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A-Z of Vegetables: White beans

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Friday, 24 Nov 2023, 14:06

For the penultimate blog in this series, let’s visit the chicken of the vegan world! No, I’m not talking about tofu. That’s eggs. I’m talking: white beans!

If you’re vegan, sooner or later you will be forced to encounter beans. Down a blind alleyway you’ll be cornered by a thuggish cannellini, rangy and thick-skinned, insisting you get your protein from more diverse sources than the great mono-crops of rice, corn, soya and almond. You might be met by the intimidating, necromantic eyes of black-eyed beans, chanting incantations and disappearing into pasta sauces as if they were never there (although you know they’re there because their eyes were left behind!) The friendliest bean of the lot is the butter bean, which has the flavour of butter and the smoothest texture of any legume that isn’t a chickpea cooked to death. I make beans sound quite frightening, but they’re actually by far the most versatile protein source for a vegan, because they have the starchy blandness you would expect from a potato, but with the added benefits of having nutritional benefits.

So far, I’ve only mentioned white beans. This is no accident, because although kidney beans are the highest in protein and borlotti beans the most beautiful, white beans are the best option for feeding bean-sceptics. You may not believe me, but they are out there, people who think beans make you fart and don’t do anything else for you. And as farting is unacceptable in polite society, they don’t eat beans. We must overturn this stereotype: farting is just farting and it should be accommodated in polite society to avoid trapped wind on a population-wide level. Also, beans don’t make you fart. I’ve checked.

Most people only eat beans if they’re baked beans as part of breakfast – and herein lies the persuasive power of the white bean, because baked beans are white. I believe they’re haricots, which is really just the French word for ‘bean’. If you wash off the (sickly-sweet, regurgitation-worthy) baked-bean sauce, you will discover that they are white.

The thing with white beans is that they soak up flavour. One recipe from Diana Henry is essentially white beans poached in bay-inflected extra virgin olive oil and that’s a side dish! (To pork poached in olive oil. It was something of a theme for this menu.) Therefore, if you’re making a bean broth like the one I’m recommending below, you need to make sure you choose really nice stock and really nice herbs. Like all soups, it’s not so much a recipe as a template, so you can change the ingredients to suit the contents of your fridge. Celeriac, chilli, ginger, coriander, tomato, potato, lemongrass, parsley, turnip, radish, sweetcorn, mange tout – all can go in. You just need the courage – you need to bite the bean.


Bean broth – to serve 2 because I have a very small casserole

  1. So this is how I like to make it. In a 2l casserole or saucepan with a lid, heat up 2-3 tbsp olive oil (the grassier the better) then add 1 peeled and sliced onion and sauté for 5 minutes.
  2. Whilst this is frying, dice 1 broccoli or celery stalk, slice the hardy leaves of 1 cauliflower, and chop 2 carrots and 1/4 - 1/2 swede. Add these to the pot as you go, giving a firm stir to make sure nothing catches. There’s no reason it should, but it could, and that’s the point.
  3. Peel and chop 2 big garlic cloves. Don’t cut them too small because then you won’t have small morsels of deliciousness floating in your soup – and that would be a tragedy. Add these to the pan along with 5 peppercorns, 1-2 tbsp dried herbs of your choice and enough vegetable stock to cover. I measure out boiling water with a measuring cup and then add the relevant amount of stock powder. I am not Melissa Hemsley. Bring to the boil, then put the lid on and simmer for up to 10 minutes.
  4. Add 80g wholegrain couscous and the drained and rinsed contents of 400g tin of beans (butter for preference), replace the lid and simmer for up to 5 minutes. You don’t need to worry if they don’t get submerged, because couscous steams too.
  5. Turn off the heat and chuck in 1-2 balls of frozen spinach, then put the lid back on so they defrost. Serve with a range of toppings on the side – balsamic glaze, pesto, gremolata, toasted flaked almonds, croutons, chilli oil, nutritional yeast flakes, fresh herbs – but I must warn you against adding something acidic like mustard, because swallowing acidic liquid is uncomfortably reminiscent of hangovers. I don’t remove the whole peppercorns, preferring to chew on them, but if you can be arsed to fish them out, they’re not hard to spot.

Notes: Obviously, vary the vegetables to suit what you have, and chop them up so everything cooks at the same speed. Vary the herbs as well and add spices if you so desire: you could use coriander seeds and mint, paprika and nutmeg, lemon zest and tarragon, dill and turmeric, wine and juniper. A world of flavours is open to you. Adding dried fruits with the stock will mean they plump up deliciously.


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Fruit

A-Z of Vegetables: Peppers

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Edited by Gabriel Spreckelsen Brown, Saturday, 11 Nov 2023, 11:30

Not all peppers are born equal. There is this general assumption that peppers, underneath the colour of their skin, are all basically the same. Nope. That’s humans you’re thinking of. The various colours of peppers greatly affect not only their flavour, but (as far as I’m concerned) how and with what you should cook them. 

For starters, chilli peppers (which we can cheerily take to cover everything from jalapeños to Scotch bonnets) should not be cooked. This is another of this instances where I share my heretical beliefs about some of the most worshipped vegetables on the planet: I think chilli is horrible. If the brutality with which it attacks lips, mouths and digestive systems wasn’t enough, their actual flavour – aside from the heat sensation and sweetness – is surprisingly insipid. This could be due to the fact that chilli quickly bludgeons your taste buds to early death before you’ve chewed it twice, but it comes to the same thing: flavourlessness. Avoid. Use black pepper instead.

Bell peppers in the UK are generally sold simply as ‘peppers’, and unlike their tightly-packed chilli cousins, release their seeds like an exploding lily anther whenever you try to cut them open. They also beg the most terrifying question in all vegetation: if they’re not flesh throughout, if they’re hollow, what gas was inside the pepper before I cut it open? Was it a vacuum? Did it contain argon? Is it like releasing a capsicum fart? What is inside those things?

Outside, bell peppers can be anywhere between Amsterdam red and Slytherin green, with all the in-between levels of fun which that suggests. Green peppers are almost prohibitively bitter, and don’t take kindly to crude treatment – or rather, crudité treatment (PUN!) That doesn’t mean they’re useless, however, because they can give overly sweet tomato sauces or curries a rehabilitative maturity. Just don’t invite them on a picnic.

Yellow peppers are the wateriest and least interesting – in fact, despite the green’s bitterness, I would say yellow are the least appetising, because they are neither particularly bitter nor particularly sweet. I suppose this makes them useful in smoothies and soups because they add 1 of your 5-a-day without upsetting the flavour balance, but all the same…

Red peppers are the fruitiest and most tomato-like in flavour, and can be used in all applications. Orange peppers, on the other hand, need TLC. Orange is my favourite colour so it’s unpredictable that orange is my favourite pepper, but as far as I’m concerned, cooking orange peppers diminishes the almost perfumey piquancy of them; orange peppers have a floral, exotic-fruit tang to them, so I like to eat them raw whenever possible. They’re also so beautiful: why would you ever want to scupper that day-brightening sunburst by braising? And why would you want to do so when you can make a rainbow-coloured couscous salad?

Rainbow couscous salad – Hurrah!

  1. Cook 80g wholegrain couscous according to your packet instructions. This usually involves soaking in twice the volume of boiling water for 5-10 minutes. As ever, non-wholegrain couscous is a waste of time and money.
  2. Now the fun bit! Dice, into equal-sized pieces, 1 orange pepper, a handful (about 7) purple radishes (usually labelled as ‘speciality’), 10cm cucumber and a handful (about 8) cherry tomatoes. For those keeping count, that’s four of the seven rainbow colours.
  3. Once the couscous is cooked, add the diced vegetables plus about 6 heaped tbsp cooked sweetcorn – canned is fine. Dress the couscous with extra virgin olive oil and a dash of posh vinegar or citrus juice of choice – start with a tbsp each and then taste to see if you want more. Avocado oil and lime juice would be good.
  4. As you can see, my rainbow couscous only caters to five colours: red tomatoes, orange pepper, yellow corn, green cucumber and indigo radishes (they get bluer upon sitting in the couscous). If your prerogative is colour over taste, then I suggest: for the blue, steamed and shredded red cabbage (which is blue), blueberries or sage; for the violet, beetroot or red kidney beans. Blue and violet vegetables will not be spot-on here, but whimsy finds a way.

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