Bean cuisine

Cooking with lentils (and other legumes) for Lent — or anytime.

02/29/2012 5:00 AM

02/29/2012 6:39 AM

If you’re looking for an alternative to fish for meatless entrees during Lent — or for that matter, all year round — how about building some meals around beans?

Crescent Dragonwagon has been evangelizing about bean cuisine for 40 years, dating back to “The Bean Book,” published in 1972, when she was just 18. Her new book, “Bean by Bean: A Cookbook” (Workman, $15.95 paperback) illustrates how the perception of beans has changed in the ensuing years, and how the number of readily available varieties has exploded.

“It went from a food of low social standing to being as it should be — a darling of people who love food,” Dragonwagon said in a phone interview from her home in Vermont. “That also goes together with the whole issue of sustainability: Beans and the legume family are the only plants that enrich the soil instead of sucking nitrogen from it.”

Although she’s “The Passionate Vegetarian” (the title of another of her books, one that won her the James Beard Award), Dragonwagon isn’t a dogmatic vegetarian. Small icons at the beginning of each recipe in “Bean by Bean” indicate if they’re vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free — or “meatist,” denoting those recipes that actually include meat.

And one method she uses to develop recipes means that many carnivores won’t miss the meat, even when a dish contains none.

“One of the things I do as a food writer is to take a classic recipe made with meat, look at it a whole lot and tinker with it according to my taste,” Dragonwagon said.

Such is the case with CD’s Chili Mole, a bean-based chili loaded with complex flavors.

“This is one of the chilis I’ve been doing since I was a vegetarian,” Dragonwagon said. “It’s based on a very old technique, but it also has very modern flavors, mixing the sweet and savory heat of chiles with the sweetness of raisins and a little honey. Then there’s the salt and a variety of spices, along with the rich unctuousness of peanut butter and sesame.”

Dragonwagon sprinkles “Bean by Bean” with unexpected historical anecdotes, such as the fact that chili powder was invented by a German immigrant in Texas.

As for her name, the former Ellen Zolotow gets asked about it almost constantly — so much so that one of the first things you see when you visit her website,, is an explanation. It began as an idealistic hippie-era protest against the Establishment. In the long run, however, she says that Dragonwagon was a great name for a children’s-book writer (yet another branch of her career).

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