Seasonal pantry: Fast, family meals from canned beans

Make mealtimes fast and easy with items you probably already have in your pantry.|

Among the casual rules that guide our time is one that we hear a lot but not in the context of cooking: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Yet this is something anyone who cooks at home should take to heart, especially today, when there is widespread belief that only chefs get it right and then only when they use the freshest local ingredients gathered as close to the moment of cooking as possible.

In a perfect world, we would all walk outside to pick, say, a few tomatoes for a BLT or salad and eggplant and peppers for homemade ratatouille. We’d pull onions and dig potatoes at the last minute, and grow enough shell beans to keep the pantry stocked until next season.

But it isn’t a perfect world, and as fall pulls its cool, golden blanket over summer’s fading harvest and our concerns turn to shopping for school supplies, supervising homework, and getting dinner on the table earlier than during the leisurely days of June and July, it’s a good thing to remember.

A well-stocked pantry can help, especially when certain canned foods are part of it. Using canned foods, especially here in Sonoma County where we grow or raise almost everything, can feel like cheating, but if you know which canned foods to rely upon, they can be a time-saver and feel like a lifesaver.

When it comes to canned foods, beans – shell beans, not green beans – are among the best options. With a selection on hand, along with rice, cheese, and a few other pantry staples, you can make a delicious and filling dinner quickly, no matter how late soccer practice, theater rehearsals, or parent meetings go.

Options have never been better. There are now several brands of organically grown beans and legumes in cans that do not have the BPA (bisphenol A) lining that was ubiquitous until recently. You’ll find black beans, pinto beans, cannellini beans, chickpeas, and lentils are among the selections at most local markets.

So, to sum it up: Cook from scratch whenever you can – fresh shell bean season is coming right up so there will be great options at our farmers markets – and when you can’t, don’t feel guilty about using a shortcut.

This soup is filling enough to serve as dinner if you add a big green salad alongside. To serve four or five people, use two cans of soup, 2 cups of liquid, and 4 ounces of cheese; it is not necessary to double the amount of onion.

Pinto Bean Soup

Serves 2

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 15-ounce can organic pinto beans, drained and rinsed

1 cup chicken stock or water

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Cheddar cheese

- Kosher salt

- Black pepper in a mill

- Steamed rice

- Toppings of choice (see Note below)

Pour the olive oil into a medium sauce pan and set over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 12 to 15 minutes. Do not let it brown. Add the beans, the chicken stock or water, and simmer gently for about 10 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let cool for 3 or 4 minutes. Purée with an immersion blender, stir in the cheese, taste, and correct for salt, if needed. Season with a little black pepper. If the soup seems a bit thick, thin with a little more stock or water and heat through.

To serve, divide between two soup bowls or soup plates, top with a scoop or two of rice, add toppings, and enjoy right away.

Note: Use one or more of these toppings to finishing the soup: chopped fresh cilantro or Italian parsley; minced red or white onion; grated Cheddar cheese; salsa or hot sauce; creme fraiche or sour cream.

Bruschetta is typically served as an appetizer but in this context, it is a full meal, delicious and filling.

Cannellini Bean ?Bruschetta

Serves 4

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 small onion or 2 shallots, cut into small dice

3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

2 15-ounce cans organic cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Vella Dry Jack or similar cheese

- Kosher salt

2-3 fresh sage leaves, minced (optional)

3-4 cups fresh salad greens

4 large slices or 8 small slices rustic hearth bread, lightly toasted

3/4 cup roasted and julienned sweet peppers (jarred are fine; just be sure to rinse them before slicing)

- Extra virgin olive oil

Put the olive oil into a small or medium sauté pan, set over medium heat, add the onion or shallot and sauté until soft and fragrant, about 12 to 15 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté 2 minutes more.

Add the beans and heat through, stirring all the while. Use a fork to smash about half the beans, and stir in the cheese. Taste and correct for salt. Stir in the sage, if using.

Working quickly, divide the greens among individual plates, season with a little salt, and use your fingers to toss gently.

Set the bread on a clean work surface and add beans to each piece. Top with some of the sweet peppers and set on top of the greens. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil on each piece and enjoy right away.

This dish is as satisfying as it is simply to prepare. If it tastes at all flat, add more lemon or lime juice and more salt until flavors blossom.

Chickpea, Pasta ?& Tuna Salad

Serves 3

3/4 cup dried, small-shaped pasta

- Kosher salt

1 15-ounce can organic chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed

1 5-ounce can tuna, drained

1/2 small red onion, cut into small dice

3 celery stalks, cut into small dice

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or Italian parsley

- Juice of 1 lemon or lime, plus more to taste

1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more to taste

- Black pepper in a mill

3 cups fresh salad greens

Fill a medium saucepan half full with water, season generously with salt, and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water reaches a rolling boil, stir in the pasta, cook according to package directions, drain, rinse, and drain thoroughly.

Meanwhile, put the chickpeas into a medium bowl, add the tuna, and use a fork to break it up. Add the onion, celery, and parsley and toss with a fork. When the pasta is ready, add and toss again.

Add the lemon or lime juice and the olive oil and toss again. Taste and correct for salt and acid.Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the greens among plates or bowls and season with a little salt. Top with the salad and enjoy right away.

Michele Anna Jordan is author of the new “Good Cook’s” series. Email her at and visit her blog at

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