Beans and Greens

Happy New Year to all my readers.

2019 was interesting and challenging in many ways and this year shows every sign of being just as much if not more so. 2020 will be for me a year of fairly significant change and I’m excited about the journey in prospect. Excited, yes, as well as apprehensive. This time next year I have almost no idea where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. All I have is a kind of idealisation and a desire for change.

A writer, I forget who, describes the revelation of a new idea for a story as something already perfectly formed, a butterfly freshly emerged from its chrysalis. However when it comes to writing the story itself she has to do one thing first: let the butterfly go. She has the wisdom and experience to know that any idea of perfection is an impossible one. What’s more, she has faith in her ability to let the writing journey dictate where the story will go.

I have a little life experience, perhaps even less wisdom; I struggle with faith in my ability. And yet the one thing I am certain about is that to deal with uncertainty one must keep faith alive. We can all only do so much. There is much – too much – beyond our control. Over the past year there have been times when, faced with global disasters especially involving the effects of climate change and the responses of those in power, life has felt overwhelming. What’s the point of trying if nothing improves?

But what if everyone thought it was all useless, a waste of time? We find strength in resilience, by sticking to our beliefs and not letting things get us down. We find friends, and with them, hope. Dark cannot exist without light. Every wave has a trough and a peak.

This year all I’m going to do is my best and see where it takes me.

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Veganuary is a thing. It’s not a bad thing, per se, although I am always uneasy about these periods of purging. It’s like saying well, I’ve done my bit for the year, I am free now to live purely and guiltlessly, to float on a cloud of self-congratulation….until the next time my conscience gets the better of me. Veganism is becoming something of a fad in any case, a luxury only afforded in the west. There is now as much of an argument to remove almonds and avocados from our diets as there is meat.

I am more of a believer in the qualities of constancy and moderation. People who know me might struggle to stifle a chortle of disbelief here, and it’s true I am guilty more frequently than perhaps is prudent of various excesses, but I think these qualities can underpin a very balanced way of living, necessary I think for insecure times.

To that end I want to concentrate in this post on a real kitchen staple of mine, a dish whose key constituents appear on my table on a regular basis, always in slightly different forms. It’s my fall-back meal, the kitchen cupboard scramble on a busy weekday, the weekend lunch for an unexpected guest.

I took as my inspiration this fantastic recipe from Anna Jones, a vegetarian kitchen cook whose ideas are always full of creativity but emphasise flavour above everything. She incidentally also promotes a kind of vegan detox at the beginning of the year, but terms it a ‘reset’; the sensible emphasis is on looking after oneself rather than any grand notions of saving the world. We can’t do anything with an unhealthy body, let alone an unhealthy mind.

I basically followed her instructions and used her ingredients, with a few alterations.  I replaced the black-eyed beans with borlotti and the chard for another type of slightly bitter brassica, akin to cavolo nero, which I found in the local greengrocer’s. Instead of a leek I used a base of red onion and carrot – which I had in the fridge – and the ‘green herb smash’ was more of a pesto (without the cheese) with added pine nuts – lightly toasted – and no honey.

Turned out to be a very vibrant and deliciously warming lunch, just the thing for adding some energy into a fairly dreary Saturday. My version isn’t quite as colourful as hers but I bet it tasted just as good.

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The combination of beans and greens can be a base for many a simple, cheap and satisfying meal. Below is a rough recipe and ingredient guide with some suggestions on how to augment the dish. I do think though that apart from the obvious main ingredients, there should always be tomato to add richness and lemon to lift it.

The brilliant thing about it is you can add many things, adapt it to your own tastes, using whatever you’ve got in the fridge or cupboards.

You’ll need (for one person), at least:

  • 1 400g tin of beans (cannellini, borlotti, kidney, black-eye etc.)
  • Half an onion
  • 2 big handfuls of chopped greens (purple-sprouting broccoli, kale, spinach etc.)
  • 1 tomato
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Might be handy, but not essential, if you also have:

  • Lemon
  • Tomato puree
  • Half a vegetable stock cube/ stock powder

COOKING INSTRUCTIONS:

Dice the onion and roughly chop the greens. Drain and rinse the greens. In a pan with a heavy bottom add one tablespoon of olive oil and heat over a medium-low flame, then put in the onion with a pinch of salt and fry lightly until soft, about ten minutes. Chop the tomato and mix with the onions, squeeze in some tomato puree if using. Let things cook together for a couple of minutes. Then add the beans with their liquid and let everything combine for another minute or two. Pour in half a glass of water and the crumbled stock cube if you have one, stir all together and bring the temperature up so the water is bubbling. Turn the heat down low and cover the pan with a lid. Let everything cook together for about ten minutes. Add in the chopped greens, making sure they have been properly washed and rinsed. Cook for another few minutes until the greens have started to wilt. Most of the water should have evaporated by this time although you don’t want it completely dry. Check if you need any more salt and then grind over the black pepper. Finish with a squeeze of lemon and serve.

For more people, just double the quantities of everything. To store, let it cool before putting into the fridge in sealed container. Should keep for a couple of days. Can also freeze any leftovers.

EXTRAS:

This is good just as it is, but you can add various things and change the quantities easily if you only want a side dish. Here are some suggestions.

  • At the onion frying stage add all or some of the following: pinch of chilli flakes or powder; chopped bacon or ham; palmful of chopped thyme or rosemary leaves; one bay leaf (remember to remove this at the end); sliced clove of garlic; diced stick of celery and/or half a carrot.
  • To finish, instead of (or as well as) the lemon juice, sprinkle over any of these: Worcestershire sauce; sriracha hot sauce (you need a gentle touch with this!); light soy sauce; a little grated nutmeg.
  • At the end stir in a handful of chopped fresh parsley and/or some grated cheese, perhaps cheddar or parmesan, even smallish chunks of blue cheese will do. 
  • Have it as a side dish for grilled meat like sausages or chops.
  • Pile it onto hot toast or muffins for a more substantial meal.
  • Let it cool before stuffing the mixture into a tortilla wrap, perhaps with some chopped avocado and a little yoghurt.

Remember the idea is to get creative and have a bit of fun messing around, seeing what works and what you like most. The best thing about cooking is the journey!

 

Doing runners

 

 

Recently returned from a trip back to the UK where there was only one concern for serious-minded people: what to do with the glut of garden runner beans?

My mother’s vegetable garden has been in runner terms the gift that keeps on giving. However many times my father goes down to water the plants he returns with an armful of long, green, rough-skinned beans. My parents have had them as a side dish for pretty much everything they’ve eaten for the last month. And they work very well, with just a minimum of additions: a little salt and pepper, a glug of olive oil perhaps or knob of butter. There’s something deliciously moreish about them, something to do with the slightly yielding bite in the mouth and slippery finish.

I smuggled a bundle in my luggage back to China. Not that they don’t have them here, or at least a variety. Unfortunately the selections in the greengrocer’s always tend to be on the pale and dry side, and unappealing for that. While on the plane, between sleep, dreams and the films on the small screen, I concocted recipes, imagined cooking in the kitchen.

What goes better with beans than other beans? Italian soups like minestrone are good examples of bean pairings and the idea of different genera together in varying shapes and sizes tickled my tastebuds as I tried in vain to get some sleep in the darkened cabin. In this case it would be Phaseolus coccineus paired with Phaseolus vulgaris, that’s runners and cannellini. A kind of warm slightly stewed salad-y dish.

Cannellini bean stew with runner beans. 

  • big handful of runner beans, prepared (rinsed, topped and tailed, sides trimmed and sliced thinly on the diagonal).
  • 1 x 400g tin cannellini beans (or any kidney bean variety).
  • half an onion, sliced.
  • palmful of lemon thyme, chopped.
  • generous pinch of paprika.
  • half a big tomato, or one medium, chopped roughly.
  • vegetable stock, about half a coffee cup
  • couple of bay leaves
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • one clove of garlic, sliced thinly

 

First cook the runners by placing them in a largeish pan of salted boiling water. They’ll take about five minutes, maybe less, until tender. You want them slightly floppy but gently al dente. Meanwhile lightly fry the onions and garlic in oil in a flat-bottomed pan until softened then stir in the cannellini, drained and rinsed from the tin, and the herbs. Pour in the stock and let everything bubble and stew away on a low heat for about three to five minutes. Add the tomatoes and paprika, stir in well and let cook for another minute or so. Finally jumble in the runners and season, making sure everything is amalgamated. Remove the bay leaves. I let this sit for ten minutes or so before serving and you could even chill it in the fridge or eat it while hot. Some bread might be a good idea to, as the Italians say, fare la scarpetta. Basically to mop things up.

Allow me a whimsical digression. The above Italianism, and its translation, I think hold perhaps the key to the origin of a literary character’s name: Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta , protagonist of a series of crime novels. Fare la scarpetta, as already suggested, translates at least in culinary terms to a mopping up, bread used to wipe around the pan or plate containing the meal just eaten as a way of soaking up the delectable juices and flavours left behind. Furthermore the word che in Italian is often used in exclamations, such as che palle! (what a drag!) or che casino! (what a mess!). The forename Kay and che are homophones. So that, and this is just a theory, the name given by Patricia Cornwell to her US-born sleuth could translate as: What a Clean-Up! Suitable name for a crime-solver, methinks…case closed?

For the remaining runners the next day I made a simple ratatouille. The prepared beans went into a lidded saucepan with half an aubergine, chunkily chopped, a tomato similarly dissected, half a quartered onion, dash of tomato puree, bay leaves, garlic clove sliced, good scattering of dried oregano, generous glug of olive oil, salt and pepper. Lid on, low heat and everythig just left to cook gently for about forty minutes. Bread was the only other thing needed. And that cleans this one up.