During summer months when grilling reigns supreme, vegetarian options and side dishes play second fiddle. But the surging popularity of the Instant Pot, an electric pressure cooker, provides a behind-the-scenes resource for assembling meat-free complements to the grill.
Cooked from scratch, beans gain a rich, aromatic cooking sauce in addition to their fundamental charms of protein, fiber, economy and versatility. And the rich, soupy “pot liquor” of frijoles de olla can be assembled spectacularly quickly under pressure.
In a tightly sealed pot, raising the temperature of boiling liquid – in this case, the water or broth in which beans are immersed – creates trapped steam. As the temperature rises, so does the pressure. Instead of venting, the steam gets hotter and hotter, because the boiling point of water increases as pressure rises. The superheated liquid in an Instant Pot can maintain an internal temperature of nearly 240 F. At higher temperatures, a chemical reaction – aka a cooking process – occurs faster. That translates, in the case of the Instant Pot, to cooking times that are three or four times as fast as normal boiling.
That means that a working parent or host can come home from work and start a pot of beans that will be done in time for dinner, rather than requiring hours on a hot stove.
To cut the cooking time even further, soak the dried beans in advance. A pound of black beans, soaked during the day, requires 6-8 minutes at pressure to cook. No time to plan ahead and soak? They’ll require 16 or so minutes at pressure.
If you’re a pressure-cooking neophyte, the most conservative approach to a first pot of beans is to follow a recipe, use a generous time estimate so that your beans may be overly soft but they’re definitely done and let the pressure release naturally (rather than manually speeding the process).
Recipes that celebrate the murky, flavorful cooking liquid that cradles cooked beans often call for up to 30 minutes of sautéing in an open Instant Pot after the pressure phase. That allows the liquid to thicken for same-day eating (after a night in the fridge, frijoles de olla will thicken regardless).
Taken in total, one needs to budget an hour for a complete vegetarian dish – but almost all of that time can be spent working on something else as the pressure cooker works its magic unattended. I like to spoon the finished beans over a mixed-grain pilaf like Trader Joe’s brown rice medley, which includes barley and radish seeds. I make the grain in a fuzzy logic rice cooker while the Instant Pot is bubbling away – a technology story for a different food issue, but another key work-night time-saver.
I cook black or pinto beans with minimalist seasonings in the summer, allowing the flavor of the legume and veggies to stand alone in my soup bowl. The garlic, onion, peppers and tomato listed below are all optional additions on an as-available basis. They pay a tribute to the “sofrito” flavor palate, which is complementary to beans but varies across countries and even neighborhoods, and thus should be customized freely. Experts are divided as to when to add salt, but I operate on the “add before you forget it” model and sprinkle it in before sealing the lid.
Fresh, raw produce adds the color, crunch and varied flavors that keep beans from being boring. In a tribute to the peppers that currently abound in local markets this month, use peppers both in the bean broth and diced as a garnish. I use a combination of jalapeno, Anaheim, poblano or Italian peppers – whichever I can get on a given day – and their fiery heat ranges from sweet to substantial, depending on my audience. On top of their cooked beans, some people love to add avocado, others stick to sticky-sweet chopped or cherry tomatoes from the garden, red onion soaked in lime juice or even a sprinkle of cotija cheese or salsa.
Black Beans & Garden Garnish
• 1 pound black or pinto beans
• 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
• 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
• 1/2 red onion, chopped
• 3 bay leaves
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 4 cups broth or water
• 2 peppers, chopped
• 4 small or 2 large tomatoes, chopped
• 1/2 red onion, chopped
• 2-3 peppers, chopped
• 4 small or 2 large tomatoes, sliced into bite-size chunks
• 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
Set electric pressure cooker to sauté function and add oil. When hot, sauté onions, garlic and pepper until soft and fragrant. Add bay leaves, salt, beans, water/broth and tomatoes. Mix well, close lid on pot and set to pressure cook for 8 or 16 minutes, depending on whether beans are soaked. Allow pressure to release naturally.
To thicken broth and develop flavor, remove lid and return device to sauté mode for up to 30 minutes after pressure releases.
While beans cook, assemble toppings in serving bowls so that diners can doctor their own beans to taste. Serve with just-barely-steamed sweet corn, grilled meats, warm bread, brown rice or other whole grains.