Lentil and bean recipes / Nigel Slater (2024)

I don’t want any fresh food left in the house while I’m away. There are few things less welcoming to come home to than half a cabbage that has seen better days. Though it is marginally better than unpacking your suitcase only to find something you left in the oven. (I have done that, too.) Suppers before I travel tend to be designed to use up every scrap of anything that may wilt or shrivel before I go, with the last one or two generally made up of anything I can find in the cupboards. The final pre-trip meal is usually a bit of a can fest, though none the worse for it.

I love the technology that allows you to print out your boarding pass and even your train ticket before you go. It makes having to stand in a queue while everyone takes their shoes off and shuffles through security almost bearable. Almost. Travelling even the shortest distance makes me hungry, so the last meal before I leave the house tends to be something hearty and filling. This time it’s a great fat bowl of waxy butter beans in a darkly sweet sauce thick with black treacle and chillies. Its mellow flavours and substantial qualities will keep me going for hours.

The larger the bean, the better it survives the canning process. Butter beans, red kidney beans and chickpeas all seem to emerge from the process almost as complete as they went in, while the softer cannellini and the exceptionally fragile green flageolet can often resemble lumpy hummus when you finally extricate them from their little aluminium home. Lentils cook so quickly I have never understood why anyone would want to use a tin anyway.

The butter bean is the granddaddy of them all. Fat, smooth and creamy, it’s the Werther’s Original of the pulse family. To my mind it is happiest in a parsley sauce with a side order of thick slices of warm and wobbly ham, but it does well in a last-minute beanbake with tomato sauce and herbs. I keep a can or two in the house and toss the beans into salads with masses of parsley and bits of chorizo. They also make a stunning soup with onions and maybe a little mustard.

It is mustard that I am stirring into my pre-flight supper, along with a Tetra Pak of passata, some black treacle and a few sprigs of thyme. This is bonfire food, really, or for one of those winter parties when you know everyone is going to drink slightly too much. There is nothing elegant about this – it is about as rough-edged as cooking can get.

It is rare for me to eat a meal without at least one spanking-fresh element in it. With the frosty weather not far away, I find myself turning to lumpy piles of shredded emerald greens or a crisp salad of shredded carrots, cabbage and sprouted seeds and nuts. A few curls of crisp white lettuce with mint leaves and shredded chillies, or even a red cabbage salad with salted almonds and blue cheese. Yet right now there isn’t so much as a radish in the house, let alone a bag of sprouting mung beans. Fridges are empty, the veg rack is naked, not even so much as a tomato on the windowsill.

Some bean dishes, particularly those involving tomato sauce, can be as good cold as they are hot. A lidded tub of them could be travelling fare if you didn’t fancy taking your chances with what might be on offer. Or, on a rather more everyday note, a good packed lunch. History shows that we are not good at the humble bean unless it comes in a turquoise tin with sweet tomato sauce. Yet what could be simpler and cheaper than using some sort of bean or chickpea or lentil as the heart and soul of a meal? Ideally, I cook them from scratch, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Sometimes a can will get me out of trouble.

Most of you will know I am less of a fan of the freezer than most, but bean dishes often freeze very well. A richly herbed stew of bacon and butter beans can be made in advance and split up into small, meal- sized packs and tucked away for rainy days. A welcome-home dish if ever there was one.

Of course, I am not that kind of cook. I rarely think further ahead than the next meal. And I am sure I will return, as always, to an empty fridge and the prospect of another supper made out of desperation and imagination.


Lentil and bean recipes / Nigel Slater (1)

I am very happy to eat this as it is, but it also makes a cheap and warming accompaniment to grilled bacon or sausages and especially to a boiled bacon joint. Serves 4 as a main dish.

3 medium-sized onions
3 large cloves garlic
3 tbsp olive oil
a few whole sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
2 x 400g cans of crushed tomatoes (or passata)
2 x 400g cans of butter beans
2 medium-sized whole chillies
2 tbsp black treacle
1 tbsp grain mustard
1 tbsp smooth French mustard

Peel and roughly chop the onions and the garlic, put them in a heavy-based casserole with the olive oil and leave over a moderate heat till they are soft. An occasional stir will prevent them from sticking to the pan.

Add the dried thyme and the bay leaves, the crushed tomato, 250ml of water and the drained beans, and then bring to the boil. Season with salt and black pepper, the two chillies, treacle and the mustards.

Partially cover with a lid and leave to simmer gently for 30 minutes or so – you want the sauce to thicken a little. Serve hot.


Lentil and bean recipes / Nigel Slater (2)

I make bean and sausage hotpots for winter weekends, leaving them to putter away in a slow oven until everyone comes in, freezing and begging to be fed. During the week I’d like to come back to that sort of thing, too, so I use this quick version. The parsley is crucial, as is a good meaty sausage. Serves 4.

2 tbsp olive oil
120g streaky bacon, diced
1 onion
1 large carrot
a rib of celery
300g green lentils
1 litre chicken stock
2 bay leaves
8 plump pork sausages
chopped parsley

Warm the oil in a deep, heavy casserole. Put the bacon in and let it cook over a medium heat so it colours lightly. Meanwhile, peel the onion, chop it finely and add to the bacon. Cut the carrot and celery into rough dice, and stir them in, letting them soften a little. Don’t let them colour. Tip in the lentils, pour in the chicken stock, then tuck in the bay leaves and sausages, cut into short lengths if you prefer, and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat so the liquid simmers gently, season, then leave it for 30 minutes, stirring from time to time. Check the seasoning (I like it peppery), and stir in a handful of chopped parsley.


Lentil and bean recipes / Nigel Slater (2024)


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