Do you remember the scene from Amélie in which Audrey Tautou’s character delights in sticking her hand into a barrel of dry beans in her local grocery? I suspect that my supermarket might call for security if I tried to follow her example but I love the idea of such simple pleasures. Anyone who likes cooking knows that the enjoyment starts even before the food touches the lips. Long before I start preparing the meal—provided that I am not in a rush—I anticipate the textures and scents: the crisp sound of a knife cutting through an onion, the murmur of a pot of soup on a low flame, the bracing freshness of grated lemon peel. Even something as simple as a bean salad can be a gourmet experience.
The end of winter and the beginning of spring is a time of transition. The root vegetables from cold storage already seem dull, but the sweet asparagus, jewel-like peas and fresh salad greens have not yet made their appearance. That’s when, like Amélie Poulain, I look for the dry beans. I use a classical Italian flavoring of sage and garlic to bring out the sweet chestnut flavor in beans. And once they are cooked and perfumed, I toss them with a tart lemon dressing that offsets the earthy richness of legumes. If there are good cherry tomatoes, I add a handful. Or I may vary the flavors with roasted vegetables or seafood. Even at its simplest, this salad is a filling and interesting side dish that can easily delight year round.
Simple Sage and Lemon Flavored Bean Salad
This simple salad relies on very few ingredients for its bright flavors, and I recommend using dried beans instead of canned. This is one instance when soaking and cooking beans with aromatics really pays off. Any variety will work, including chickpeas and black eyed peas, as long as they remain whole once completely cooked. I’ve used cannellini, Navy, pinto and kidney beans with good results.
1 cup dried beans (soak overnight)
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4-5 sage leaves
2 garlic cloves, peeled
Lemon juice, olive oil, salt and black pepper, to taste
Other serving ideas (add one of the following to the base recipe):
1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Arugula or salad greens
1 can of tuna packed in olive oil
1 cup cooked shrimp
1 cup roasted pumpkin and 2 Tbsp toasted almonds
Drain beans, cover with water and bring to boil. Skim off the foam, add garlic cloves, sages leaves and let beans simmer gently. Replenish water as needed. Depending on their freshness, beans take anywhere from 1 to 3 hours to become soft. Add salt only once the beans are completely cooked. Once the beans are ready, drain the excess liquid and let them cool. If you are cooking beans in advance, let them cool in their liquor and store in the fridge until needed.
Meanwhile, cover onion slices with lemon juice to temper their sharpness. Mix lemon juice, olive oil, salt, pepper and minced parsley for a tart vinaigrette. Toss beans with onion, tomatoes and vinaigrette. Leftovers may be refrigerated; the fragrant lemony beans taste even better the next day.
Do you have your favorite ways of cooking beans?
Photography © Bois de Jasmin.