In Love with Legumes

We all have that “take it or leave it” vegetable. For me, that would be beans. I don’t dislike them. I just don’t get too excited about them and when I cook them I don’t tend to give them much fuss beyond some boiling water, butter, salt and pepper. Who knows? Maybe it is that haunting childhood chant “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart, the more you eat the more you…” (you know how it ends) that steered me away from them way back when.

For this very reason I was extremely intrigued by Culinary Vegetable Institute’s Vegetable Showcase Dinner on beans or, more accurately, the family of legumes. Legumes are quite varied and that is precisely why the six course dinner was so revelatory. Chef Jamie Simpson and the CVI team showed the versatility of legumes, and even developed a thoroughly drinkable cocktail comprised of a few of them.

CVI’s Vegetable Showcase Dinners highlight a particular item in peak season, taking diners on an adventurous escapade though numerous iterations. Legumes are ubiquitous, but we usually see them in pulse form (the dried seed). Here, we were served sweet peas, chickpeas, fava beans, soybeans and snow peas but unlike what we’re accustomed to, we were introduced to the whole plant. Chef Simpson introduced us to fried fava leaves, bean bloom dashi broth, a sprouted pea, a two-year preserved Lima bean, and doriyaki of red bean paste. I did spy some familiar legumes like green beans and peanuts that, while certainly welcomed, would not have been missed at all.

Farmer Lee Jones commented at the start of the dinner that we often forget that in days gone by we had no choice but to eat with the seasons. In many cases, we reach for the most basic of legumes once they are dried and packaged so the real beauty of this meal was tasting them green, fresh and fragrant or, in some cases, not tasting them (the way we know them anyway) at all.

Chef Simpson’s approach is equal parts mad scientist and utilitarian. Not only are we rewarded visually and with extreme culinary creativity, but we were told at the start of the meal we would be eating the whole life cycle of the plant from seed, to shoot, to bloom.

Ok, legumes…color me impressed. Dish by dish, our table of diners was beguiled. I know I left the event thinking of legumes in a whole new light. Who would have thought to craft a cocktail of Grey Goose Vodka, sweet pea syrup and chickpea water, garnished with fava blooms? But here we were, getting tipsy drinking our vegetables, crunching on bean blossom flowers, and pouring a steeping bean dashi broth over halibut and lentils. Take my word for it, our “Pork and Beans” was not the stuff of Girl Scout camp outs either. I couldn’t help but think about the overcooked, soggy wax beans garnishing my high school cafeteria tray, or the unsatisfying and sometimes crunchy black beans I have at home literally every time I attempt to soak my own.

As I sipped an effervescent sweet pea soda that would rival any bottled beverage on the market, I was reminded of the importance of looking at familiar things in a different light. That’s exactly what these dinners do—they break boundaries, challenge norms and expand the mind. It’s not just about having a delicious dinner. On a macro level, changing the way we regard our food options, particularly plants, is increasingly important as we face global issues around food production and demand.

The next Vegetable Showcase Dinner will feature cruciferous vegetables and will take place November 10.

–Lisa Sands