Audubon spills the beans

Such is the power of advertising that, if asked to picture a tin of beans, what probably comes to mind is that green can with the white lettering. I obviously shan’t be giving them any more free publicity by mentioning their name, and I am certainly not on any sort of commission as a ‘brand ambassador’ – in fact, quite the opposite. In this month’s musings we shall be considering tinned beans in a rather more universal sense, recognising the merits of the great diversity on offer and the different ways in which they can be used. Yes, the world of tinned beans is far greater – and its population more versatile – than the purveyors of those eponymous haricot beans in tomato sauce might have you believe. So large, in fact, that we will only have space to consider a few selected highlights.

First, a few words in praise of tinned and pre-cooked beans. Before the invention of canning, only drying could be used to preserve them. The thing about dried beans is that they are a bore: soaking, changing the water, simmering for hours. Yes, you can add flavouring to the boiling liquid and cook them à point if you keep your eye on them; but there the advantages end. All they do is clutter up the cupboards. Tinned, however, they really are a gourmet convenience food.

They are cheaper, too. Here is the comparison of the beans we will be considering today: flageolet are 14.8p per 100g tinned, yet 43.9p per 100g dried; while borlotti come in at a comparable 14.8p per 100g tinned, and a more modest 23.8p per 100g dried. The humble cannellini bean is a thrifty 14.1p per 100g tinned, but a whopping 63p per 100g dried. So even allowing for water in the tin, the dried beans are more expensive. And you have to pay for the gas and water to boil them into edibility. When it comes to beans, tinned is king – but what to do with them?

Flageolet beans are a light-green colour. They are actually haricot beans as found in the popular baked beans; but harvested just a little earlier, so retain rather more flavour and texture as a result. They are a good accompaniment to fatty meats, such as the less expensive cuts of pork and lamb. A few slices of roast lamb shoulder with a tin of these warmed through with a little butter and lemon juice is excellent; or cold, bound with a parsley vinaigrette under a few slices of well-fried pork belly. Or you could make a smooth, home- made tomato sauce (maybe with a touch of chilli, if you are feeling adventurous) and warm the beans in it before piling them on sourdough toast, for a modern twist on the school-tea classic.

Borlotti are brownish and softer in texture, and have quite a distinctive flavour. With some herbs, good olive oil, and a touch of minced garlic, they make a superb antipasti dish as part of a selection. They are also excellent in a vegetable or chicken broth – just remember to add them towards the end of cooking, as they are already tender and only need to warm through and absorb some of the liquid. Mashed with olive oil, and seasoned and flavoured with herbs, they can be made into patties and shallow fried as a vegetarian steak haché. Or make smaller balls, and serve as an appetiser with a yoghurt, lemon, and tahini dipping sauce.

The cannellini bean is a pale delicately flavoured thing, essential (some say) for authentic minestrone. Cook with a glass of white wine, sage, and garlic for an excellent accompaniment to some meaty Tuscan sausages (the kind that are 99% meat and a very bright pink), or use them to bulk out most kinds of salad. If you have a handful left over, they are good in baked Spanish omelettes with a few chopped cherry tomatoes, herbs, and spinach.

The only disadvantage of canned beans is that some people can find them a little indigestible. I seem to remember that a school rhyme alluded to this fact – though it did remind us that beans are good for your heart. In order to counter this, always be sure to offer some strong fruit brandy or medicinal bitters afterwards. This will serve to settle the stomach and aid digestion. It will, of course, also undo any beneficial effects on your cardiovascular system.