Having only discovered the delights of cheesy beans in her fifties, Nicola Miller asks why shouldn’t we serve this meal with a flourish
When Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford teamed up with TV presenter and chef Tom Kerridge to launch Full Time, a series of films aimed at helping children and families to cook good meals on a budget, there were a few comments about the inclusion of a recipe for a fish finger sandwich. The sandwich is just one of 52 family-friendly meals, which are released every Sunday morning on the Full Time Instagram page and via major supermarkets, yet people complained that it “isn’t proper cooking”. If you define cooking as “the practice or skill of preparing food by combining, mixing or heating ingredients to render them palatable and safely edible”, then it most certainly is. The fact that many pubs and restaurants have a fish finger sandwich on their menu (albeit ‘poshed up’ in many cases) tells me that these two men are on the right track.
When you do not have a lot of money or time, you don’t want the food on your plate to remind you of this. Some recipes suggested for low-income or unskilled cooks by some food writers are unappetising, combine odd ingredients (even though food banks don’t just sling together random food products when they make up boxes) or trot out that common trope – how to feed a family of four for £20 a week. I do not believe the latter is possible without a decent store cupboard and a well-equipped kitchen. (Have they ever met a teenage boy?) Full Time’s recipes appeal to all ages and adapt to cooking facilities, time and skill levels. They make life feel less unfair for families who might feel ignored by food media because they don’t have a lot of money or aren’t skilled cooks. It helps that both Tom and Marcus had childhoods where money was tight, and in Marcus’s case, food was often hard to come by, although I don’t generally subscribe to the view that one needs to have personal experience of something to represent it best. I know that sometimes my lived experience of something can hinder much-needed impartiality. I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Cheesy beans on toast came into my life when I was in my fifties (thank you, husband!), and I couldn’t believe I had waited so long. It made me smile with recognition because one of my standard meals is frijoles (refried pinto beans) on a grill-toasted or griddled flour tortilla with a scattering of cheese. To some, this might seem an unusual choice – unless you are Latinx – in which case, it is as ‘ordinary’ to them as cheesy beans on toast are to us Brits.
Why shouldn’t this be a meal we serve with a flourish? It doesn’t have to be prosaic or presented as such. Cheesy beans on toast is a meal that transcends class, income and culture: you will find iterations of it worldwide; it benefits from careful cooking yet copes well with the ‘sling it together’ schools of cooking, too. It’s a dish I would be proud to teach a child to cook and a nod to the fundamental importance of Full Time’s fish finger sandwich, which can be served with a glass of wine for the grown-ups or to satisfy children who would otherwise go through the kitchen cupboards like a bear in a bin. So I wanted to write a recipe where I treated this beloved English standard as something you might not have encountered before and show you how I make it. It remains my idea of a treat meal even though it is not particularly costly. To make it more fun for adults, I thought about wine pairings (obviously, this means it is no longer a lower budget meal) and so I asked Donald Edwards, sommelier and writer of Radical Wine Pairings for his thoughts. He’s a great writer, so I thought it best to leave his contribution pretty much as is. This is what he had to say on the subject:
“Cheesy beans on toast is a bit of a weird one for wine; a tangle of fats, sugars and starches, it also doesn’t come with a cultural affinity to any wine region. It’s uniquely British, and yet, as its similarity to frijoles on toasted tortillas/tacos shows, it’s oddly universal in its flavour profile. There’s a sweet, starchy richness that makes me look to the drier more acidic end of the wine aisle.
Cava is a quixotic beast. Beloved of the Catalans to an impressive degree, their fierce pride over it has led to a violent disagreement between the two biggest Cava houses over what each thought the other was doing wrong. This fight has stopped the Cava world from working together and means that it’s stunningly good value as a supermarket fizz.
Cordoniu Cava Brut, made with the traditional varieties, works wonderfully with cheesy beans. The bubbles add a lightly celebratory edge to the meal that I think is well in keeping with its comforting nature. Equally, its flavours run towards sharp lime-edged citrus that also feels like a nod to the lime accompanying its spiritual brother, the frijoles.
The infighting within the Cava category eventually led to the most quality-focused producers leaving to form their own new DO, Corpinnat. Recaredo, one of the great traditional Cava houses, makes Serral dell Vell from a single vineyard on a plateau in the Bittles Valley highlands outside Barcelona. Possessed of the same genes as the Cardoniu Brut, it’s nonetheless a completely different animal. It spends years resting on its yeast lees in the Recaredo cellars; this gives a deep toastiness and power that complements and adds a moreish frame to the sharp apple and lime of the Xarel-lo and Macabeo fruit.
Serrel del Vell is a serious wine of depth and complexity with deep cultural roots in Catalonia. As such, I’d probably toast the bread a bit more and pull out the nice wine glasses. However, I’d still serve it with cheesy beans on toast and what’s more, I think it’d really
work. I also think the Catalans would approve.”
Find Donald’s words at donalde.me
Buy: Codorníu Cava Brut from Sainsbury’s.
Recaredo Serral Del Vell from Decantalo.com
CHEESY BEANS ON TOAST FOR 1
You want to cut two slices of bread as thick as your toaster will allow, and they need to be from a white batch or tin loaf. Never use sourdough or ‘holey bread’. The Scottish Batch Loaf from Woosters Bakery in Suffolk is my favourite and, contrary to received knowledge, you will not waste good bread by covering it with baked beans. But honestly, a supermarket loaf will still be delicious. Think of the bread as a deep mattress and the cheesy beans as a thick duvet. Pour a 415g tin of beans into a heavy-based saucepan (because you want them to cook slowly and not scorch), then place over a low-medium heat and bring the beans to a simmer. Now add 90g of thinly sliced Cornish Quartz Cheddar which has a lovely crunchy, salty texture (find it in Tesco’s, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s) and start stirring fast. Aim for a thickly-cooked consistency where some of the beans break down and amalgamate with the cheese-thickened sauce. It is not a ‘pretty’ presentation, but it is the best way to cook less expensive own brands, rendering even the hardest of beans as soft as butter. Continue to stir until beans and cheese are inseparable and taste as you go, adding salt if you wish, although this cheese is quite salty in itself. It’ll take about five minutes. During the last minutes of cooking, toast your bread well, as Donald recommends. When your toast is made, spread it with butter and pile the cheesy beans on top. Add a pat of butter. I was tempted to add more grated cheese on top to make my photo look more appealing, but it doesn’t need it, although you might like to add some.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020