them overnight, and boil them for an hour or so, and that is it. All you have to do is scoop off some foam just after they boil and that is it. They take time, but not your time, and even less of it when you use a pressure cooker, something I indulged in last year and that I have been using regularly since.
When you hear pressure cooker you probably think of a frightening pot whistling and spitting on the hob when you were just tall enough to see it. The warnings to stand well clear. Pressure cookers have evolved since then, and modern ones frighten less and are not prone to exploding. You can buy ones that plugin, or ones for the hob. The old style ones are still available, but I wanted a contemporary one, and I wanted something that was solid and that would last. After much research I settled on a Fissler Vitaquick pressure cooker which I bought online for £110 (currently available on Amazon for £113).
I bought my pressure cooker for beans but I use it more for stocks now (mainly because I use stock more often). The stocks that I make are speedy, intense and clear, it has been a revelation. There are many more uses too, which I am investigating, I can see that they are perfect for family cooking too. Preserving, cooking slow things fast with results that appear slow. Marvellous, really, what took me so long to come around?
Back to the beans. Magically, you don’t always need to soak your beans in order to speedily cook them in a pressure cooker, but I have found that you will get better results when you do. Chickpeas, for example, can be cooked from dry but they are more likely to break, which is fine if you want them for hummus or something else that requires a puree, but when you are cooking beans from dry because you want the best quality and the most delicious result, it makes no sense to do it by half, just soak them overnight as you sleep and they will be round and plump when cooked right.
The instructions for this pasta dish will assume that the beans have been cooked, or you can use tinned should you prefer. Should you choose to boil them, I like to add a chopped onion, peppercorns, bay and thyme to the water for extra flavour. The water is super nutritious too, so add that to your stock, don’t throw it out.
This soup is a lovely alternative to my favourite pasta e fagioli (pasta with beans). It isn’t essential but I start mine with pancetta, you can leave this out if you want a vegetarian option.
- 1 tbsp olive oil for frying (or other suitable frying oil)
- 50g diced pancetta or streaky bacon
- 1 large tomato, peeled, core removed and chopped
- 1 red onion, peeled and finely diced
- 250g cooked chickpeas (or approx 1 drained tin)
- 6 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed and stems discarded
- 75g small pasta shape like orecchiette or penne
- 500ml stock (chicken or vegetable)
- chilli (one fresh mild chilli or 1 tsp mild chilli powder like Korean chilli)
- 1 small courgette cut into ribbons with a veg peeler (optional)
- sea salt and black pepper to season
- edible flowers (optional)
- one tablespoon creme fraiche (optional)