Beans are not just delicious but good for us – and the planet. They’re also amazingly versatile
Judith Choate loves beans. “Everything about them is good,” says the American chef and food writer. “They’re cheap, they’re highly nutritious. They’re good for the planet: when farmers farm them, they put nutrients back into the earth. I can’t even think of anything bad about them, except the one thing that people object to, which is they do take some time to cook.” Choate has now written The Mighty Bean, a book packed with simple recipes to encourage more of us to love legumes. Here are some of her tips to make the best of beans.
Make sure you keep several beans and pulses in stock for quick meals, says Choate. “Always lentils, because you can quickly put together lentil soup, which will take no more than a half-hour.” As for beans, she always keeps “one red, one white, one black” to cover most recipes (she isn’t precious about substituting beans; cooking times may vary, but one bean can often be swapped for any similar other). “And chickpeas: you can do all kinds of Middle Eastern recipes, as well as the old stand-by, hummus, which is the perfect snack.” Look out for more unusual beans, too. “I wouldn’t say the ayocote blanco is wildly different from cannellini beans, but it’s fun to experiment.”
To soak or not
Choate soaks dried beans and, while that seems like a chore, all it requires is a bit of forward planning. “I’m making some white bean stew today,” she says. “I put the beans on to soak last night. You don’t have to pay much attention to them. A lot of people don’t soak them, they just cook them for longer, but I like the consistency after a soak.” If you really can’t be bothered, buy tinned.
While beans and pulses form the base of many of Choate’s main courses, her book is a reminder that legumes can be added to other dishes to bulk them out, as well as add flavour and nutrition. She tops fish with herby tender white beans – made by simmering beans such as cannellini with ingredients including chervil, thyme, basil and parsley – and makes a black bean chutney to go with beef. A chickpea puree (cooked with herbs and garlic) is served under prawns as a starter, and she likes to cook large white gigante beans as a base for meat or fish.
Get children into beans
Don’t stop at sugary baked beans. “Beans are innocuous in their flavour,” says Choate, explaining why she thinks even the fussiest children won’t object to most bean-based recipes, as long as you consider the flavourings that go with them. “Black-bean burgers are delicious,” she says. Her recipe involves blitzing two slices of toast in a food processor with a handful of walnuts. Transfer to a mixing bowl, then whiz two drained cans of black beans with the juice of half a lemon, half an onion and 1 tbsp of chopped garlic (plus 1 tsp of optional hot sauce) in the processor. Scrape it into the toast mixture, along with a beaten egg, and mix, then form six patties. Fry each one for about 10 minutes, turning halfway.
Snack on beans
It is easy to turn legumes into a healthy snack. To make Choate’s spicy roasted chickpeas, mix 1 tsp each of curry powder and fennel seeds, ½ tsp cumin, and ¼ tsp each of cayenne pepper and smoked paprika, and a bit of salt, in about 3 tbsp oil. Mix in 200g of cooked chickpeas (patted dry), spread on a baking tray and roast in an oven at 230C for about 30 minutes. “You can use any beans, but chickpeas work better because they’re firm even after they’re cooked,” says Choate. Once cooled, they can be stored in a tightly sealed jar for a couple of weeks.
Sneak beans in
Gram flour, made from chickpeas, is a staple in southern Asian cooking, but Choate recommends it as a flour substitute in other dishes. She has a recipe for vegetable tempura using gram flour, along with the more traditional Socca, a French flatbread made with chickpea flour. She also makes pancakes with a batter made from whizzed-up mung beans and oats, and smoothies with black beans.
Keep a bean dip on hand
Each week, Choate mixes up a batch of hummus to snack on or make into a quick supper, but if she doesn’t have chickpeas in stock, she will make a dip from any bean. “I use cannellini, I use black beans,” she says. “I experiment with them.” Add different flavourings, she says; black beans, especially, can withstand chilli.
Make pickled beans
Having a jar of pickled beans in the fridge means a spoonful of legumes can be added to lots of meals including salads, sandwiches, or as a side (it goes well with prawns or fish, says Choate). Her recipe mixes about 600g cooked black-eyed peas with one medium chopped onion. Simmer about 230ml white wine vinegar, 50g light brown sugar, 1 tbsp minced garlic, 1 tsp mustard seeds, ½ tsp dried chilli flakes and ½ tsp salt until the sugar dissolves. Pour over the black-eyed peas and store, covered, and it should keep for up to two weeks in the fridge. “You could use any bean in that recipe,” says Choate. “It would be particularly good if you really spiced it up.”
Batch cook beans for different meals
The white bean stew Choate is cooking will probably be transformed into other dishes throughout the week, she says. In a couple of days, she’ll cook down the leftovers and use them as a base for a piece of grilled chicken. “Then I might puree it all and turn it into a dip with some herbs and seasonings. In the old days, if somebody happened to stop in before we were all isolated in our houses, I would heat it up and make some bruschetta to go with a cocktail.”