Cannellini beans and pasta with sprigs of fresh rosemary and...

Cannellini beans and pasta with sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme; topped with olive oil and shaved parmesan cheese. Credit: Marge Perry

This is the beginning of a beautiful relationship. A simple bag of dried beans can be the heart of so many meals, considering the top qualities.

Convenient: With a tiny bit of forethought, soaking and cooking dried beans will not interfere with your life. It’s simple: Before you go to bed at night, throw a pound of dried beans in a bowl and cover them with water by about 2 inches. When you wake up in the morning, dump the water, transfer the beans to a pot and again cover them with water. While your coffee brews, bring the pot to a boil, then immediately cover the pot and simmer the beans for about an hour, or until they are tender. By the way, do not add salt to the water — it slows the absorption and the beans will take longer to cook.

Inexpensive: For about $2, you will have about 6 cups of cooked beans, which can be at least six servings (usually more) depending what you do with them. A can of beans may be about $1.50, but yields about 1 1/3 cups.

Healthful: One cup of cooked cannellini beans has 242 calories and 17 grams of protein and 11 grams of fiber, yet less than one gram of fat. In addition, they are a good source of potassium, magnesium and other important nutrients. White beans are high in antioxidants that are said to help protect against chronic illnesses including heart disease and some cancers. The fact that beans are high in fiber and protein makes them particularly satisfying: they promote fullness, which means you may end up eating fewer calories for the same level of satiety. That makes them a good diet food.

Delicious: There isn’t any great science that proves why beans are so satisfying, but suffice it to say that they are easy to eat, with a slightly nutty, starchy flavor and texture that can be dressed up or treasured as-is. Beans can be a foundation for exciting flavors, or they can be a simple dish all on their own. What's more, growing beans reduces the need for fertilizers, which helps reduce greenhouse emissions. So go forth and bean.

Depression-era Pasta Fagioli

This is pasta fagioli as taught to me by an Italian-American woman who grew up during the Depression. She mastered the art of creating delicious meals out of the fewest and most inexpensive ingredients, never letting a single scrap go to waste.

1 pound cannellini beans

Sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme

2 cloves garlic

1 cup ditalini, about 4 1/2 ounces (or other small pasta)

1/2 teaspoon salt

Olive oil for drizzling

Shaved or grated Parmesan for serving

1. Soak the beans overnight in a bowl with enough cold water to cover them by 2-inches. In the morning, discard the water, transfer the beans to a pot and again cover with enough cold water to go two inches above the beans. Add sprigs of fresh herbs and garlic cloves.

2. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook until the beans are tender, about 1 hour.

3. When the beans are soft, add another 4 cups water to the pot and bring to a boil. Stir in the ditalini and salt and cook until the pasta is tender, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Before serving, discard the garlic from the pot and ladle into bowls. Drizzle each bowl with olive oil and top with the Parmesan.

Makes about 8 servings