When I started dating a vegetarian, my friends and family were worried. They figured I would find something to eat, but how would I, a chef who loved rich flavors, cope without beef in my ragù and no chicken in my noodle soup?
I was a little concerned, too. I didn’t give up meat, even after my partner and I decided to live together, but I knew I’d be eating vegetarian most of the time. Sure, I loved my mate’s homemade pizzas and veggie burgers, but eventually I would need the depth of flavor that meat gave my cooking.
I found what I was looking for in a pot of pinto beans.
Canned beans taste tinny and mushy to me, so every two weeks, I cook a large batch of pinto beans and freeze containers of them to use in soups, pasta dishes, and Mexican meals. I always have cooking liquid left over, and when I began regularly cooking beans, I felt guilty throwing the liquid away.
One day, after I had been craving my Italian mother’s ragù and wondering how I could enrich meatless sauce, I decided to add some cooking liquid from pinto beans to my marinara sauce. Viscous and flavorful but not overpowering, it thickened the sauce and added just the fullness I wanted. I started freezing bean broth, too, substituting it for water in stews and chili.
The vegetarian and I stayed together, and I continued cooking beans. The summer that I grew sorrel, a tart green, I prepared navy-bean soup finished with a sorrel chiffonade. As the beans I had cooked for the soup cooled, I noticed their beautiful, clear stock. I had been dissatisfied with bland vegetarian stocks; this navy-bean broth, I knew, would be a rich base for the clear vegetarian stock I needed for risotto, gravy, and sauces.
I never fuss over bean stocks. I salt the beans, unless they will be mashed for a recipe. In that case, I simmer the beans without salt, knowing that I can season them later and have more control over the amount of salt I add to recipes requiring the bean stock.
I use broth from pinto, red, kidney, and black beans straight from the pot, saving these darker liquids for stews, chili, and tomato sauce. Black-bean cooking liquid makes a brown tomato sauce whose color reminds me of the meat sauce some Italian-Americans call “gravy.” When I prepare stocks using cooking liquid from white beans, I choose garbanzo or navy beans; they are always available at the local supermarket. Sometimes I add carrots, onions, celery, parsley, and bay leaves directly to the water in which I cook the beans.
For more intensely flavored stock, I drain the unseasoned cooking liquid, then simmer it with carrots, celery, onions, and herbs. Occasionally, I roast the vegetables or add a few dried shiitake or porcini mushrooms. Sometimes I simply use the liquid in place of the water called for in a vegetarian recipe from one of my cookbooks. If my white-bean stock seems too sweet, I add a dash of vinegar or lemon juice.
After 21 years, I’m still with the vegetarian, but thanks to my bean stock, his pizza tastes much better.
Liz Biro writes about food from Hubert, North Carolina.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
Want more? Comb the archives.
Writing about flavor can challenge even the most practiced wordsmiths.
The exuberant Israeli chef
Try quinoa, amaranth, millet, and sorghum
Velvety, earthy, and confident
How to live like Julia Child