The absolute best meal I’ve ever had was a platter of chickpeas and fresh tomato sauce; it had simmered all day on the open hearth of a restaurant in Sicily, and—along with a little pasta, escarole, and Chianti, of course—created a meal that could never be rivaled by even the most expensive cut of meat!

Other wonderful bean-based delicacies: garlic-infused Cuban black beans, spicy Indian lentil curry, or lemony chick pea hummus from the Middle East. Beans are world class cuisine!

I always keep a good supply of canned beans on hand for fast meals. But they have become expensive lately, and they also have a higher glycemic index than those you cook from scratch. And cooking your own dried beans is easy.

Except for lentils and split peas, beans will cook much more quickly if you soak them first. Rinse the dried beans in a colander, then put in a pot or bowl with 3 cups of water for every cup of dried beans. Let them soak in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, although it’s okay to leave them for much longer. Drain and rinse, and then add fresh water—the same amount you used to soak them. Bring the water to a boil, reduce to simmer and cook until the beans are tender, around 1 to 2 hours.

You can also use the quick soak method: Instead of soaking, bring the beans and water to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand at room temperature for one hour. Drain and add fresh water and they are ready to cook.

Cooked beans will keep in the refrigerator for about 4 to 5 days. You can also freeze them for up to six months. This will change their texture and flavor somewhat, but it’s a good way to make sure you always have beans on hand.

If you are bothered by gas from beans, try changing the water in which you soak them several times over several hours. This leaches out the indigestible sugars, called oligosaccharides, that cause gas production. But don’t be so quick to get rid of these sugars. They promote growth of friendly bacteria in the colon that can reduce your risk of cancer. And most people find that they feel less gas-y as they get used to eating more beans.

Canned or cooked, it is easy to turn beans into flavorful dishes to serve over rice or scooped onto a baked potato. Here are a few super-fast ideas. The amounts are approximate; let your own tastebuds guide the way you season these dishes:

For black, pinto, and kidney beans:

  • Mexican-style beans: For each cup of cooked beans, stir in ¼ cup salsa and ¼ cup corn kernels. Heat and serve over rice topped with shredded soy cheese or chopped avocado and tomatoes.
  • Cuban beans: Saute ½ cup chopped onion and 3 cloves garlic in canola oil until the onion is tender. Stir in 3 cups of cooked black beans and add salt and pepper to taste.
  • For white beans—great northern, baby lima, or cannelini beans:

  • Beans with mushrooms: Sauté 1 ½ cup sliced mushrooms in olive oil. Add 3 cups of cooked beans and season with black pepper, dried thyme and fresh lemon juice. You might also add canned or chopped tomatoes to this dish.
  • Barbecued beans: Mix in 3 tablespoons prepared barbecue sauce per cup of cooked beans.
  • Zesty beans with tomato sauce: Mix in 3 tablespoons prepared spaghetti sauce (try a spicy one like Paul Newman’s Sockarooni) per cup of cooked beans.
  • Italian-style beans: Saute ¼ cup chopped onion and 2 cloves of minced garlic in olive oil. Add 3 cups of cooked white beans and ½ cup chopped figs. Season with dried basil and rosemary.
  • Beans with apples and sausage: Saute ½ cup of onions in olive oil. Add 3 cups of cooked beans, 1 diced apple, and 4 ounces of vegetarian sausage, (defrosted and crumbled). Simmer together until everything is heated through and the apples are tender.