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Beans of summer

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Beans show their versatility on a multiday rafting trip
Photo by Sarah LemonClassic black-eyed peas with collard greens and cornbread make a filling meal for summer adventurers.
Photo by Sarah LemonWhite beans with kale, crispy polenta and chicken sausage are an Italian-inspired take on beans and greens with cornbread.
Photo by Sarah LemonThe Louisiana staple red beans and rice can be made ahead and reheated riverside.

“Too early in the summer to be sick of beans.”

The “Brokeback Mountain” line leapt to mind as I scanned a menu for six days of rafting on the John Day River. Although each boater was responsible for a dinner to feed the group — on the assumption we’d enjoy some variety — a common thread ran through each dish.

Chili. Ranch-style beans. Red beans and rice. Chickpea masala. Black-eyed peas with collard greens. And cannellini beans with kale and pesto — my own contribution.

There’s no denying it: Beans are a summer staple. And our group’s efforts certainly showed their versatility.

In this particular case, we were catering to our group’s vegetarian without sacrificing collective enjoyment. After days of splashing through rapids, scraping over shallow riffles, rowing against headwinds and shlepping gear from boats to riverbank and back again, enjoy them we did.

As companions to campers, backpackers and other outdoor adventurers, beans appeal on many levels. They travel either dry or in cans, of course. But wilderness treks involving a cooler invite precooked beans — particularly if they’ve been frozen — along for the ride.

Our group was of like mind in this regard. Each of us had precooked dinner, transferred it to resealable plastic freezer bags and consigned it in the freezer. When it’s time to load a cooler for transport to a campsite, frozen-solid beans help to keep all the other edibles cold. They thaw in a couple of days, depending on cooler type, size and other variables.

To my beans, I added squares of cooked and solidified polenta, which also freezes and thaws well for crisping in a skillet over a camp stove. With a side of chicken sausage, the meal that satisfies at home also is part of my tried-and-true outdoor repertoire, adapted in late summer to zucchini, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes from my garden.

Any and all of these bean dishes, for that matter, can be augmented with or adapted to fresh seasonal produce, particularly those that will take over a home garden while its caretakers are on summer break. Simmer a pot of beans large enough to take some on the road but also to bide their time in the freezer, supplying an easy meal upon the cook’s return.

Precooked beans to feed two to four people fit into a quart-sized freezer bag and thaw in water within about 15 minutes. Or simply dump beans from the bag into a pot on the stove and speed their thawing by adding water, stock or a sauce of your choice.

Pesto played the dual role of cooking medium and flavoring agent while I was rafting. Similarly, stock extends pinto beans into chili, salsa spices up black beans, and Indian-style simmer sauce from a jar transforms precooked chickpeas and lentils into a quick curry.

Here’s how to make a pound of dried beans that can be divided into smaller portions and seasoned individually. I like to start with leftover bacon fat, or the lardons indicated here, but bacon can be omitted in favor of oil, butter or a combination.

You can soak the beans beforehand or not. Using a multicooker, such as an Instant Pot, exponentially speeds up the process. Follow your appliance’s directions for quantities of water and beans, as well as cooking times.

1. In a large stockpot, crisp half a pound of bacon lardons.

2. When they’re halfway there, add aromatics; sweat for a few minutes.

3. Add beans and enough liquid to cover by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.

4, Add salt until the liquid tastes perfectly seasoned, then cover the beans and simmer until soft and creamy.

Depending on the kind of beans and how old they are (beans continue to dry out on the shelf), and depending on whether you soaked, this could take anywhere from an hour to three or more. Check the liquid frequently; if the level drops below the beans, add more as necessary.

When the beans are done, taste for salt, and finish with spices or fresh herbs, vinegar and sugar, barbecue sauce — whatever tickles your taste buds. Freeze in smaller portions, if desired.

Variations:

Cuban/Latin American-style: Render bacon. Sweat onions, green pepper, garlic and jalapeno, if you like. Use black beans with chicken stock or water. When done, flavor with cilantro, oregano, cider vinegar, sugar and optional sliced pimento-stuffed olives.

French-style: Render bacon. Sweat mirepoix (a 2-1-1 mix of chopped onions, carrot and celery). Use white beans with stock and a bay leaf. When done, flavor with thyme or herbes de Provence. A poached egg on top of these is delicious.

Tex-Mex: Render bacon. Sweat onions, green pepper, garlic and optional jalapeno. Use kidney and/or pinto beans in water or stock. When done, flavor with cumin, chile powder and optional barbecue sauce.

Perfect Pinto Beans

1/2 pound thick-cut bacon, cut into lardons

1 medium onion, peeled and diced

2 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 pound dry pinto beans

1 quart low-sodium chicken broth

Salt, as needed

1 bay leaf

1-1/2 teaspoons paprika

1-1/2 teaspoons cumin

1 jalapeno, split in half (optional)

Fresh cilantro, minced, for serving

Mexican cheese, like cotija or queso fresco, crumbled, for serving

In a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot over medium heat, saute the bacon until fat is rendered but bacon is still soft, for about 5 minutes.

Add the onion and continue cooking until bacon is slightly crispy, for about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until just fragrant, for about 30 seconds.

Add the beans and stock. Add water until beans are covered by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer.

Season liquid with salt to taste, about 1/2 tablespoon per quart of liquid. Add the bay leaf, spices and jalapeno, if using; cover and simmer until beans are soft and creamy, for 90 minutes to 3 hours. May be transferred to freezer bags at this point and frozen until ready to use.

If beans have been frozen, thaw and reheat. Serve warm, topped with the cilantro and cheese.

Makes 12 half-cup servings.

Polenta with Kale and Chickpeas

1 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cups yellow cornmeal, medium or coarse

3-1/2 tablespoons butter, divided

1 ounce grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Leaves from 1 pound kale, chopped

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 (16-ounce) can chickpeas

2 lemon wedges

If you want to fry the polenta, begin making it a few hours before serving, or overnight. Add the salt to 3 cups water in a medium or large pot; bring to a boil. Have another pot with at least 6 cups water simmering nearby. Slowly sprinkle cornmeal into salted water, stirring continuously. Lower temperature to a very low simmer.

Stir frequently and add simmering water, a ladle at a time, whenever polenta starts to become stiff and dry. Cook until smooth and tender, for about 30 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the butter and the Parmesan cheese until well-mixed.

If frying polenta, pour into a large, well-greased skillet or wide bowl to a depth of 1 to 1-1/2 inches, and smooth top. When cool, cover with plastic wrap and place skillet or bowl in refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight to allow polenta to set. Slice into 6 wedges, transfer to freezer bags and freeze, if desired.

When ready to cook, melt remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet. When very hot, add polenta wedges (thawed, if frozen) so there is at least some room between each wedge (do this in batches if necessary). Cook wedges, without touching, until they start to turn brown on bottoms. Flip and cook until brown on other side. Remove to a platter.

In a large skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and sauté until soft, for about 3 minutes. Add the crushed garlic and sauté until fragrant, for about 30 seconds. Add the kale and cook until wilted. Stir in the diced tomatoes and cook until hot. Stir in the chickpeas and cook until hot. Add juice from lemon wedges and mix. May be transferred to freezer bags at this point and frozen until ready to use.

If chickpeas have been frozen, thaw and reheat. To serve, place polenta on a plate, either fried or in semi-liquid form, and top with chickpea-vegetable mixture.

Makes 6 servings.

Rustic Lentils on Couscous

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, cored and chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1/2 zucchini, not peeled, chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2/3 cup green lentils

2 (14.5-ounce) cans diced, no-salt-added tomatoes, with liquid

2 teaspoons Italian seasoning

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper, to taste

Hot, cooked couscous, for serving

Shredded Parmesan cheese, for garnish

In a Dutch oven over medium high heat, heat the oil. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until onion is tender. Add the bell pepper, carrots and zucchini; cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds.

Stir in the lentils, tomatoes, 1 cup water, the Italian seasoning, pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes or until lentils and vegetables are tender. May be transferred to freezer bags at this point and frozen until ready to use.

If lentils have been frozen, thaw and reheat. Ladle lentils and vegetables over the hot couscous. Sprinkle with the Parmesan.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.