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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.