Cheap, filling, easy to make and packed with flavour... is it any wonder that the cassoulet rules the kitchen?
The bean casserole, a dish both frugal and intensely satisfying, has been a mainstay of my winter cooking for as long as I can remember. I value it for its warmth, ease of preparation and its ability to fill for less. But above all I value the bean's quality of soaking up flavour to become the heart and soul of the meal.
The king of the bean casserole is the traditional cassoulet, often made with white kidney beans and, depending on location and family tradition, a mixture of goose, mutton, duck and sausages. Sometimes it is made with tomato and often with a crust of crumbs - the only immovable ingredients are garlic, beans and some sort of fatty meat.
The warming attribute of bean stews comes not only from the carb content but from the beans' ability to soak up stock and fat. What starts out as plain dried starch slowly swells with fat and herbs, becoming soft, rich and almost creamy.
It is wisest to keep to one variety of beans. Red haricot will often cook at a different speed than black-eyed beans or round white haricot. Even the age of a bean will affect its cooking time. By mixing them up 1980s fashion, you risk having some of the pulses cooked to a slurry while others are the wrong side of al dente. The slim and elegant green flageolet seems to cook quickest, but lacks the power to bloat with the cooking juices in the same way a butter bean does.
Depending on the occasion I will use either dried or canned beans. If I'm organised I might soak dried cannellini, haricot, chickpeas or butter beans in cold water overnight. If not, I will use canned or frozen. If I forget to soak my beans overnight, I hurry them along by boiling them hard for 10 minutes, turning off the heat and leaving them be for an hour before draining them, covering with fresh water and cooking them as normal. It works, though the texture of the beans is less good than long soaked. A simplified version could include tomatoes and sausages. I suggest a garlicky sausage to make up for the missing fats, or perhaps soften the onions in duck fat to bring a shadow of the unctuous original.
When vegetarian cooks got hold of the cassoulet they did more than simply ditch the meat. Herbs other than dried savoury found their way in, and cumin and paprika got their foot in the door. Sweetened with dark molasses and given heat with chilli, the bean bake became robust and took on some of the character of the American South. Seafood versions marry haricot beans to mussels, scallops and cod. Good, but the sauce can lack body because the cooking time is less than a meat-based version.
We can speed the process up to give the impression of something that has been slowly swelling in the oven for hours by using canned beans. The cost will be slightly higher, but the cooking time is reduced. The downside is the beans have less time in which to bloat with their sauce. To get round that, I use the particularly floury butter bean. Its habit of collapsing as it cooks means it acts as the perfect flavour sponge. And that, for me, is the whole point.
Butter beans and mushroom
A quick version of the slow-cooked bean casserole. Using canned beans involves little more than a half-hour of work. Serves 4-6.
onions 2 medium
garlic 2 cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
chestnut mushrooms 240g
tomatoes 2 x 400g cans
butter beans 2 x 400g cans
For the crust:
rolled oats 40g
crisp white breadcrumbs 40g
grated Parmesan 4 tbsp
Peel the onions, cut them in half, then into thick segments. Warm a little olive oil in a deep pan, add the onions then cook over a moderate heat until pale gold and starting to soften. Scrub the carrots, roughly chop, then add to the onions with the garlic.
As the vegetables soften, slice the mushrooms and stir them into the vegetables. Once they soften and colour, tip in the tomatoes, the rinsed beans and 2 cans of water. Season with salt and black pepper then bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer the beans for 30 minutes, until the mixture is thick and luscious. Set to one side and transfer to an ovenproof dish. Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4.
Bake for about 35 minutes. Mix the oats, crumbs and cheese and scatter over the casserole and continue cooking for a further 30 minutes until it is golden and crisp.
Chickpeas, chicken and parsnip
To speed this up, use canned or frozen chickpeas or cook them in a pressure cooker. Serves 4.
dried chickpeas 350g
chicken pieces 750g, drumsticks, thighs, etc
onions 2 medium
bacon 6 rashers, smoked streaky
stock 1 litre
Soak the chickpeas overnight in deep cold water. The next day drain them, put them in a deep, large saucepan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil, remove any froth that rises to the surface with a draining spoon, then boil them for a good 45-60 minutes until tender, topping up from time to time with boiling water.
Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Drain the chickpeas and set aside. Season the chicken pieces, brown them lightly in a little olive oil, then lift them out and set aside. Peel the onions and let them soften in the fat left in the pan. Add the bacon, cut into short pieces, and continue cooking until the fat is pale gold and the onions are soft and sweet. Peel and roughly cube the parsnip, add to the pan with salt and pepper, then return the chicken to the pan.
Add the cooked chickpeas to the pan, pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Cover with a lid, transfer to the oven, and bake for 50 minutes.
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Full of beans: Nigel Slater's slow-cooked butter bean and mushroom casserole. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer