Makes about 3 cups
- Beans, of your choice (2 15-ounce cans, or about 1/2 pound dried or 1½ pounds fresh)
- Fat or oil, your choice, as needed
- Salt, to taste
- Aromatics, your choice, to taste
- Acid, your choice, to taste
- If using dried beans, cover in water by several inches and soak overnight in the fridge, or less ideal but still fine, hot-soak them before cooking: Bring to a boil in water to cover, also by a few inches, turn off heat and cover pot with a lid for an hour. Soaking allows the beans to accept some of the moisture without the stress of heat. Most dried beans (except lentils) will start falling apart before fully hydrating if they're cooked directly from the dry state.
- Cook the soaked or fresh beans: Drain off the soaking water. Cover beans in fresh water by a couple of inches and add a few pinches of salt (the whole salt-makes-them-tough thing is a myth). Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender. Ideally the starches inside the beans will be smooth, not mealy, but you don't want them falling apart and dissolving. So somewhere between those two points is fine. Depending on the type and age of the beans and the soaking time, this can be 45 minutes to over an hour. (If you're using canned beans, rinse off their packing liquid and taste them. Sometimes they can use a little more cooking, too, to get them nice and tender.)
- Drain the beans, reserving a few cups of the cooking liquid, and let them cool until warm but not hot.
- In a food processor or blender, purée the beans, adding them in stages maybe a quarter at a time. Splash in a little cooking liquid to help the process along until there aren't many whole beans still visible, at which point I switch to the fats and oils. You can, of course, adjust the ratio of cooking water to oil as much as you like. If you want the purée to be super-smooth, you can get fussy and at this point push it through a fine-mesh sieve, but I never do.
- Once the purée is smooth, you're kind of on your own with the rest of the ingredients, which are all really for flavor. My advice is to go down the list in order, adding and tasting: Add until you taste it, then add more if you want to taste it more. You can do all this flavor adjusting in the food processor or blender, but I like to do it by hand, folding with a spoon or spatula, because I find it easier to taste that way, and because sometimes extra virgin olive oil starts to taste bitter when whirled too long in a blender.
Serve with chips, toasted pita or bread, crudité, or as a spread on bread, or even as the starch base for an entrée, and let us know in the comments what flavors and combinations you try.
Here's a guide to thinking through the components:
Beans: The beans are here for body, flavor and, well, they're really what makes this a food. Of course, chickpeas are the traditional choice, and their nutty, wheaty flavor is fantastic. But almost any dry bean can be used this way -- navy beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, black-eyed peas ... (I have to confess that I've never tried lentils this way, because I think they cook up a bit too wet, but I'd be happy to be proved wrong.)
I'm not picky about what form the beans take, and you don't have to be either. Yes, fresh field beans (meaning "dry beans" that haven't been actually dried) straight from the farm and kissed by angels are great, and planning ahead to soak dried beans overnight does give you a cooking-geek point or two, but if all you've got is a hankering and canned beans, I'm not going to tell you to turn in your food-cred card. Just be sure to rinse off the liquid they're packed in. And you may want to cook them to soften them up a little more.
Fat and oil: Tahini, a rich sesame paste, is the only ingredient you may have to actually look for (though many supermarkets carry it), but if you're not trying to make a traditional hummus, you can always just substitute around it. The point of this ingredient is to thin out and smooth the bean mixture, the difference between a bean mash and a bean purée, and of course to give you rich flavor. I love the flavor of good olive oil, so often that's just what I'll use for my bean purées. But why not a little peanut butter? Or bacon or sausage fat? Or the good, greasy drippings from your roasted chicken?
Cooking liquid: I usually think of the water I cook food in as its own kind of incidental broth. (Seriously – if you don't believe me, next time you make pasta, take a little sip of the water. It won't be delicious on its own, but it will have some flavor of wheat, which might find a happy home in combination with other things.) Since beans sometimes purée up stiff and dry, keeping some of the liquid on hand to help thin and smooth out the purée before you add the oil reintroduces some of the beans' lost flavor and keeps you from having to dump tons of oil into it.
Salt: Salt makes things taste good.
Aromatics and flavorings: Traditionally, this would just be a little bit of raw garlic, pounded to a paste. Raw garlic is powerful, sharp and biting, and its flavor will bloom in the purée as it sits. If you prefer the milder, sweeter flavors of sautéed or roasted garlic, why not use those? Or do a combination of the two, or skip the garlic altogether and instead use a little minced shallot or onion. How about some ginger? Or herbs – hearty ones like rosemary and thyme are particularly lovely, or go Mexican with a little bit of epazote, or French with some tarragon.
Since the bean is the main ingredient, you can take inspiration from your choice to think of common flavors associated with it. Pinto beans, for instance, can take you down a Mexican-ish route, so you might consider garlic, chile, cumin, coriander, cilantro. Black-eyed peas, common in the South, might get you thinking bacon fat or bits of smoked ham folded in at the end. Maybe black beans will get you in a Cuban mood, garlic and lime and sautéed green peppers.
Acid: Lemon juice, lime juice, vinegar – you're going to want a nice, sharp, tangy ingredient to lighten up the flavor and to balance the heaviness of all that protein and richness.