After making a case for eating more beans last week, I’ve now got a suggestion for where to start, if you haven’t already: with a bean salad. There are so many possibilities when it comes to beans, but here is a quick, cheap, familiar dish that has the flexibility to fit what you have on hand. It also works well in the warmer weather that is headed our way, as it can be served cold or at room temperature.
You can use canned beans for convenience or cook them yourself for savings, which also gives you extra control over the texture of your beans. Cook longer for creamier beans or simmer just to al dente for firmer beans. You often want the beans to have a bit of firmness in a bean salad so they can hold up to stirring.
“Possibly my favorite are the healthy, grain-and-legume, full-meal salads, the ones that are summer on a plate and ready when you are. In warmer months, having such a salad in the refrigerator, amiably on call for a quick lunch several days running, is an easy way to be good to yourself (and any others you may feed). The one in my fridge right now has chilled cooked barley; chilled sliced steamed beans (both green and yellow); cooked kidney beans; a shower of parsley, thyme, dill and tarragon-a garden full of vegetables.”
The classic recipe for the ubiquitous three-bean salad, which turns up so often at family gatherings and picnics, is up to a pound each of cooked kidney beans, green beans and wax (yellow) beans; flavored with minced onion; dressed with a vinaigrette; and seasoned with parsley, salt and pepper. Google can provide innumerable versions of this potluck regular, many of which include much more than just three types of beans, so don’t let the name limit your imagination!
If you’re using canned beans, rinse and drain them well so you don’t end up with a watery salad. When cooking your own, plan on about two-thirds a cup of dried beans to expand to two cups of cooked beans, which is equivalent to a can of beans (according to Mark Bittman, you should toss them with the dressing while they’re still warm so that they can better absorb the flavors). Besides the usual kidney beans, you also might like to add some pinto, black, cannellini, white, fava, flageolet or garbanzo beans-or soybeans, black-eyed peas, lentils or edamame.
In addition to green beans and onion, consider filling out your salad with things such as snap peas, greens, mushrooms, pimentos, olives, chopped celery, lemongrass, scallions, cilantro, chilies, bell peppers, minced garlic, shallot, ginger or cucumber. In the summer, it’s easy to find lots of fresh vegetables to mix into your salad, but at other times of year, you might need to use canned or frozen vegetables. Thaw, steam or blanch your veggies as needed, and let them cool some before mixing them in.
To give the salad extra substance, add some grains, such as cooked wheat berries, barley or quinoa. To pump up the flavor, add fresh herbs (parsley, basil, mint, dill, tarragon, chives, oregano, marjoram, sage, rosemary), spices (curry, cumin, paprika) or sauces (mustard, wasabi, horseradish, tamari, salsa, chutney, chipotle).
Toss the beans in a vinaigrette (or just some citrus juice, cider, or balsamic or red wine vinegar-adding oil is optional) and mix in all the other ingredients. If you have time, let the salad marinate for a couple of hours (the longer, the better). If you’re not going to serve it soon, let it sit in the refrigerator.
Before serving, garnish with parsley, lemon slices, bread crumbs, diced or tiny tomatoes, capers, crumbled boiled egg, tuna, anchovies, bits of bacon, chopped nuts, seeds, shredded cheese or avocado. If you want to be fancy, you could serve the salad on a leaf of lettuce.
Beans are an incredibly versatile ingredient that can be served at breakfast, lunch, dinner or as a snack. They can be an appetizer, main dish or side; they can be at the center of a dish or sprinkled as a garnish on salad or in soup. Since dried beans are so cheap, they lend themselves to experimentation. Put a pot on to soak tonight and have some fun inventing tomorrow!
Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.