Butter beans

Butter beans. You know. The slightly waxy ones. The ones that are creamy, that retain a bite after cooking, yet can also puree down nicely if you need them to. The ones that conveniently come in tins, at least conveniently for me, as I love using them.

For all of having my few years of vegetarianism in my teens, I don’t think I came across butter beans then. Maybe at university? I don’t know quite when they entered the tin cupboard, and my culinary consciousness.

But they were there, along with some tinned tomatoes, when I wanted to make something quick. Combine them with some frozen spinach, whatever remaining veg you might have in the fridge (carrots tend to be a favourite), and you are on your way to a warming meal.

Spinach and Butter Bean (for thus goes the name) is great for a Friday night when you’re tired, but still want to eat something that tastes good. For a parental dinner that will take care of itself while you engage in the pre-bedtime obstacle race. And it happens also to be perfect for the points when you’ve had a bit too much rich food, and want to ease back.

This one was an invention of mine, and one that has transplanted successfully into others’ homes. My mother in law serves it with baked potatoes. A friend takes it in a different direction, and adds spices to offer a more Indian take on it.

In the last year, I read a recipe for the Italian soup/stew, Ribollita, and realised it was much the same. It’s hard to be genuinely original, but I don’t mind. If it eats well, keep going. Oh, and add a splash of white wine while you’re about it.

My later tweak, given the liquid from the frozen spinach, and any juice from the tinned tomatoes, is to add a couple of handfuls of barley. That adds some carbs, and usefully soaks up the liquid. It also offers a little bite, against the smoothness of the tomatoes and spinach, and the nubbly texture of the beans.

The main advantage is that you put it together in five minutes, stick it on a low light, and then essentially leave it for about an hour, while the barley does its work, and all the flavours and textures soften. I like it with cheese on top – just grated cheddar will work fine – but you don’t have to.

One thing to note: better to do this with tinned tomatoes rather than passata. If you choose the latter, it cooks faster because there’s less liquid to soak up – which can mean it’ll stick to the bottom of the pan.

White beans combine well with fish too. I haven’t made a proper Italianate tuna and bean salad – I think cannellini beans are required, and probably much better quality tuna too. But still – I can tell that the mealiness of the beans is offset by the ‘juicier’ fish, adding texture too. And butter beans would probably do the trick here as well.

Butter beans are probably quite an old English ingredient. With lamb, perhaps? I know I’ve seen a recipe where they accompany lamb shanks. I think they would probably also be good in stews, and perhaps in soups too?

They’re not as chirpy as chick peas, not as robust as kidney beans. But they are still a great store cupboard staple – and one of these years, I might even get round to cooking them myself.

Butter beans also have a special place in my heart, as they feature in a classic Bagpuss episode, The Mousemill. The object put in Bagpuss’ window is a mill, and the mice work hard to convince Professor Yaffle that you put in breadcrumbs and butterbeans, and bring out chocolate biscuits.

It takes him a while to go round the back and realise that the mice are popping the chocolate biscuits in at the front, putting them in a wheelbarrow, and bringing them round to the front to start the whole process again. When he says as much, they laugh at him and ask how he thought breadcrumbs and butter beans could be anything but themselves.

Butter beans – unsung heroes of the culinary world. Often the foil rather than the main event, they are still worth choosing, and using.

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