These comforting beans are endlessly adaptable, thanks to easy swap-outs that rely on ingredients you already have in your pantry. Start with one of the classic flavor combinations below, then let your let your imagination go and experiment with your own variations. However you make them, the beans get better after a day or so of soaking in their cooking juices, so you'll be glad you made a big batch. Eat them with bread or tortillas-- or serve over rice, topped with a piece of cooked chicken or fish for a heartier meal.
For the brothy beans: Put the beans in a large bowl with cold water to cover by 2 inches. Soak in the refrigerator at least 8 hours and up to 12 hours.
Drain and rinse the beans. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the smoked meat if using and cook, stirring occasionally, until crisped, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the onion and other chopped vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just softened, about 3 minutes.
For the aromatics: Add the aromatics of your choice (use up to 3) and cook, stirring, until sizzling, about 1 minute.
Add the beans and bay leaves along with cold water to cover by about 2 inches (8 to 9 cups). Submerge the woody herb sprigs in the water if using. Bring to a simmer, partially cover the pot with the lid and cook until the beans are very tender, 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes, depending on the type of bean.
To serve, remove and discard the bay leaves and herb sprigs. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season with 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons according to your taste. Stir in the fresh herbs.
Try these flavor combinations:
Italian: Follow the recipe using cannellini beans, pancetta, celery, carrots, garlic, rosemary and parsley.
Latin: Follow the recipe using black beans, ham, bell pepper, tomato, sofrito, jalapeno and cilantro.
Cajun: Follow the recipe using black eyed peas, andouille, celery, bell pepper, tomato paste, thyme and chives.
Tex-Mex: Follow the recipe using pinto beans, celery, carrot, garlic, adobo sauce and cilantro.
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