Veggie Kitchen Tips – Cutting costs and colouring soup…

One of the problems making soup (specifically this one) with canned beans is that there is no bean stock for flavour. While weight for weight, canned beans cost the same as soaking and cooking your own (more or less, depending on brand – I use Napolina exclusively – and special offers), there’s no getting away from the lack of stock. The solution is to soak and cook your own – and cut food costs while doing so by using a slow cooker.

Invest in a basic slow cooker,** about 3 – 3.5 litres capacity, and the cost balance swings heavily in favour of soak and cook, as a slow cooker uses maybe 10% of the electricity of cooking on the hob of my cooker (don’t even think of using the oven – way too extravagant). True, it uses it for longer, but that doesn’t really matter – the cost saving is still substantial.

**I’ve made two batches of soup in my slow cooker. Less hassle, but much less flavour in the finished soup, which I don’t understand given that I used the same recipe.

Anyway, two days ago I soaked, and cooked overnight, 500g dry weight of Pinto beans, tossing in a peeled and chopped carrot, and an onion (never cook pulses  with anything salty – it toughens the skins and slows down the whole process).

Now, slow cookers run hotter than they used to, as some interfering bugger decided that the ultra-low power, and thus very low heat, was a health hazard, though why this logic doesn’t apply to sous vide cookers is a mystery that might have its answer** in the fact that pissing off home cooks has fewer consequences than pissing off the entire restaurant industry.

**Sous vide temperatures can be so very low it can take several days to cook food – tell me that doesn’t carry a risk of incubating pathogens.

My slow cooker has three settings, Low, which is a genuine simmer, High,  a gentle, bubbling, boil, with Medium somewhere in between. I brought it up to operating temperature on High, and switched to Low. Six hours after turning it on (put in the beans and veg, and add enough boiling water to cover by an inch – beans absorb water as they cook), the beans were cooked to perfection, with a couple of pints of tasty stock to be drained off once they’d cooled. Unfortunately, that was at four in the morning, but as I’m usually awake then, turning it off wasn’t a problem – must pay closer attention to the start time in future though. The beans were left too cool in the cooking liquor, to take back a little of the flavour they’d given up, and to keep them moist and creamy.

500g of dried beans, soaked and cooked, yields enough for about 6 litres – two batches – of soup, using my 3-litre spoonie-friendly stainless steel casserole, half used, the rest frozen. The beans were organic, so cost £1.73 for . At Sainsbury’s they’d cost £1, non-organic. Either way, they won’t break the bank. Two batches of soup would normally take almost £5 or £6 worth of canned beans, depending on the bean type, and whether it was on offer or not, so slow cooking dried and soaked beans can reduce that cost to£1. It’s really no contest.

There’s a drawback, though – the stock is an unattractive muddy pink. Personally, that wouldn’t bother me, but some people worry about the aesthetics of food more than me (though I do if I’m likely to give some away), so I looked for a fix.

I had a vac-pack of cooked beetroot in the fridge, so I opened them up, trimmed and washed them, and puréed them in the processor with a splash of olive oil, then froze them in an ice-cube tray. Once hard I removed and bagged them – do this quickly, as frozen oil softens fast – and put them back in the freezer. Two cubes I added to the stock, changing it to a more attractive shade of pink without noticeably changing the taste.

If you don’t have a food processor a blender will do – use water instead of oil – or grate the beetroot finely.

Of course, Sod’s Law is always lurking, and adding ground coriander changed the stock from pink to brown anyway. Without that, though, this works very well and the soup will look much better for it.** And while it’s a bit of a faff, two small beetroot yield a dozen cubes, so it’s not something you’ll have to do too often.

**While sitting in the fridge overnight, the beetroot continued to colour the soup and it wound up a deep shade of pink, much more attractive than its original muddy colour.