For the Best Bean Salad, Add Lots of Contrasting Texture and Flavor

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Great bean salads combine a variety of textures and flavors. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

I don't often follow recipes for salads, but that doesn't mean a recipe can't be a helpful teaching tool, whether you obey it to the letter or not. Let's take bean salads as an example. They're one of my favorite kinds of dishes, especially during the summer months, when I want to stand in a hot kitchen as little as possible. The actual cooking involved is minimal to none, depending on whether you start with dried beans or use canned ones (I prefer dried for their superior flavor, but canned beans are a totally acceptable shortcut). The finished salad can function as a full meal, delivering protein, fiber, vegetables, and fat all in one dish. Plus, a bean salad keeps exceptionally well in the fridge, unlike salads made from delicate leafy greens, which means you can make a huge quantity and then eat it for several days after.

The only question, really, is how to make the salad interesting, since a big bowl of beans can be pretty dang boring if not done right. The answer lies in contrast, both in texture and in flavor.

In this salad, I started with the beans, which are a variegated black-and-white variety called Orcas, sold by Bob's Red Mill. You don't need to use that exact type—turtle beans, navy beans, black-eyed peas, and many others will work equally well here (and you can also use a mixture of beans). Different beans have slightly different textures, but when properly cooked, they should all be smooth and creamy throughout, without any gritty hard bits or overcooked, blown-out sections.

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For texture, what I mainly wanted to add to each spoonful of beans were crisp, crunchy, and tender things. Here, that meant little bits of diced fresh radish; chopped radicchio, which is leafy but still firm enough to hold up to dressing; and crushed Marcona almonds.

Each of those ingredients adds its own flavor as well: bitterness from the radicchio, spiciness from the radish, and a rich nuttiness from the almonds. But I didn't stop there. I also added chopped parsley for a refreshing mineral flavor, diced scallions for a bit of green-onion kick, and minced red onion, which I quickly marinated in red wine vinegar to lightly pickle it. That vinegar-soaked onion is an ingredient I turn to again and again—I love how quick and easy it is to make, the way it tames the pungent onion flavor, and the tart bite it adds to whatever it's folded into.

Dress it with a good, basic vinaigrette, and it's ready to serve. This is one of those things you can make exactly as shown, or tweak to conform to your tastes and whatever you have available. The key, if going a different route, is to keep that basic idea of maximum contrast in mind—make that your guiding principle, and you could make a different bean salad each week without ever tiring of them.

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