Beans are wonderful things. As legumes - that is, the seed of a plant that has pods - they absorb nitrogen from the air, making them rich sources of protein - more than in any other plant food, in fact. They are, however, relatively low in the essential amino acid methionine which is found in many grains. Hence the different combinations of legume and grain round the world in pursuit of the perfect protein - dal and rice in India, Mexican refried beans stuffed into corn tortilla, soy bean tofu with rice in many Asian countries and, a definite favourite round ours at least, peanut butter sandwiches.
Beans are also one of the oldest things around--and one of the first wild plants to be domesticated, long before any wild animals truckled to mankind's hand. We eat a lot of them one way and another - I love their versatility. They add texture as well as creaminess, flavour and robustness to stand up well to bold additions like chilli and garlic and woody herbs.
They are capable of great subtlety too - think of creamy bean soups, beans mixed with pasta for minestrone or salad or the joy of butterbean mash. Pairing them with summer vegetables and herbs results in a surprising delicacy, making them an ideal ingredient all year round.
White Bean & Summer Vegetable Salad
Mixing the dressing into the salad while the beans are still warm gives great depth of flavour to this very summery salad.
Serves 6 as a side salad
200g dried white beans, soaked overnight in cold water
2 medium courgettes
About a dozen baby plum or cherry tomatoes
3 garlic cloves
100ml basil oil
25ml lemon juice
Drain and rinse the beans, then put them into a large pan with the bay leaf and plenty of cold water to cover. Bring to the boil over a high flame, skim the inevitable froth, then simmer till the beans are tender. Add a generous teaspoon of salt and simmer for a few more minutes.
Meanwhile, halve the courgettes lengthwise, then cut into slices a little under a centimetre thick. You want the pieces to cook fairly quickly and make for a nice mouthful with the cooked beans. Cut the aubergine into 3 or 4 lengthwise, depending on its size, then cut into similar sized chunks to the courgettes. If small, leave the tomatoes whole. Flatten the unpeeled garlic with the blade of a knife. Put all the vegetables and garlic onto a flat, low sided baking tray and mix with a couple of tablespoons of the basil oil. Season.
Bake in a moderate/gas4/200F oven for about 15 minutes then stir. Bake for a further 10 minutes or so till the vegetables are softened and taking on colour but still nice and juicy.
Remove the tray from the oven and discard the garlic. Let the vegetables cool slightly till the beans are cooked. Drain the beans and wash with cold water for a minute.
Make a simple dressing with the rest of the oil, the lemon juice and salt and pepper.
In a large bowl mix the vegetables, including any oil on the tray, with the beans and the dressing.
Allow to cool for half an hour or so before serving.