Eating with your hands is fun, and people all over the world seem to like to wrap little bits of food in soft flatbreads, or dip a crisp chip into something delicious, and pop it in their mouth. Bean dips go perfectly with flatbread eating–they blend happily with herbs and spices and fresh lemon or lime juice, and the savory mixture won’t fall off the cracker on the way to your mouth.
Dried beans cooked simply with a bay leaf or two, whole garlic cloves, and a small dried chile are full of satisfying, earthy flavor. Making dips and spreads from freshly cooked dried beans (or canned beans, for that matter) is a great place to start experimenting with fresh herbs and spices, transforming the beans into intriguing blends of contrasting tastes. Bean dip, a couple of colorful fresh salsas, some crumbled or grated cheese, and a stack of tortillas or flatbreads makes a beautiful, flavorful meal.
Using dried beans takes a little planning. I like to soak beans 4 to 12 hours before cooking them, but the “quick-soak” method works just as well. Put the beans in a large pot with water to cover by 4 inches. Bring the water to a boil, cover the pot, and turn off the heat, and let sit for one hour. The beans should be plumped out, without wrinkled skin. Drain the soaked beans, rinse, then return them to the pot with fresh water to cover by 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer the beans gently until tender, 1 to 1/2 hours. Add salt near the end of the cooking time, after the beans have softened. Keep the pot partially covered, and check occasionally to see that the water level is above the beans.
Although only 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked beans (1 cup dried beans will make about 3 cups cooked) are needed to make a batch of dip, I like to cook 2 to 4 cups of dried beans at a time and freeze the extra beans in their cooking liquid in pint or quart-size containers.
Canned beans are fine for making spread and dips, and one or two 15-oz cans will make a generous amount. Drain the liquid (no need to rinse), but be sure to taste for salt before adding any more to the recipe.
Hummus has many incarnations, but that is part of fun of making your own–there are so many ways to tweak it. Here is a basic starting point: Using a food processor, puree 1 1/2 cups (one 15 oz can) of drained, cooked chickpeas with 4 Tbs fresh lemon juice and 2 or more garlic cloves. Add chickpea liquid as needed to make a creamy puree. Add 2 or3 Tbs sesame butter (tahini) and salt to taste. Add more lemon juice to taste.
Now you can play around. Add spices like cayenne or other hot chile, smoked paprika, sweet paprika, sumac, cumin, or coriander… chopped fresh herbs like parsley, coriander leaves, mint, chervil, arugula, or chives…chopped olives, roasted red pepper, artichoke hearts, or sundried tomatoes. More unconventionally, stir in chopped cooked broccoli, spinach, chard, or garlicky mustard greens.
Put the hummus in a bowl and drizzle the top with extra virgin olive oil. Serve the hummus with flatbread or crackers or in a wrap or sandwich.
Fava Bean Dip with Chermoula
When I cooked fava beans to make the Fava e Cicorie dish we ate in Southern Italy, I used some of them to make a spicy dip. Bessara is the name of Moroccan bean puree descibed in the wonderful cookbook, Flatbreads and Flavors, written by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. I used the name and the Moroccan seasoning mixture known as Chermoula to flavor the dip.
Cook 1 cup (or more) dried, peeled yellow fava beans by the method described above. Or use canned peeled fava beans. Or substitute dried or canned red kidney or small red beans, as Alford and Duguid recommend.You will need 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked beans. If you use canned beans, drain most of the liquid off and add it back in only if needed.
Make the chermoula: Dry-roast 1/2 tsp coriander seed and 1/4 tsp black pepper corns on a small iron skillet over medium-low heat one to two minutes. Shake the pan often so that the seeds do not burn. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder, cool, and grind to a powder. Roast 3/4 tsp cumin seeds 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add 2 Tbs olive oil to the pan and turn off the heat. Stir in 1/2 tsp paprika, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp cayenne, and the ground coriander and black pepper. Allow to steep 10 to 15 minutes. In a mortar (or on a cutting board), mash 2 or 3 garlic cloves with 1/4 tsp coarse salt to make a paste. Mix the garlic paste with 2 Tbs. fresh lemon or lime juice in a small bowl. Add 3 Tbs finely chopped shallot or onion, 1 1/2 Tbs chopped fresh mint, and 1/4 cup chopped parsley or cilantro. Combine the spice- oil and the garlic-herb mixture.
Puree or mash the cooked beans (if using canned beans, drain off most of the liquid). Stir the chermoula into the beans. Adjust the seasoning…more salt, extra lime or lemon juice, cayenne. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh herb leaves on top.
Black Bean Dip
Mole is a Mexican sauce of chiles, spices, garlic, and onion, often thickened with toasted nuts or seeds…a concoction of infinite variations. This dip uses the ingredients of a simple mole to infuse black turtle beans with flavor.
Prepare the flavoring: Heat an iron skillet over medium heat. Dry roast 1/2 tsp cumin seed, 1/4 tsp fennel seed, 1/4 tsp black pepper corns, and 2 whole cloves 30 to 40 seconds, shaking the pan to keep the seeds from burning. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder. Cool and grind to a powder. Dry roast two 1/4-inch slices of a medium-size white onion and 4 whole unpeeled garlic cloves on the skillet over medium-low heat until toasty-brown and softened, about 15 minutes. Chop 2 or 3 plum tomatoes into 1/2-inch dice. Finely chop 1 or 2 jalapenos and 2 scallions. Roughly chop 1/3 cup cilantro leaves.
Make the puree: Put 1 1/2 to 2 cups cooked black beans in a blender or food processor. Add the dry-roasted onion and peeled garlic cloves, the spice mix, and 1 canned chipotle chile (optional, but very good). Process to a smooth puree. Transfer the puree to a bowl and stir in the chopped vegetables and salt to taste. Add the cilantro and 2 Tbs or more fresh lime juice. Stir and adjust the seasoning. Sprinkle with a couple Tbs toasted sesame or pumpkin seeds.
Variations: Replace the jalapeno with finely chopped Anaheim or New Mexico red chiles for less heat and more color. Skip the dry roasting and add the finely chopped white onion and garlic raw for a sharper flavor. Or, go the other way and roast the chiles and tomatoes as well as the onion and garlic…it’s all good.
Quick Pickled Red Onions
The perfect condiment to serve with bean spreads! Cut in half and thinly slice two medium-sized red onions (about 2 cups). Parboil the onion slices in salted, boiling water 20 to 30 seconds. Transfer to a colander, rinse with cold water, and drain.
Dry roast 1/2 tsp cumin seed and 1/3 tsp black pepper corns on an iron skillet over medium-low heat until fragrant. Transfer to a mortar and grind coarsely.
Put the onion in a small bowl with the crushed spices and 1/4 tsp salt. Add 1/2-cup cider or rice vinegar and stir well. Add water to barely cover the onions. Cover and let stand one or more hours. Refrigerated, the onions will keep several weeks.
Even Quicker Pickled Onions
Thinly slice 2 medium red onions (about 2 cups). Place the onions in a colander and toss well with 1 Tbs coarse kosher salt. Leave to drain 20 to 30 minutes. Rinse in cold water and dry in a salad spinner or towel. Mix together 1/2 tsp sugar and 3 Tbs cider or rice vinegar. Put the onions in a bowl and sprinkle with the vinegar. Add chopped fresh herbs like cilantro, mint, Thai basil, or lemon thyme and a sprinkle of cayenne, if you like.