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Some people mark the start of fall with an apple pie. Others start breaking out the big reds from their wine cellars. Me? I'm a bean boy.

All it takes is the first sign of a nip in the air or the first morning that smells like rain, and I drag my Dutch oven out of the cupboard and start a big pot of beans simmering.

I'm not sure what it is I like best about beans -- whether it's the eating of them (so rich, so delicious, so complementary to other flavors) or the preparation. It's involved cooking, but not so much that it demands an entire afternoon.

They're perfect for a lazy fall day: Chop some vegetables, stew them in oil, add the beans, add water, bring to a simmer, cover and bake until tender.

Now, if you were reading carefully, you'll notice that there was one step I left out -- one that almost every other bean recipe tells you is a necessity. Most of the time, I don't soak my beans before cooking them.

I learned this many years ago. Ironically, I was looking for a shortcut for soaking, because as much as I love beans, I can never seem to think ahead enough to start preparing them the night before. So I investigated various quick-soaks and even tried soaking a big batch of beans and then freezing it.

But the more I investigated, the more I asked: Why soak beans at all? In fact, in Mexico, where beans are a staple, home cooks almost never soak them. So why do we?

I talked to everyone from Mexican cooking maven Diana Kennedy to a scientist who studied beans and their cookery (yes, such scientists do exist), and then I set myself up for a big trial. One day when I was sure to be home alone, I cooked up a batch of unsoaked beans and ate them. Then I sat patiently, waiting for disaster. But nothing happened.

Actually, I prepared three batches of beans that afternoon. Besides the unsoaked, I fixed a batch that had been traditionally presoaked and another that had been quick-soaked (bring to a boil, sit for an hour, then cook).

Comparing the three was what finally converted me. Not only were the unsoaked beans safe (and convenient!), they were utterly delicious, so much richer and more flavorful than the soaked beans that there was no mistaking them.

What's going on? Here's the short version: Soaking dried beans does nothing for flavor or digestibility. The one thing it does is cut down on the cooking time, but just how much depends on how old and dried out the beans are.

> WHITE BEANS WITH CHORIZO, CLAMS AND SHRIMP

For the beans:

1/4 pound Spanish chorizo, diced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 green bell pepper, chopped

1 onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pound dried white beans, such as cannellini or Great Northern

7 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

For seafood and assembly:

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, chopped

3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 1/4 cups crushed tomatoes

1 pound large peeled and deveined shrimp, cut into bite-size pieces

2 pounds Manila clams

Salt to taste

Chopped pickled green peppers, such as pepperoncini, for garnish

Chopped parsley, if desired, for garnish

Note: Spanish chorizo can be found at Spanish markets as well as at select gourmet markets and cooking supply stores.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the chorizo in olive oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven over medium heat on the stove top until the chorizo has rendered some fat and begun to brown, about 5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and cook until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Add the dried beans, water and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cover tightly and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Add the salt, stir and continue cooking, covered, until the beans are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. The beans should be like a thin stew; if necessary, add more water, one-quarter cup at a time. Remove the bay leaf and discard. Season to taste with more salt if necessary, and freshly ground black pepper. (The dish can be prepared up to this point a day ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered.)

Reheat the beans, if necessary.

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet that has a tight-fitting lid. Add the garlic and parsley and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the white wine and reduce to a thin syrup, about 3 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and cook until slightly reduced, about 5 minutes.

Add the shrimp and clams, cover tightly and raise the heat to high. Cook, frequently giving the pan a vigorous shake (holding the lid on firmly), until the clams have opened, about 5 minutes.

Gently stir the clams and shrimp into the warmed beans and heat through. Season to taste with more salt, if necessary. This makes about 12 cups of stew. Ladle the stew into shallow soup or pasta bowls and sprinkle each with about 2 teaspoons of the chopped pickled peppers and the parsley if using. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8.

Each of 8 servings: 415 calories; 30g protein; 42g carbohydrates; 10g fiber; 14g fat; 3g saturated fat; 95mg cholesterol; 2g sugar; 870mg sodium.

> CRISP-SKINNED DUCK BREASTS ON WHITE BEANS WITH DANDELION GREENS

For white beans:

1/4 pound fresh garlic sausage, crumbled

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 carrot, diced

1 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 pound dried white beans, such as cannellini or Great Northern

6 cups water, plus more if necessary

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1 bunch dandelion greens (about 3/4 pound)

1-2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

For duck breast and assembly:

2 tablespoons kosher salt

6 whole cloves

1 1/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

6 duck breasts (about 4 to 6 ounces each)

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

Note: This can also be made without the duck breast by increasing the garlic sausage to 3/4 pound or more.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Cook the garlic sausage in olive oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven over medium heat on the stove top until the sausage has browned, about 7 minutes. Add the carrot and cook until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the onion and cook, stirring constantly to scrape up any browned sausage bits sticking to the bottom of the pan, until it begins to soften, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

Add the dried beans, water and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Cover tightly and bake in the oven for 1 hour. Add the salt, stir, and continue cooking, covered, until the beans are tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. The beans should be fairly dry, but if necessary, add more water, one-quarter cup at a time. Remove the bay leaf and discard. Season to taste with more salt if necessary, and freshly ground black pepper. (The dish can be prepared up to this point a day ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered.)

When almost ready to serve, chop the dandelion greens in 1-inch sections down to where you're getting almost all stem. You should have 3 to 4 cups.

While the duck breasts are cooking (below), reheat the beans, adding a little more water if necessary to create a slightly flowing, risotto-like texture, and add the dandelion greens. Cook, covered, until the greens soften, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with more salt and pepper, if necessary, and the red wine vinegar to taste.

Grind together the salt, cloves and peppercorns to a fine powder. Use a sharp knife to cut a shallow cross-hatching on the skin side of the duck breasts, through the skin but not to the meat.

Season the breasts on both sides with the spice mixture, concentrating on the skin side (you'll use most, if not all, of the spice) and place on a plate. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate. (This recipe may be prepared to this point up to a day in advance; bring the duck to room temperature before continuing.)

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottom skillet over medium-high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Pat dry the skin side of the duck breasts with a paper towel and place the breasts skin-side down in the hot pan. Sear until the skin side is a deep golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Depending on the size of the skillet, the breasts will probably need to be cooked in batches. Press down on the breasts from time to time with a spatula to press out any rendered fat. Reduce the heat to medium and turn the breasts over. Cook on the second side until they are medium-rare in the center, 3 to 5 minutes more.

Remove the duck breasts to a carving board and let rest for 5 minutes before slicing on a bias into thick slices.

Spoon a generous three-quarters to 1 cup of white beans onto the center of a plate and arrange a sliced duck breast on top. Repeat, using all of the duck breast; you will have some white beans left over for another meal.

Serves 6.

Each serving: 515 calories; 44g protein; 41g carbohydrates; 11g fiber; 20g fat; 5g saturated fat; 158mg cholesterol; 2g sugar; 781mg sodium.