Sometimes cooking involves serendipity. First came the mung beans, then recipes in Silk Road Cooking, and finally advice from an Italian Grandmother. “You welcome whatever arrives, and then you listen closely and nourish well.” This is one of the lessons Jessica Theroux absorbed while researching her wonderful book, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers. I believe this approach to life applies to the ingredients that arrive in my kitchen as well as the people that gather around my table.
I decided to take this advice when a jar of mung beans came into my life. My daughter, Naomi, brought me various jars of beans to help use up, and the mung beans called out to me. I like to make bean salads for summer lunches: lentils, red beans, white beans, black beans, kidney beans…but I never used mung beans. The question was, what flavors do mung beans like? I found a “Samarkand Mung Bean Salad” in the Silk Road Cooking book, so I was off to a good start.
Then comes the synergy — the sum being greater than it’s parts. Beans have a great ability to soak up flavors from whatever you mix with them. The ingredients for a good bean salad include contrasting flavors and textures (crunchy, smooth, acidic, sweet): perfectly cooked beans (tender but not mushy), lots of chopped fresh vegetables, aromatic fresh herbs, and a dressing of sprightly citrus juices and flavorful oil.
Carrot and Mung Bean Salad
First, I cooked a cup of mung beans in 4 cups water with a tsp salt and a bay leaf. They cook quickly, like lentils. Simmer them gently. After 20 minutes, begin checking to see if they’re done. They should be tender, but not exploded. Remove from the heat and drain the beans in a sieve. Put the drained beans in a large bowl.
While the beans cook: soak a thinly sliced, small red onion in cold water. After 1/2 hour, drain and mix into the beans.
Heat an iron skillet over medium heat and dry roast 4 tsp cumin seed. Stir constantly 45 to 60 seconds, or until the cumin is fragrant. Add to the bowl of beans. Sprinkle with 1 tsp curry powder and stir gently to combine.
Mash 2 garlic cloves with a pinch of coarse salt in a mortar to make a paste. Add 3 Tbs fresh lemon or lime juice to the garlic paste. Add 1 Tbs minced fresh ginger and 1 finely chopped jalapeno. Stir and let sit 10 minutes.
Finely chop about 1/2-cup fresh herbs. I used parsley, cilantro, chives, and thyme. Coarsely chop about 2 cups spicy greens. I used curly endive and arugula. Add the herbs to the beans.
The Samarkand version calls for fresh diced tomatoes, but I didn’t have any. The salad needed some color, so I substituted about 1 1/2-cups shredded carrots and 1/2 cup chopped celery for crunch. Mix the tomato or carrots into the salad.
Whisk 3 or 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil or other flavorful nut oil with the garlic -lemon mixture. Pour over the salad and toss gently. Adjust the seasoning (I added more lime juice) and mix in the chopped greens. Or, serve the salad on top of the greens. Sprinkle the salad with toasted sunflower or sesame seeds.
I think a couple cups fresh mung beans sprouts would be a fabulous addition. Then it could be called Double Mung Bean Salad. Our left over mung bean salad was mixed with some pilaf of wild rice and red Bhutanese rice to make yet another salad.
Mung beans are really good, and that they cook so quickly makes them extra attractive. I made this salad again, using 1/2 cup green lentils and 1/2-cup mung beans. I cooked them together (with 1/2 tsp salt, thyme, bay leaf, and a hot chile) because they both take about 20 to 25 minutes to cook. I mixed them with 1 Tbs toasted cumin seed, the juice of 1 lemon (about 3 Tbs), 1 tsp lemon zest, 1/2 cup chopped cilantro, 1/4 cup chopped mint, 1/2 cup chopped sweet onion, 5 chopped sun-dried tomatoes, and 1 cup finely sliced purple cabbage. I added a cup of freshly cooked chickpeas, some minced garlic, and a few Tbs extra virgin olive oil. I love the fresh mint and the bright purple cabbage.
Black Bean Salad with Mango
Black beans, golden mange, red pepper, and bright green cilantro–a beautiful color and flavor combination. Increase the chiles to make it a salsa. Canned beans work fine in this salad, just be sure to drain and rinse them well.
Mix 2 cups cooked black beans (or 1 can) with 1 1/2 cups diced ripe, firm mango, 2/3-cup diced red onion, 1 cup diced red bell pepper, 1 or 2 finely chopped jalapenos, 2 tsp toasted cumin seed, and 1/2 cup chopped cilantro or Thai basil.
Make a dressing: Mash 2 garlic cloves with 1/4 tsp coarse salt to make a paste. Add 3 Tbs fresh lime juice and 1 tsp lime zest. Stir in 1 or 2 tsp minced chipotle chile en adobo. Stir in 2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil and 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper.
Toss the salad with the dressing. Let sit 5 to 10 minutes to absorb the flavors. Adjust the seasoning and toss again.
Secret ingredient: Instead of chipotle chile, mix a bit of Indian pickle into the dressing to create a wonderful mysterious flavor.
White Bean Salad with Cherry Tomatoes
I like big, fat beans for this salad–Cannellini, Great Northern, or freshly shelled beans–mixed with bright red, ripe tomatoes or red bell pepper, and spicy greens. Cook the beans with a big sprig of fresh rosemary and a small dried chile.
Combine about 3 cups cooked beans with 1 1/2-cups halved cherry tomatoes (or 1/2-cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes), 3/4-cup chopped red onion (soaked in cold water for 1/2 hour), 2 Tbs drained capers, 1/2-cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley, and 2 Tbs chopped fresh mint leaves.
Make a dressing: Mash 1 or 2 garlic cloves with a pinch of coarse salt in a mortar to make a paste. Add 1/4-cup fresh lemon juice and 1 tsp lemon zest. Stir in 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper, 1 tsp minced fresh rosemary, and 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil.
Toss the dressing with the salad. Let sit 5 to10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add more lemon juice or wine vinegar to taste. Gently stir in 2 or 3 cups coarsely chopped arugula or other spicy greens.
Lentil Salad with Cumin-Mint Vinaigrette
All lentils are not created equal; it’s important to use small green French lentils for this salad. French lentils cook quickly and hold their shape well. Small brown Spanish lentils work well, too.
Start with 1 cup French lentils. Pick through them looking for stones or grit; wash and drain. Put the lentils in a saucepan with 3 cups water, 2 lightly smashed garlic cloves, 1 small hot chile, 3 or 4 sprigs fresh thyme, 1 bay leaf, and 1/2 tsp kosher salt. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and then reduce the heat to low. Cook the lentils, partially covered, at a bare simmer until they are tender–about 15 minutes. Drain, and discard the garlic, chile, and herbs.
While the lentils cook, cut 2 or 3 carrots into 1/4-inch dice. Steam, or blanch in salted boiling water for 1 minute. Drain and cool. Finely chop a sweet onion to make about 1/2 cup. Cut 2 or 3 sun-dried tomatoes into thin strips. Roughly chop 1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves and 1/2-cup cilantro.
Make the vinaigrette: With a mortar and pestle, mash 1 garlic clove with 1/4 tsp kosher salt to make a paste. Transfer to a small bowl and add 2 Tbs fresh lemon juice, 1 tsp lemon zest, and 1 Tbs sherry or balsamic vinegar. Stir and set aside 5 minutes. Dry-roast 1/2 tsp cumin seed and 1/2 tsp coriander seed on a small skillet over medium heat. Grind the spices to a fine powder and add to the garlic mixture. Whisk in 1/4 tsp black pepper, 2 Tbs finely chopped mint (or 1 tsp dried mint), and 4 Tbs extra virgin olive oil.
Assemble the salad: In a large bowl, toss the lentils with the chopped vegetables and herbs. Pour the dressing over the salad and mix gently to combine. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Variations and additions: diced red bell pepper (raw or roasted) instead of carrots, chopped fresh tomatoes instead of dried, toasted walnuts or sunflower seeds, dried cranberries or currants. Dress it up, or dress it down–just sweet onion, sherry vinegar, chopped fresh thyme, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.