In keeping with the recent topics of eating low on the food chain for environmental reasons (e.g., beans instead of meat) and cooking for a crowd, I dug out an old recipe for a curried red lentil soup with an apple cider or pear juice base, so I could double it to serve 10-12 people instead of 5-6.

I’ve always been told that to double a recipe, you should double the basic ingredients but not the spices. What I do is adjust the spices by slowly adding small increments and tasting the results. The amounts that work usually do turn out to be less than twice the original.


I mentioned this in passing to A Man of Science last week. Big mistake! “So, you’re telling me that if you made two separate batches using the single recipe, and they tasted just right, but you then put them into a big pot and mixed them, the soup wouldn’t taste just as good?” He had me there. All I can tell you, anecdotally (an approach Men of Science scoff at … ), is that I have found — through empirical, quantitative research! — that you can’t really go wrong by adding spices slowly and in small amounts no matter what you’re cooking. (By the way, that Man of Science never has any quibble with what I produce in my kitchen … just with the theoretical underpinnings. Welcome to greater Harvard-MIT neighborhood!)

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The night I decided to tackle this assignment was dark and stormy (seriously). I visited a friend at her tiny cottage by the edge of the ocean. She had recently seen a mouse and, knowing that I am unafraid of mice (thanks, Beatrix Potter!), I was deputized to persuade the mouse to go back out into the dark and stormy night.

Shortly after arriving, I started the soup. It usually takes about 45 minutes to cook, but it still wasn’t done after an hour. Another hour later the lentils were still hard as rocks. It was infuriating. But it was also time for bed, so I decided to cook the soup some more in the morning.

After what was presumably a mouse-free night I went downstairs and put the soup on the burner again. I thought the lentils were finally soft enough to use an immersion blender to purée the soup without leaving a grainy texture. I was wrong, though, and had to keep cooking the soup even after I had puréed it.

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One of the consequences of the long cooking time was that the soup had “reduced” substantially (i.e., a lot of the liquid had evaporated), and as a result the flavors were now concentrated — too concentrated — rendering my recipe testing session a complete and total (not to mention wasteful) failure. I told my friend I was going to write about how sometimes things go wrong when one is recipe-testing, and she said, “So it’ll be just like a reality show, right?” I looked at her dolefully and said, “Yes, that’s right. It will exactly like Project Runway except with you and me and some stubborn lentils instead of glamorous models and beautiful clothes.” As I scrubbed the pot I said, “auf Wiedersehen, unyielding lentils! You’re fired! You’ve been voted off the island!” And then I had a cup of tea.

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When I went home I scoured all my cooking reference books to see what could explain the lentils’ reluctance to cook. I consulted a clutch of cookbooks I refer to collectively as The Mothers: Laurel’s Kitchen, Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and her book on vegetarian soups, and Didi Emmons’ Veggie Planet. I read in Laurel’s Kitchen that I should avoid cooking beans with salt until after they are already tender (a lesson I had learned the “hard” way … see below), Didi Emmons’ book contains a nice chart on the typical cooking times for different types of beans, and Deborah Madison wrote that the altitude of the place where the beans are being cooked and the hardness or softness of the water in which the beans are being cooked could make a difference, something that I hadn’t considered. My friend’s cottage uses well water that, to me, has a bit of a metallic taste, so perhaps that explains what happened.

This episode caused me to have a flashback to My Pea Soup Vendetta, a negative legume experience if ever there was one. It went like this:

Many years ago, when I was finally able to afford my own apartment, I did what any red-blooded carnivorous girl who had spent the previous decade living with vegetarians would do: I went out and bought myself a ham hock. I wanted to make split pea soup using the ham hock to get that smoky flavor that gives a good pea soup its depth and character.

Having made soup hundreds of times in my life I didn’t think I needed to look up a recipe, so I just sautéed some onions, threw in some water and some dry split peas, and I tossed the ham hock in to flavor the soup.

An hour went by, and then another hour. The split peas remained as hard as rocks. Finally it was bedtime and I put the soup into the fridge. The next day when I came home from work, I opened the fridge, pulled out the soup, and put it back on the burner. Again, the split peas never softened. I went through this ritual every night for a week (giving me new insight into the nursery rhyme “Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old!”) and every evening when I put the stockpot back onto the fire I would lean over and hiss to the split peas, “You don’t know who you’re messing with! Cook, damn you!”

On top of everything else, the liquid part of the soup was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted. It was ham hock nirvana. So I was doubly frustrated. Finally, after a week of battling my steadfast inanimate opponent, I gave up and threw the whole thing away. I was psychologically scarred by the experience, so I brought it up with several of my friends and a few of them said that they thought maybe the salt in the ham hock had prevented the beans from becoming tender (something I had never heard of at the time, and it bears mentioning that some other people feel that salt should not have a negative effect on quick-cooking legumes like lentils and split peas). Other friends posited that the split peas had been old, which can make them take forever to get soft if they ever get soft at all.

I had never had this problem with lentils before, however, and started asking around. My friend Paul, who makes an Indian red lentil soup several times a year, told me that he has never had this problem with red lentils but that he has experienced it when cooking green lentils. Sometimes they cook in short order, other times they never cook at all.

In the past when I saw cans of cooked lentils on the shelves of natural foods stores, I always sneered at them. “What kind of idiot would use canned lentils when they are so easy to cook and they cook so quickly?” I had thought to myself, shaking my head at the thought of other peoples’ cluelessness and/or lassitude. Like every other negative thought I’ve ever had about other people, this one had come back to give me a great big karmic swat on the ass.

So, where does this leave us? Beans, being such a simple and straightforward food, should, by rights, be among the simplest things in the world to cook. The truth, though, is that they’re not. Even if you know your way around a bean, what you know might not always apply because the age and quality of beans can differ dramatically from batch to batch. And, it would seem, elements like the hardness or softness of the water in which they are cooked can make a difference.

If you are able to plan ahead, soaking beans starting the previous day is a big help. When I know ahead of time that I’m going to be cooking a bean dish, such as when I made cassoulet (an ambitious and delicious bean and meat casserole that calls for ingredients like Andouille sausage and duck leg confit) for a friend’s 50th birthday party, I soak the beans for 24 hours and I’ve had good results. Some people recommend using pressure cookers, which are now reputedly much safer and more efficient than the pressure cookers of yore. Childhood memories of scraping fish off the ceiling and my normally unflappable mother appearing quite shaken after a bad pressure cooker disaster that ended in a violent explosion make me hesitant to try the new versions, even though I know I am being a Luddite. (And, as an adult looking back at the incident in question, I am left to wonder what kind of fish my mother tried to cook in a pressure cooker since fish cook so quickly to being with.)

I mentioned to a friend who grew up in Greece that I was thinking of cooking the lentils or split peas separately before adding them to the other soup ingredients from now on, to limit the chance that one of the other ingredients is preventing the beans from getting soft, and she said that many Greek cooks do that.

You can find tips for techniques like cooking the beans at a boil for between one and ten minutes and then letting them sit for an hour in an effort to hasten their softening, and suggestions for buying beans from stores where the turnover is high so that you don’t end up buying beans that have been languishing on the shelf since shoppers prepared for the Y2K crisis.

Here’s what I generally do. I buy canned beans. Yes, I do. As I said, if I know ahead of time that I’m going to make something using beans I will do the 24-hour soak thing, but if I don’t have any premonition that I will be cooking beans the next day, I just go out and buy them in cans. Then, when I get them home, I rinse them carefully and thoroughly. This is the most important thing — to wash off all the “canned” taste.

One of the recipes I love to make using canned beans is Three Bean Salad. It’s so quick and easy, and if you can make it the day before you serve it (or even just earlier in the day) the flavors really develop and it’s way more delicious than such a simple dish has any right to be. Also, it’s a great dish to serve if there is a power outage, as all the ingredients can come from the pantry and none of them need to be cooked.

It’s ideal to use fresh green beans if you have some, but if it’s winter you can use canned green beans quite successfully. Just add chopped celery and toasted walnuts to give the salad some crunch.

As for the red lentil soup … it’s back to the old drawing board for that recipe for now. Look for it in the future, once I’ve been able to successfully double it, with the appropriate amounts of seasonings.

Brokeass Three Bean Salad

Here’s the recipe. It’s dedicated to the Ask a Brokeass column (someone wrote in to ask about eating beans) thus giving it this name.

Serves 10 – 12 as a side dish

While I was researching bean-cooking advice I checked out a Three Bean salad recipe in a cookbook that recommended starting by soaking all the different beans separately and then cooking them all separately since they will cook at different rates. While it’s true that that wouldn’t be an impossible amount of work, it’s just so much simpler to open a bunch of cans. And even canned organic beans are very affordable and you can recycle the cans. Also, you can sometimes buy cans of beans that already contain a mixture of different beans but it’s just as easy to buy cans of different types of beans. I always like to include chickpeas in the mix because they have a firmer texture than other canned beans, and also because it makes the salad more interesting visually.

4 cans (15 ounces each) of cooked beans, any combination of kidney beans, white beans, chickpeas, or a mix of beans
2 cans green beans or wax beans or 3 cups fresh green beans that have been steamed but are still al dente
3-4 stalks of celery, chopped
1 cup chopped flat leaf (Italian) parsley
1 cup lightly toasted walnuts (optional)

1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice or ¼ cup juice from a freshly squeezed lemon
1 teaspoon mustard (I like Gulden’s spicy brown but other mustards work as well)
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
½ teaspoon dried tarragon or dried basil or a combination of the two OR ¼ teaspoon dried dill
1 teaspoon honey (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt (you may want to add more to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (you may want to add more to taste)

  1. If using fresh green beans, steam them until they are al dente (i.e. still offer a slight resistance when you bite down on them) and then shock them in ice water to preserve bright green color. To “shock” a food means to plunge it into ice water briefly, not to scandalize it. But if you feel like scandalizing the green beans, be my guest.
  2. Rinse all the beans and drain them using a colander.
  3. Make the dressing by combining all the ingredients and shaking them in a jar or whirring them in a blender
  4. Marinate the beans in the dressing overnight or for as long as you can before serving.
  5. To serve, add the chopped celery, parsley, and toasted walnuts at the last minute. Toss and correct for seasoning by adding more salt and pepper if needed.