Beyond Bean Basics

Beans’ versatility and variety make it easy to cut back on meat, whatever your motivation. Beans provide the protein that every body needs, but with none of the cholesterol that meat supplies. For a home cook trying to improve the family diet, or a chef trying to enhance customer options, beans can inspire solutions.

Some strategies for minimizing or eliminating meat:

Shift the balance of power. Rethink the old “center of the plate” concept, with meat as the meal’s focal point. Make it a bit player in some dishes and give beans the starring role.

Old style: Grilled pork chop with white beans
New style: White bean “cassoulet” with pancetta and slow-roasted tomatoes

Think of meat as a seasoning. Use it to give depth to bean dishes, to add another layer of flavor — just as you use onions, garlic and herbs. Add a smoked turkey wing to a pot of navy beans…or a ham bone to a cranberry bean and kale soup… or a single thick slice of bacon to a big, brothy pot of black beans with garlic and cumin.

Borrow ideas from traditional vegetarian cuisines. Look to India, for example, where vegetarianism is a way of life, to find techniques you can adapt. Prepare an Indian-style dal with pink beans, perfuming the pot with fresh green chiles, ginger, turmeric, cumin, black mustard seed and cilantro. To impart a signature Indian flavor, toast whole cumin seed and mustard seed in hot oil or ghee (clarified butter) and stir these aromatic seasonings in at the end.

Replace meat stock with bean broth. Cooked beans produce a rich and full-bodied broth that gives backbone to vegetarian soups. Always save the broth from cooking beans to enhance soups and vegetable stews. You can cook rice in bean broth, too. A rib-sticking Tuscan Bread and Bean Soup gets its robust character from beefy cranberry beans simmered with garlic and bay leaf. No meat required.

Meatless bean recipe to try:
Tuscan Bread and Bean Soup


Low cost is rarely the main driver behind people’s food choices, but when savings deliver flavor, that’s a winner. Dry beans can lower your food costs if they replace higher-priced proteins like meat and fish. And if the beans taste great, where’s the sacrifice?

Adding beans to a main course will often allow you to reduce the meat portion with no loss of perceived value. What’s more, beans shine in the company of the so-called “lesser cuts” — meats like like pork ribs, belly and ham hocks; lamb shoulder and shanks; and beef brisket, tongue and tripe. With the current craze for “nose-to-tail eating,” beans are in their element. Diners have never been more willing to try every part of the animal, from pig’s ears to oxtails. And that’s great news for beans.

Even in the seafood realm, beans pair best with less costly choices like mussels, clams, and canned tuna. With pricier items like fresh tuna, shrimp, octopus and salt cod, beans can stretch your seafood dollar by adding heft to a seafood salad or stew without adding much cost.

Recipe to try:
Three Bean Minestrone Emilia Romagna Style


If your kitchen repertoire is feeling predictable, it may be time to explore some new protein options. Chicken breasts, take a break. Let dry and canned beans energize your cooking by sparking your creativity. They introduce colors, textures, shapes and flavors that boost plate appeal. And they play so well with others. As you explore the world of beans, you will find they lead you to other legumes and grains — their nutritious companions in classic dishes around the world.

Beans with beans: Tweak familiar bean dishes by adding unexpected twists. If you normally make chili with kidney beans, try a three-bean version, adding pink and pinto beans to the mix. Everybody makes hummous with chick peas, but preparing it with Great Northern beans becomes your fresh idea. Three-bean salad? Made with kidney beans, fresh green beans or wax beans and edamame, this oldtimer has renewed appeal. Pair cranberry beans with Great Northern beans in minestrone or pasta e fagioli. Dress cooked kidney, cranberry and Great Northern beans with vinaigrette and fold in poached shrimp or high-quality canned tuna. Spoon over butter lettuce for an appealing summer salad.

Beans with grains: Pairing beans with grains makes a complete protein, supplying all nine essential amino acids. That’s why Mexican cooks accompany pinto beans with tortillas; Indians serve legumes with rice; and Middle Eastern diners love beans with bulgur. The marriage of beans and grains isn’t just nutritionally sound; it’s ancient, delicious and enduring. For maximum nutritional impact, combine beans with whole grains, such as whole-wheat pasta or bread, wheat berries, barley, bulgur, corn, farro, kamut, quinoa and brown rice. A few possibilities:

Turkish red bean and bulgur soup with lemon and mint
Pinto bean tostadas with shredded chicken, avocado and queso fresco
Black bean and corn salad with green onions
Tabbouleh with kidney beans
Farro risotto with cranberry beans
Poblano chiles peppers stuffed with rice, corn and black beans
Navy bean soup with mushrooms and barley
Whole wheat pita with grilled lamb and white bean hummous
Cavatelli with white beans and chile oil
Whole-wheat bruschetta with white bean puree and wilted greens

Bean-plus-grain recipe to try:
Roasted Salmon, Quinoa and Black Bean Salad


Ditch the doughnuts and start your engine in the morning with lowfat protein. The typical carbo-centric American breakfast (biscuits with butter, pancakes with syrup, cereal with milk, toast with jam) doesn’t provide enough protein power. No wonder so many of us are drooping before lunch.

Dry beans make it easy to get a high-protein start to the day. You can cook them on the weekend, in large batches, and reheat them all week. Or you can use canned beans, drained to minimize sodium (see below), for a running start.

Just a few ideas to get you brainstorming about beans for breakfast…

From Egypt: Ful mudammas, or beans cooked with onion and tomato, are a popular morning meal. Egyptians prepare ful with dry fava beans, but cranberry beans or pink beans would work, too. They eat them whole, lightly mashed, or fully mashed, topped with olive oil, melted butter, a hard-boiled egg or a fried egg. According to an Arab saying, ful is “the rich man’s breakfast, the shopkeeper’s lunch, the poor man’s supper.”

From Lebanon: Ful again. Here it’s eaten for breakfast with feta cheese, cucumbers, black olives and pita. Make it a whole-wheat pita for good measure.

From Tunisia: Leb-lebi, a hearty breakfast bean stew, is seasoned with cumin and harissa. Tunisians use chick peas; Great Northern beans would take the seasonings well, too. Tunisians buy leb-lebi in the morning from small shops on the street and add a variety of garnishes — chopped tomato, chopped green peppers, croutons, cilantro or poached eggs —to taste.

Dry beans also make a smart choice for lunch — filling, fast and high fiber. Add them to a salade Niçoise, a chef’s salad or a chopped salad. Puree them and use them in place of mayonnaise as a sandwich spread, as you might use hummous. Pack a bean dip in a brown-bag lunch with raw vegetables. Or make the Turkish sandwich from Anissa Helou’s book Mediterranean Street Food: pita halves stuffed with a marinated white bean, onion and olive salad.

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