Warm up in winter with hearty soups full of dried beans, peas, or lentils

The cold winter months are a good time to renew one's acquaintance with hearty soups. And to the cook familiar with hungry skaters or sledders coming in from the snowy outdoors, ingredients such as dried beans, peas, and lentils come to mind immediately. These foods, known as legumes because they grow in pods, are inexpensive and add plenty of flavor and fiber to a daily menu.

Pound for pound they have less waste, less cost, and more usable protein than many other more traditional protein sources.

Casseroles and soups made of dried beans have had to live down the traditional reputation of being peasant fare.

Dried beans, however, are cooked in many countries for some of the most famous traditional dishes and are well-liked in spite of the humble associations. These associations are often a reflection of their importance in the diet of poor populations the world over.

But they possess a special advantage because they have the ability to absorb subtle flavors and seasonings.

Cassoulet, a famous bean dish in France, combines beans with smoked pork and goose in many variations.

In Brazil, the traditional feijoada is an elaborate blend of meat and beans; while in New England baked beans with salt pork and molasses is one more example of a rich dish made with dried beans.

Dry split peas and lentils are quicker to prepare, and unlike many legumes that lose water in drying, split peas and lentils need no soaking and draining before cooking. All that's needed is a quick rinse and they're ready to pop into a pot and cook in under an hour.

Split pea and lentil soups are classic dishes that have been around for generations in many families. A pound of either, simmered in 5 cups of water, provides the base for many of these hearty soups.

Add some finely diced celery, carrot, and onion, first cooked in a bit of oil, along with a touch of salt and pepper as desired, and you've got a simple, hearty, meatless dish.

Basic bean combinations can be varied by adding one or two of the following: diced tomato, sliced sausage or frankfurters, dried beef, diced ham or bacon, garlic or leeks, curry powder, thyme, oregano, or parsley. The thick, rich soup base provides a flavorful background for many kinds of seasonings.

Although dried beans, lentils, and peas have a long shelf life, you should avoid using any that are more than a year old. They will darken and harden as they age and then need longer cooking. Eventually they dry out so much they fall to pieces when cooked.

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