I was having a conversation with an old friend the other day about childhood memories of food; sticky jam sandwiches with the crusts cut off, licking the salt off crisps (disgusting but we all did it), a first taste of the eye-watering sourness of lemons and an absolute hatred of olives, which has long since departed.
I used to love (and still do), plain old baked beans on toast. In cold weather, when your day has been more than a little challenging and when you are starving and need to eat literally at that very second, it is perfect. It is not sophisticated, it is not elegant, it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, cooking. Nevertheless, on occasion, it is just right. There were and are rules of this meal: these are very few but must be adhered to for it to be satisfying. The bread must be white, toasted and buttered liberally. The beans must be Heinz and not low salt, low sugar or any other derivation from the original. It amazes me that some people do not like baked beans. I have tried many ‘home-made’ versions, including having a go at my own, but in a rare concession to convenience, I have to admit that they cannot be replicated in the same way. I know they they are full of salt and sugar, the sauce verges on cloying and is a nightmare to wash off dishes when it has dried, but they have a warming and satisfying quality which is hard to beat and that comes from the beans themselves.
People who like baked beans nevertheless often claim they do not like beans in general. They will pick out kidney beans in a chilli, one by one. Even trying to hide cannellini beans in a garlicky mash is rejected without even being tasted. I speak from bitter experience here. This is bizarre behaviour; baked beans do not cease to actually be beans just because they come in a bright orange sauce.
Beans are a type of pulse, which just means they come under the umbrella of being an edible seed that grows in a pod. I think they are the quiet and unassuming little champions of the kitchen. They are a very low fat source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals and they count as one portion of fruit and vegetables of your daily intake. Not only that but they have a very long shelf life, are incredibly filling, satisfying and are very, very cheap. They come ready cooked in tins, but they are even cheaper (and arguably have a better texture when cooked) if you buy them dried. They are also so versatile and every cuisine in the world has a recipe that uses them. I always have a packet of black eyed beans and multiple tins of cannellini, borlotti and flageolet beans in the cupboard. In soups and stews, they add a wonderful texture and satisfying body, but at this time of year, they seem to work best in salads.
Every different variety of bean has its own flavour and texture, so it often makes sense to mix different ones together to get the most out a dish. In a salad this is brilliant in terms of colour and taste, but also because if beans are mixed with the dressing when they are still warm, they seem to suck up every flavour until each bean is bursting with taste. This recipe is very adaptable; it uses flageolet, black and borlotti beans, but you can use any variety you happen to have. I have used mint and coriander here, but basil, parsley and peppery rocket can also be used. I like little chunks of red pepper and a little bit of tinned sweetcorn, but you can throw in slices of red onion or cucumber if the fancy takes you. Basically, most things will work here. If you use tinned beans, you will have a meal in about 10 minutes, but make sure you check the label and get the ones in plain water, rather than salted water. As a general rule, dried beans swell in weight by about 2.5 when they are cooked, so if you want to use dried beans, you will need to have about 150g of each variety.
If you can get a supposed bean-hater to try this recipe, I’m almost positive they’ll be converted. They might ask where the tomato sauce is, but try to contain your anger. Again….bitter experience.
Three Bean Salad
serves four as a light lunch
For the salad
400g tin of borlotti beans, drained and rinsed
400g tin of black beans, drained and rinsed
400g tin of flageolet beans, drained and rinsed.
1 small tin of sweetcorn, drained and rinsed
1 red pepper, cut into very small chunks
For the dressing
1 tbs red wine vinegar
juice of half a lemon
4 tbs extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbs chopped coriander
1 tbs chopped mint
salt and pepper to taste.
Put all the beans in a pan and heat gently until just warm.
Put all the ingredients for the dressing except the herbs in a bowl, or even better a jam jar with a lid. Mix in the bowl or put the lid on the jar and shake vigorously until the dressing is emulsified. Season to taste and then add the herbs and mix again.
Add the dressing to the beans and mix. Add the sweetcorn and pepper.
Serve warm or at room temperature with crusty bread to mop up the juices.