Thursday, December 1, 2011


Beans are the quintessential vegetarian food.  They have a lot going for them-- perhaps most notably their protein and fiber content.  Plus, it's easy to throw them into a meal to round out it's nutritional content.  Or, it would be if you use canned beans.
But, I am not okay with cans.  A recent harvard study showed over a 1,000 percent increase in BPA levels in the urine of people who ate one serving of canned soup a day for five days (for more, check out this article:  BPA is nasty stuff.  It mimics your body's hormones and has been linked to heart disease and cancer, among a bunch of other disagreeable conditions.  There's been a lot of focus lately on removing BPA from plastics, but many people don't know (or care?) that most food cans are lined with the stuff.  
One exception (that I'm aware of) is Eden Foods brand's cans, which say right on the label, "BPA-Free Lining".  Eden's stuff is not the most accessible (I can't seem to find it anymore at my local grocery store since they've rearranged the bean aisle) or affordable (I've seen prices ranging around $2 to $3 per can of beans).  So, a lot of bean-lovers are left with only one real option: cooking dry beans.  Especially at altitude, dry beans take forever to cook, making them impractical for your average weeknight meal.  Even with a pressure cooker, making beans from scratch will add at least a half hour to the cook-time of a meal.

But there is a way around this: that small appliance tucked away in a rarely-used cupboard called a slow-cooker, or Crockpot.  Let's re-name it the Beanpot.  That's really all I use mine for these days.  But it does certainly get used.  In fact, I've considered finding it a new home in a more-often-frequented cupboard.  But, really, who am I kidding?  I hardly have time to cook beans, so why would I have time to rearrange my cupboards?
While the beans in this recipe take eight hours to cook, the actual hands-on time is more like five minutes.  And, if you play it right you can prep the beans without even getting out a cutting board.  I try to throw everything together sometime before 10 am, and have a big pot of beans ready by dinner time.  Another plus: these taste far better than canned beans.  And did I mention they're crazy-cheap?  They're flexible, too: leave them whole and saucy or mash them into refried-style beans.  Then, throw them on a frito salad, serve them over brown rice with your favorite extras, stick them in a tortilla-- do whatever you might do with canned pinto or refried beans, except, of course, expose your family to crazy amounts of BPA.

The veggies (etc):*
  • 3 cups dry pinto beans, rinsed
  • 9 cups water
  • One onion, peeled and halved
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste (I use a generous pinch, which keeps it very mild), or half of a fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 2 tsp garlic powder or 2 TBS minced fresh garlic
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 TBS salt
  • Fresh ground pepper, to taste

The love:
  1. Combine all the ingredients in your slow cooker and turn the heat on high.  Let it cook for eight hours, checking and stirring every couple hours or so.  Add more water and/or turn down the heat if the water is evaporating too fast.  
  2. At the end of the eight hours, the beans should be tender and saucy but not watery, with the sauce level just even with or just below the top of the beans.  Cook a little longer if it's not quite there--  cooking the liquid down to the right level is what gives the beans so much flavor.  Serve as-is or mash with a potato masher to your desired consistency.**

*This recipe makes a lot of beans.  I have one of those really big Crockpots and this recipe makes good use of its capacity.  I usually make these beans for dinner one night, then we eat beans for a couple lunches and sometimes another dinner over the next week.  Or, we freeze some of the leftovers.  If, unlike us, you think you might get sick of eating beans after four days in a row, you might consider halving the recipe.
**If your liquid level still isn't quite right you may need to remove some liquid before mashing or add some water during mashing to get the right texture.  Experiment with it--  it's largely a matter of preference.

Where credit is due:

For me, it's a beautiful thing to watch a meat-eater transform into a vegetarian.  It gives me a sense of joy and accomplishment (even though I may have had nothing to do with it).  I not only like to see the person make a choice that's healthier for them and the planet, but, selfishly, it's nice having another person to share recipes and have dinner parties with.  
Mandy was one of these people.  And she's the one who gave me the original form of this recipe.  As with everything I cook, I couldn't help but mess with it a little bit.  For one thing, cumin is probably my favorite spice, and the original recipe made it optional.  Not only is cumin mandatory in my version, I've increased the amount...  
Since giving me the bean recipe, Mandy and her husband have moved off to Alaska.  Alaska is an enchanting place and I really shouldn't blame her for moving.  Except, who are we supposed to have dinner parties with now?


  1. I have to credit Jonathan Saffron Foer for the final nail in my meat coffin. But it certainly didn't hurt to have such nice vegetarians to swap recipes with more often!

    We'll have a nice pot of beans waiting for you when you make it out to Homer.

  2. Meat coffin-- love it! I do plan on taking you up on your offer of beans in Homer... some day! In the mean time, keep the recipes coming. :)

  3. BTW, I had a friend ask if BPA was really a concern in canned foods other than soup (as the study I referred to above only talks about soup)... This page on the Environmental Working Group's website gives you an idea of how widespread it is: You just never know, so I choose to avoid cans, for the most part (we do use them when camping sometimes, or when I can't find an alternative, like canned coconut milk).

  4. Here's another good resource on BPA in food cans: It includes a helpful, comprehensive list of what's BPA-free and what's not.