Steve Sando, founder of acclaimed heirloom bean purveyor Rancho Gordo in Napa, Calif., says that when people unfamiliar with the company find out what he does for a living, they often feel sorry for him. “They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re doing beans! What a weird idea!’” he laughs. “It’s not fancy like wine. But once people get into beans, they become fanatical.”
The unglamorous legume certainly merits much more than wallflower status among pantry ingredients. Besides their frequently touted health benefits, beans offer a spectrum of flavors and textures that can elevate any meal. Canned varieties are convenient, quick to prepare, and cheap; dried beans require more time and planning, but if they’re within two years of harvest, you don’t need to soak them first, according to Sando. Plus, after you boil them, you can use the leftover liquid in other dishes. “It’s a fabulous base for soups, or you can poach eggs in it, use it as rice water—bean broth is more versatile and easier to make than bone broth,” Sando asserts.
Pairing beans with cheese brings out the best qualities in both. “Beans already have that earthy taste…when cheese is introduced, it turns that earthiness into a creaminess,” says Carlos Yescas, program director of Boston-based Oldways Cheese Coalition. “The combination makes me feel very satisfied and full, in a wholesome way.” The textural interplay is also a game changer in otherwise humdrum dishes. Inexpensive yet indulgent, beans are a curd nerd’s best friend.
To their fellow Italians, Tuscans have long been known as mangiafagioli (“bean eaters”). A favorite way to enjoy the legumes during Tuscany’s colder months is in the hearty vegetable soup known as ribollita. The name translates to “reboiled,” a reference to the two-day process in which it is typically prepared: Stale (or sometimes toasted) bread is added when the soup is reheated the day after it’s made, resulting in a stew-like consistency. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with umami-rich Parmigiano Reggiano or aged Pecorino Toscano just before digging in—the cheese adds a nutty creaminess to this dense and delicious dish.
There is no shortage of ways to transform beans into burgers, but the combination of black beans with wild rice in a patty is a definite winner, especially when topped with cheese. Savory and full-flavored, these burgers work equally well with subtly sweet and funky Reading raclette and creamy Buttermilk Blue. “The nuttiness of the wild rice pairs wonderfully with the minerality of a blue cheese,” says Yescas.
Spring Brook Farm Reading + bean burger
Roth Cheese Buttermilk Blue + bean burger
White Bean Hummus
Cannellini beans afford a sweeter, more delicate flavor to hummus than standard chickpeas do. Alessandro Grano, head chef at London’s La Fromagerie, suggests blending in a thick fromage blanc or fresh ricotta to loosen up the consistency and add richness. Or grate an herbaceous, floral cheese such as sheep’s milk Fleur du Maquis from Corsica, or Murray’s Hudson Flower, on top of the spread. “All those beautiful herbs will complement the earthiness of the bean,” says Grano.
Salvatore Bklyn Whole Milk Ricotta + white bean hummus
Fromagerie Ottavi Fleur du Maquis + white bean hummus
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