COOKBOOK REVIEW Spilling the Beans

By Julie Van Rosendaal & Sue Duncan  

Spilling the Beans is available for purchase through our online store or at local book stores. For more information on this cookbook please visit Whitecap Books


Cookbook review written and photographed by contributing writer Helena McMurdo

When it comes to beans; I have good intentions. I have them in my kitchen but I might as well confess that mostly they serve to make my glass storage jars look good. Yes, I know that beans are good for you – which is why I have them in the first place – in the hopes that I’ll make something with them someday and become a better person. It’s not like I don’t enjoy them when fed to me but given the choice between a chicken breast and some lentils (technically a pulse) and barley (a grain) I’d go for the chicken breast every time. Part of this stems from the fact that I know what to do with a chicken.

Thankfully there’s a new cookbook on the scene to help ease me out of my bean rut. With Spilling the Beans, authors Julie Van Rosendaal and Sue Duncan have succeeded in making even a reluctant bean eater like me change my tune. This book provides a host of simple recipes that make it easy and enticing to cook with beans and answers the fundamental question of “what on earth do I do with these things?”

Julie Van Rosendaal is a resident of Calgary (AB) and the food correspondent for The Calgary Eye Opener on CBC Radio One, co-host of TV’s Just Food and the food editor for Parents Canada magazine. Many readers will know her from her award-winning food blog; Already an accomplished author, her previous titles include Grazing, Starting Out and One Smart Cookie. For her latest release Julie has teamed up with her good friend Sue Duncan, who lives in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. You can learn more about Julie and Sue in the recent interview conducted by our very own Stay-At-Home-Chef (click here for full interview).

Although titled Spilling the Beans, this is really a book about beans AND grains. Julie and Sue explain that beans and grains work well together as a protein source because beans contain the amino acids that grains lack and vice versa. Beans are high in fibre, low in fat and full of nutrients. These benefits, along with those of whole grains, are discussed more fully in a small section authored by Julie’s father who happens to be a gastroenterologist. This is all well and good – but what will the recipes be like? Will I want to eat any of this stuff?!

Flipping through the book, I was pleased to see that there are lots of recipes that caught my eye right off the bat – from Savoury Hand Pies with Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Olives and Lentils to scrumptious sounding snacks like Roasted Chickpeas & Pecans with Bacon & Maple Syrup. Even Black Eyed Pea and Kale Soup sounded great to me – yep I was feeling myself get healthier just by turning the pages.

The book contains a useful introduction that covers the various types of beans and bean definitions, legumes, pulse etc. as well as information on grains and how to cook them. The rest of the book is organized into chapters for various meal types. In addition to what you might expect (salads, soups, one-dish meals), there are also less expected sections including those for breakfast, sandwiches and even an extensive section on baking with beans. Did you know that you can make bread with beans? Or how about some waffles?

I see the recipes as falling into three broad categories – those that feature beans (i.e. with other ingredients), those that contain hidden beans and those where beans are the stars. I have mixed feelings about the hidden bean dishes. While I don’t believe in the ‘hide the vegetables from your kids’ school of thought, admittedly I don’t have kids and have never spent any time pleading with a six year-old to eat their broccoli. I can see how ‘hidden beans’ help add nutrition in areas we might not ordinarily see it. My preference would be to eat the dishes where beans are the star and where they are allowed to shine. Lucky for me, there are lots of those recipes in this book.

The recipes are simple and easy to understand and prefaced with summaries or anecdotes which bring a personal touch to this book. The authors encourage modification, a feature I always appreciate in a cookbook, and provide solid bases from which to work. Dishes have many different flavour profiles including those found in Indian, Mexican, French and Italian cuisine. And don’t think that because this book talks about beans as a source of protein that it means that it excludes meat dishes. Slow Cooked Lamb Shanks with Lentils & Barley, Pulled Pork & Beans and Roasted Sausages with Braised Lentils are just some of the heartier examples. There is plenty here for vegetarian and carnivore alike.

I think this is the type of book that you could cook from every week and always have something new and delicious to try.  The meals are simple, easy to prepare and surprise, surprise – they taste great.  This book is a great way to turn good intentions into real meals.


Red Lentil & Sweet Potato Curry with Spinach

For a copy of this recipe, please click here

RATING: 4 out of 5 (so close to perfect)

THE TEST: Along with red lentils, this recipe calls for a ‘dark-fleshed’ sweet potato. In Canada, these are most often called yams. (I actually used half a pale skinned sweet potato and half a yam – the yam definitely works better in this recipe from a colour, flavour and texture point of view.

The directions call for the onion and garlic to be softened and then jalapeño, ginger, garlic, curry paste (or powder), cumin, turmeric and salt are added.

The moment the spices hit the onions the kitchen filled with an amazing aroma.  The coconut milk, lentils, sweet potato and a small quantity of water are then added and the mixture is simmered for 20 minutes. Spinach is thrown in at the end and stirred through until it just wilts.

THE RESULTS: I would have expected more heat from the jalapeño, and I think the dish could have used it, but otherwise I found this dish to be a warm, soothing meal. Perfect for a cold or rainy evening. I love the fact that this can be put together using common pantry ingredients. The addition of spinach perks up the colour and gives the dish a nice mix of textures. This will definitely be a dish that goes into my repertoire of weeknight meals.


Lentil & Barley Salad with Tomatoes, Spinach & Feta

RATING: 5 out of 5 (lentils are the star of the show!)

THE TEST: This is a very simple recipe that uses equal amounts of barley and lentils, cooked together in boiling water with a clove of garlic.

After cooking, they are allowed to cool and the spinach, feta cheese, purple onion and tomatoes are tossed in with a dressing of balsamic vinegar, grainy mustard and honey or maple syrup.

The recipe offers helpful make-ahead suggestions like freezing cooked lentils and barley together for when you need them.

THE RESULTS: I love this recipe! It’s a quick and easy meal for two or equally suitable for a party or buffet table. I think the dressing quantity is probably more than required – I did not use the entire quantity that I made and I still felt like the salad was a little overdressed. I probably should have tasted more while dressing the salad.

The sweetness of the tomatoes and the sharpness of the feta are a nice contrast with the flavour of the lentils and barley. And texturally this salad has lots of different elements, which I enjoy. This was my partner’s favourite meal of all those that I made and for that it gains extra kudos.  I freshened up the leftovers by adding some more fresh spinach the next day.


Black Bean Brownies

RATING: 4 out of 5 (doubters will be converted)  

THE TEST: This is one of those ‘hidden bean’ recipes. This recipe uses ½ a can of black beans which are rinsed and dried and are blended with a mixture of butter and unsweetened chocolate before combining with eggs, sugar, vanilla and finally with flour and salt. Nuts are optional – I opted to add.

I have to say that I had my suspicions about this recipe’s success. The authors promised that nary a bean would be detected. Oh really? Challenge accepted.

THE RESULTS: I’m glad my curiosity got the better of me because the truth is these brownies were delicious. And they didn’t last long, which in my house is the best proof of all of a successful recipe.

Are they different from other brownies?  Yes, I think so. Although I agree you can’t the detect beans, there is definitely a texture difference – they are slightly cakier, less chewy. Does it matter?  I guess that’s a matter of preference. I’m not a person who thinks treats need be healthy – I’m happy to have them less often and indulge when I do. Having said that I can see why these would be attractive to many people – with less sugar, butter and flour than my usual brownie recipe plus the added nutrition of the beans, you might feel better having these more often.

I did find them quite filling, and felt like one at a time was plenty. Although I wouldn’t be particularly motivated by the relative health benefits of these I’d be happy to serve them again on taste alone.  My personal preference is for a slightly chewier brownie so that’s the only place where they fall down for me.