Few things make a home cook happier than an inexpensive, easy-to-create meal that incorporates almost anything in the refrigerator or pantry. Butter beans fit the bill and are masters of disguise as well. Simply changing the seasoning and cooking methods can transform these large, flat, lima bean lookalikes into a wide range of dishes that can serve as anything from a modest lunch to flamboyant dinner entrée.
Butter beans make wonderful soup or vegetarian stews, burgers, or sandwich spreads. Beans that have been cooked and chilled add a subtle flavor and smooth texture to salads. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of bean casserole and hot pot dishes as well. In fact, there’s very little that cannot be created using this versatile bean. They can even be used for dessert pies or mixed into brownie batter!
Whole beans can be featured in butter bean soup; they are happy to simmer with carrots, green beans, tomatoes, or other vegetables that need to be used up. For a creamier variation, some cooks put the bean soup through a sieve or into a food processor to meld the flavors into a velvety texture. The addition of potatoes and cheese creates a hearty winter stew, while a wonderful spring variation begins with boiled beans and adds garlic, sugar snap peas, and baby carrots.
Mashing cooked beans with garlic, ginger, and onions yields a chunky dip for crackers or raw veggies. Adding a little mayonnaise to the dip and thickening it with more beans makes a sturdy spread that stands up well to chewy whole-grain breads. Cracker or bread crumbs and an egg can transform mashed beans into bean burgers ready to fry or grill. Even babies love mashed beans as long as they’ve been cooked without strong flavorings, such as garlic.
Fabulous main-dish bean casseroles are a cinch to make with whatever the refrigerator yields. Brown rice, quinoa, or other grains mixed with butter beans creates a canvas for roasted red or green peppers, hard-boiled eggs, and sautéed mushrooms. Cilantro, curry paste, or ginger will change the dish’s pitch, as will hot pepper or soy sauce or a sprinkling of cheese and some pureed tomatoes. Protein in the form of sausage, chicken, or beef sing beautifully as components in a bean dish; vegetarians will find that tofu, seitan, or tempeh work just as well.
Available in cans for ready use, butter beans can also be purchased as dried beans, which will require overnight soaking to remove the oligosaccharides, which are complex sugars that cannot be digested and that cause gas. Dried beans are less expensive than canned and have fewer additives than most precooked and canned beans. Beans can be cooked without prior soaking, but the water must be drained off and the beans reboiled, which adds to the cooking time and draws off some of the beans’ nutritional value.