There is a late Renaissance portrait by Carracci of a man eating a plateful of beans, with a side dish of something resembling spare ribs. Evidence of the longevity of the combination of pork and beans, this is the classiest image I know of bean cuisine.
Think of beans on toast, chilli con carne, cassoulet, or that one-time starlet of the hippie fairs, now a standard at your local chippy - the veggieburger. More grand is tiny spoonfuls of carefully cooked lentils or purées of haricots, artfully thrusting out beneath foie gras or grilled sea bass.
Too often we think of beans as heavy, greyish-brown fodder - fart food! Because they are cheap, nourishing and can provide a relatively simple meal for vegetarian customers, it's too easy to put beans into a culinary niche.
A bean patty of any sort is made simply by pulverising cooked beans (even tinned beans), with onions, garlic, herbs, spices and seasoning. These bean cakes can be dressed up or down with home-made ketchups, salsas, pickles and chutneys without wasting too many man-hours.
I have selected a recipe from Nicholas Butcher's intelligent The Spanish Kitchen (Macmillan, £14.95), as it shows just what a fine meal a few, relatively inexpensive, ingredients can make.
Because they contain so much protein, useful carbohydrates and trace minerals, beans have long been a staple of most of the world's diet.
Up to the 16th century in Europe, lentils and broad beans were served in soups and stews, or puréed with milk or cream. The mainstay of Asian cuisine was the soy bean, often modified into bean curd (tofu), fermented into soy sauce, and cultured into tempeh.
Kidney beans, from pinto to borlotti, red and black, were native American plants and readily adopted in Europe. All these pulses (beans, peas and lentils), were probably the earliest crops cultivated by man. Eaten in combination with cereals or other proteins, they provide most essential amino acids.
While they contain large amounts of protein and complex carbohydrate, they are not necessarily digested properly by the gut and react strongly with gas present in the intestine. Hence, flatulence.
There is a variety of advice about preparing and cooking dried beans. First, ensure you buy them as fresh as possible. Not an easy rule to follow, unless you buy them from a supplier with a good turnover. The reason for preferring beans fresh is that cooking old beans takes longer.
Dried beans should be soaked in water before cooking. This prevents the beans from splitting and shortens their cooking time. Some recommend soaking beans overnight with enough cold water to cover the beans by several inches, as they will double in size. Some suggest soaking beans in water for three hours only. Other recipes recommend covering the beans well in boiling water, and leaving them for an hour. Other food writers recommend placing the beans in plenty of water, bringing this to the boil for a minute, then removing from the heat to stand for an hour. All these methods work.
As to the cooking of dried, soaked beans, advice is equally variable. Some books say that the soaked beans should be drained, then fresh water added to cover well. Some say the beans should be cooked in their original soaking water, topped up with only the necessary amounts of boiling water if they dry out. Others suggest draining the beans and then cooking them in boiling water.
Most writers discourage the addition of salt until the last stages of cooking, though some suggest adding a ham or beef bone, bay leaves, onions or garlic.
All of the beans mentioned below should be boiled for 10 minutes to eliminate toxins present in their skin. Lentils and peas (including black-eyed beans that are botanically classified as peas) need only be brought to the boil. Thereafter, they all can be simmered until soft and pleasant to taste.
Cooking times vary between one and three hours according to the age of the beans. So if you are in a hurry, tinned beans will have to suffice. They come in wonderful varieties today, from borlotti and pinto, black and red kidney beans, to brown lentils and chickpeas.
Some of the bean flavour leaches into the fluid in the tin, making it advisable to reheat them in the liquid in order to reincorporate these juices before embarking on any culinary preparation.
Tinned beans are an easy option for chefs using small amounts such as for garnishes and so on. But, some of the greatest dishes in the world have beans of one sort or another as an integral part. Think of the many versions of cassoulet from south-west France. Or Brazilian black bean soup with its oranges and spices. Hungarian red beans, with sauerkraut, pork, tomatoes and soured cream. Fassolia, that heavenly Greek mixture of large white beans, tomatoes, garlic, oregano or mint. There are dozens of Spanish dishes, from olla podrida with chickpeas, pork, sausages and vegetables, to the Asturian version of cassoulet with white beans, smoked chorizo, ham, saffron, tomatoes and garlic. I have unearthed one intriguing recipe from Alicante, Spain, of beans cooked with turnips, Swiss chard, rice and snails.
Some of these mixtures can be thinned down and served as a soup. Beans are also often served combined with rice, pasta or wheat berries. A plate of black beans, rice and spice, sometimes with the addition of pork, chicken or shellfish, is Latin America's way of welcoming in the New Year.
I have found various combinations of beans or pulses with slowly casseroled meats to be immensely popular and successful crowd-pleasers.
Here are a few slightly less well-known beans that merit serious attention:
BLACK KIDNEY BEANS
Black kidney beans are particularly popular in Latin American cuisine. They are very good in soups and combine especially well with rice. They lose their glamourous black and shiny appearance when cooked, however, turning a slightly muddy colour, although their taste is excellent.
These beans are usually a pale brown colour. Grown in Africa and Italy, they are the main ingredient in various Italian bean soups, which are made with ham bones, spices and added pasta and parmesan cheese.
Pinto beans are pinkish brown, speckled beans from Mexico. Infinitely better in chilli dishes than the usual red kidney beans, a common way of serving them is to mash the cooked beans roughly, adding a few chilli spices (cumin, oregano, coriander), salt, pepper, paprika and a minced onion or two. These are formed into rough cakes and then fried. Some recipes add a little vinegar, either before or after frying these frijoles refritos, a staple of the Mexican diet.
These small white haricots have a characteristic slightly nutty flavour. They are perfect for white bean salads, with or without fish of some sort. They are also fine cooked until quite soft, then mashed with garlic, cumin and olive oil into a savoury purée to serve with grilled fish.
My personal favourites, these beans are native to Africa, but are now widely cultivated in the southern states of the USA where they are known as black-eye peas. They are often combined with pork, spices and sweet potatoes. These beans are particularly good if substituted for common haricot beans in cassoulets. They have a fresh, sweet taste and creamy texture.