Easy and economical, vibrant bean-based salads and sides are welcome on menus in any season.
This article first appeared in the 1 March 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
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By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
A simple bean salad or stew has not always been the type of item an upscale restaurant could slip onto the menu. But as restaurant patrons hungrily embrace the world's ethnic influences, once-humble legumes can look downright stylish these days. Beans such as garbanzos, pintos, limas, kidneys and black-eyed peas are dressed up with bold spices and flaunted with flair. Trend-seeking guests as well as those who want more than food that just tastes good are magnetically drawn to such dishes, finding in them the perfect combination of flavor intrigue and healthfulness.
A wide spectrum of shapes, colors and textures sparks innovation and inspiration. On the Mediterranean menu at Copia Restaurant in Charlestown, Mass., Chef Anthony Caturano taps navy beans for a warm Tuscan Bean Salad that also includes roasted tomatoes, red peppers and bits of pancetta. At West Virginia University Hospitals in Morgantown, black-soybean-and-bulgur salad accented with celery, parsley, mint, green pepper and fresh-squeezed lemon juice are among the cafe's choices.
Beans' flexibility in multiple formats-fresh, dried, canned and frozen-greatly enhance their back-of-house charm.
Chef-owner Charlie Socher at Café Matou, a casual French restaurant in Chicago, favors common dried varieties such as great Northern and black beans. He also dabbles in less well-known names, among them cranberry, flageolet and Jacobs Cattle.
"People are finally starting to see that beans can have some personality," says Socher, who currently menus a first course of chickpeas coated in olive oil, parsley, lemon zest, garlic and pepper, draped with Serrano ham and garnished with olives and Spanish chiles. "They add real substance to dishes and have earthy, comfort-food flavors."
Unexpected presentations help dispel perceptions of beans as a mundane staple. Chef-partner Seamus Mullen cooks navy beans in fish fumet with Serrano ham bones and unites the legumes with sliced red grapes to accompany eucalyptus-poached mackerel at Spanish-themed Boqueria in New York City.
"In the Catalonian region, they incorporate a lot of fruit into savory dishes. Cooking the beans this way adds earthiness from the ham bone, and the stock reinforces the dish's fish flavor," he says.
For other inventive bean recipes, Mullen often reaches for Muscatel vinegar to lend sweet, light acidity to salads such as warm flageolets with truffles, pork belly and artichokes, or French green beans with cranberry, flageolet and fava beans and fresh almonds.
Complementary vehicles of taste and texture-think grains, pasta, nuts and rice-give rise to heartier bean dishes and help draw diners. Chef Edouard Moyal at Café Midi in Los Angeles pumps up fava bean salad with smoked chicken and feta cheese, while Zia's in Towson, Md., bolsters black-bean salad in lime-parsley dressing with quinoa, red peppers and corn.
Peter Fulgenzi, chef at Clarian North Medical Center in Carmel, Ind., whips up distinctive accents to stir interest in bean dishes at the facility's food court. He roasts diced pancetta with shallots and mixes the drippings with white balsamic vinegar for Cannellini Beans With Hot Bacon Dressing; cilantro cream sauce and chives invigorate a trio of great Northern, kidney and black beans.
Simply the Best
Upscale ingredients lend beans an air of sophistication, but simplicity makes sense for many operations. Several selections from Arlington, Va.-based Lebanese Taverna Group (which operates four full-service restaurants, three cafes and a gourmet market) are inspired by traditional Lebanese home recipes. The "holy trinity" of garlic, lemon juice and olive oil figures prominently, says co-owner Grace Abi-Najm Shea. The dressing coats black-eyed peas with tomatoes, red pepper and parsley as well as fava beans with multicolored bell peppers.
At the Renaissance Chicago Hotel, Executive Sous-Chef Robert Sikkila finds multiple uses for edamame (green soybeans), but a straightforward approach shapes a favored buffet offering. He blanches shelled, frozen beans and tosses them in citrus juice, zest, sesame oil and cilantro, letting the beans' fresh, crisp profile speak for itself.
Chef-owner Joey Campanaro was looking for an alternative to pasta when he added Butter Beans and Escarole to the short list of sides at neighborhood restaurant The Little Owl in New York City.
Dried beans are soaked overnight with ham hocks and mirepoix vegetables, then cooked in the same liquid until the beans are tender and the sauce lightly viscous. To serve, the plump, pale legumes are heated in their sauce with butter, Parmesan cheese, bacon, garlic and escarole.
"The fat from the pork and protein from the beans make a happy marriage," Campanaro says. "When you add some funk from an ingredient like cabbage or escarole, it's a taste the palate really craves."
At Rocklands Barbecue and Grilling Co., a three-unit fast-casual concept based in Arlington, Va., pork and lamb shoulder bones help heighten flavor in multiple bean-based sides. The bones, and sometimes the marrow as well, are added to precooked navy beans in tomato sauce to simmer four hours with onions and barbecued pork for top-selling barbecued baked beans. They also cook with dried beans to make red beans and rice, says Founder and President Joel Snedden.
Point of Purchase
Rob Lo Furno, Aramark district chef at the University of Delaware in Newark, relies on beans to provide variety in side choices beyond the fruit- or vegetable-based salads students expect. They also appease vegetarian and vegan students.
Familiar choices such as canned black beans, blended with corn, tricolor peppers and spicy cilantro vinaigrette, resonate with customers, but more exotic names also rustle up sales. Rattlesnake beans-similar to pintos but with more-pronounced flavor-draw interest when tossed with roasted vegetables, orzo and herb vinaigrette, or in a hearty stew with black beans, appaloosas (also related to pintos) and bulgur over rice. Canned varieties are simply rinsed and tossed; dried beans are soaked overnight and simmered slowly in water until tender.
San Diego-based chain Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes will turn the spotlight on beans later this year with new promotional choices.
"Beans are such a great alternative to meat items for protein, and there's so many different things you can do with them," says Joan Scharff, executive director of brand and menu strategy.
The limited-time recipes include smoky barbecue baked beans and Mexican refried beans, which will be menued in addition to regular offerings such as Three Bean Salad (garbanzo, kidney and green beans with green peppers and onions in apple-cider vinaigrette) and Italian White Bean Salad. All products are prepared from scratch in central kitchens and delivered daily.
Are fresh, dried, canned or frozen the right fit? The right bean depends on the operation and the preparation, as these chefs know.
- In warm weather, fresh limas and garbanzos evoke the season, says Chef de Cuisine Karen Grieveson at avec in Chicago; the flavor difference is "like night and day".
- Executive chef Joseph Gillard of Napa Valley Grille in Los Angeles prefers the bright flavors of fresh cranberry, fava and lima beans he buys from a farmers market to the creamier taste of the dried versions.
- This spring, Pittsburgh-based chain Eat'n Park will offer locally grown green and wax beans, tossed with canned kidney beans, on salad bars as part of its new Farm Source project. The restaurants currently serve a proprietary canned, seasoned blend.
- When fresh butter beans aren't in season, Executive Chef Gavin Mills at Carolina's in Charleston, S.C., buys frozen rather than dried. "they come out plump and retain a nice, green color," he says.
- Chef-owner Charlie Socher often serves beans in colder months at Cafe Matou in Chicago, choosing dried over canned. "they take less storage space, allow easy portion control and deliver more bite," he says.
- Dried beans take too long to cook at Josephine's Modern American Bistro in Flagstaff, Ariz., where the 7,000-foot elevation extends cooking times, so Chef-owner Tony Cosentino uses canned pinto and anasazi beans for Southwestern Three Bean Salad. When preparing dried anasazis, he saves time by using a pressure cooker.
- Aramark District Chef Rob Lo Furro at the University of Delaware favors canned beans for cold recipes and dried in hot. "Dried take longer to pick up flavor, while cooked canned beans can get mushy."