White bean spread can be deceptively beguiling. It's often far too bland, not tasting of beans or much else. On the other end of the spectrum, anxious cooks may add flavoring after flavoring to liven up their muted, starchy paste, the result of which is usually also bland, but also wildly unbalanced. But with considered, minimalist flavors, it's as delicious as it is versatile, light but satisfying.
Although this recipe calls for plenty of garlic, it cooks along with the beans and mellows out substantially. Too much lemon juice could overwhelm the beans, but lemon zest provides considerable lemon flavor while the juice adds just enough tartness.
Just because I like my white bean spread simple doesn't mean I like it boring. My favorite seasoning is za'atar, a blend of dried herbs (usually thyme, sometimes with others), sesame seeds, and spices like sumac. A za'atar heavy on the thyme and sesame seeds is my favorite. The thyme and the lemon make magic together and the sesame seeds add a hint of nuttiness welcome in a blend so reliant on lighter aromatics. Beware that some za'atar blends include salt. If yours does, adjust seasonings accordingly.
The great "dried versus canned bean" war should be fought another day, but for making purées I use dried whenever possible. Not only do they taste more bean-y, but they produce a starchy and flavorful broth useful not just for this spread but for making soup or cooking greens.
What should you do with all this spread? Besides the obvious chips 'n' dip, try it spread on a crusty roll with some arugula, thin slices of ripe tomato, and some sprouts. Too health-food-esque? It performs equally well on a hoagie-style roll cradling a fiery, fatty merguez sausage.
- 1 pound (2 cups) of small dried cannelini or Great Northern beans, soaked overnight
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
- 3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of za’atar
- Zest of two lemons
- Juice of 1 1/2 lemons
- 1/4 teaspoon of sugar, if needed
Bring your beans and the garlic to a boil in a large, heavy pot for a couple minutes, then reduce to a simmer. Half-cover the pot and let the beans cook till very tender. Add salt to taste and let them cool in the pot. If you don’t have time for dried beans, two 15 oz. cans of beans are also fine.
Set aside 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid (save the rest for another use) and transfer the beans to a food processor and purée. Through the feed tube, slowly pour in the reserved cooking liquid and the olive oil. If using canned beans, use more olive oil, stock, or water.
Add the za’atar, lemon zest, and lemon juice, then pulse a few times to combine. Tinker with the salt, acid, and za’atar if needed. If the spread feels like it’s lacking a certain depth of flavor, that tiny pinch of sugar can go a long way.
Transfer the spread to a bowl and sprinkle on some more za’tar and olive oil. Let the spread cool to room temperature before serving. If you want to save some for later, move it to a smaller container, cover it with a thin layer of olive oil, and store it in the freezer.