I just brought home a bean soup from a local Pizzaria. The flavor was delicious but I threw most of it out because the beans were tough. I find under-cooked beans in all sorts of restaurants. Besides having an unpleasant texture, chewy beans are challenging to the digestive system.
I suspect this problem is due to cooks' ignorance of a simple fact: Salt and acidic ingredients will toughen the bean. I learned long ago that if you want beans to cook thoroughly, hold off the salt, tomato, celery, and citrus until after they've gotten soft.
But perhaps I'm the ignorant one... Do some cultures prefer al dente beans? I don't think I've ever had a tough bean in a Carribbean or Portuguese restaurant. But many Italian, American, and Natural Food places have served me chewy beans.
I really doubt that mealy beans are intentional, especially not in Italian fare, in light of the Italian passion for vegetables thoroughly cooked. I can imagine a cooks desire for the beans to maintain their individual integrity to avoid muddiness in the dish, but I agree, mealy beans are odious. Any dissent here?
re: Neil Anderson
It's not just salt. Some "cooks" make the mistake of adding baking powder - this toughens 'em up greatly. Another cause of tough bean disaster is good old age. The fresher the dried bean, the better. Look to local health food markets that have big bins of them. It really makes a difference.
My bete noir at home has been old beans - I am a bit of a foodstuff collector - a bad idea with beans. Canadian yellow peas and chana dal that cooked up when first purchased in a couple of hours never cooked up at all after a year's aging in my closet.
I dont salt my beans upfront, but thats one of the issues on which bean theorists differ.
Ive had underdone beans in several upscale NY restaurants, most prominently Montrachet. Possible theories: (1) the chefs don't taste them - despite these ideas about blowing on the bean and seeing whether the skin splits, beans really need to be bit into and tasted to check doneness (2) beans get messy when fully cooked - they start to break and dissolve into the cooking liquid whereas they look "nicer" on the plate when not quite done and (3) maybe the chefs figure, from the plates coming back to the kitchen, that people dont eat the beans anyway (maybe a vicious cycle deriving from (1) or (2)).