For The Best Vegetarian Dinners, Just Add Beans

The best way to cook beans for any vegetarian meal.

As a home cook I've been experimenting with a pretty wide range of dishes and cuisines for my entire adult life, but for the longest time the one thing I struggled to improve was the amount of vegetarian meals in my diet. I constantly found myself unsatisfied with the vegetarian recipes I attempted, feeling hungry again soon after eating my charred broccolini and couscous, delicious as it was. I always chalked this up to some moral deficit, that perhaps I had been trained by consumer culture to crave meat all the time. But the reality, it turns out, was that I just wasn't eating enough beans.

Having grown up in a house where beans were never on the menu, I had always thought of them as more of a side than a centerpiece. My attempts to go veggie had always taken me to those grain bowl staples like quinoa or rice as a base, and I never thought of beans as an essential part of my diet. I couldn't have been more wrong: Beans have that essential, filling meatiness I was looking for, and the versatility to fit into almost any meal I might be craving.

The versatility of beans in home cooking

There are plenty of traditional bean dishes that are delicious and filling. White bean soup and Mexican rice with black beans have become staple entrees in my kitchen—but those meals are not the real reason I've come to love them. Beans have become my go-to substitution for all sorts of meals that I want to make vegetarian, or pasta dishes when I just want to mix things up. It turns out that a lot of things I was already cooking, especially with chicken, taste just as good with a layer of beans.


Just a few ideas I've had success with are Italian staples like piccata, pesto, and cacciatore. White beans tossed in a lemony, buttery piccata sauce are a great pairing for some sauteed greens and rice. A simmered stew of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and mushrooms goes from sauce to meal with a can of hearty legumes. Do I dare try to turn chicken parmesan into a cheesy bean casserole? I haven't yet, but I'm going to try.

One delicious trick I learned early on is to quickly pan-fry some precooked beans, especially if they are coming from a can. While creamy beans can replace the substance and flavor of meat in various meals, they don't always bring the texture you want, and cooking them in a little oil can fix that. In a pan over medium-high heat, a layer of beans with a few tablespoons of olive oil will crisp up in just a few minutes, adding some nice crunch and contrast to the dish while staying soft inside. White beans are usually my choice for these meals, and they are easy to pan-fry because it's easy to see when they've turned brown.


My tastes and trials have so far leaned Italian and Mediterranean, but those are just my preferences—there is a whole world of saucy meat dishes out there just waiting to get beaned. Want Kung Pao chicken? How about Kung Pao cannellini? The creamy paprika sauce from chicken paprikash will work with beans, too. And of course, everyone knows how delicious beans are when added to a taco or burrito, but as a decided non-expert on the depth of Mexican cuisine I had to be educated on the deliciousness of ditching the meat and making a meal out of beans and mole. If you're a non-expert like me, you should try it, and soon.

Make one-pan vegetarian dinners with beans

Beans are a godsend in the arena of sheet pan dinners. A generous portion of broccoli, cherry tomatoes, and onion baked with feta isn't going to fill me up, but it will once some beans are mixed in. Rinsed and patted dry, canned beans will crisp up in about a half an hour at 400 degrees, which is right in line with the cooking time of a lot of sheet pan recipes.


I'm not telling you how you need to cook your beans; I'm just telling you not to make the same mistakes I did. I'm not a vegetarian, and I don't feel guilty about that, but we could all probably stand to eat a little less meat. The transformative power of beans has broken down my barriers and made vegetarian meals part of my cooking rotation in ways nothing else could, and it's made a lot of those meals more affordable too. Taking the flavors I always associated with meat and applying them to other foods has made me a better cook, and I am nowhere near as constrained by my proteins as I used to be. Beans are great. Sometimes you just have to learn what the rest of the world already knows.