Every picnic needs a salad that can withstand some abuse: one that can be stuffed into your backpack without fear it will squish; left out in the sun without spoiling or wilting; made a day or two before serving, only to get better as it sits.
A three-bean salad is all of that, and more. And its sturdiness, coupled with how quick and easy it is to throw together, may be why it’s become such a staple across the United States.
For me, though, the biggest draw of a three-bean salad is its adaptable nature. (I just adore a recipe that I don’t have to stick to.) As long as there are three different beans in the bowl tossed with some kind of flavorful dressing, a three-bean salad can be anything you want it to be.
What I want it to be is fresher, brighter and herbier than the most classic versions, which rely entirely on canned beans — green beans, wax beans and kidney beans. When I make three-bean salad, I don’t use any of them. I also nix the usual sugary dressing.
Instead, I start with blanched fresh green beans, cooked just long enough to turn verdant and tender, without a trace of mushy softness. The green beans provide a crisp contrast to the velvety chickpeas and cannellini beans that I also toss in the bowl.
Of course, this being a flexible salad, chickpeas and cannellini are merely my own, personal suggestions. Feel free to use whatever combination of canned beans you like. Black beans are velvety. Black-eyed peas are earthy. Kidney beans are classic.
Freshly cooked dried beans are also an acceptable option, though using them will add considerable time to the preparation, unless you’ve got leftovers on hand.
While the beans make up the core of this salad, marinated vegetables give it verve. To make them, briefly soak sliced onions and either fennel or celery in thyme-spiked rice vinegar until they’re lightly pickled and floppy. Mixed into the beans, they add a necessary dose of texture and tang. And some chopped herbs and toasted coriander seeds lend fresh, woodsy and citrusy notes to round things out.
Tossed together, this salad is ready for your next picnic or potluck. Or pair it with a loaf of crusty bread for a speedy vegan dinner. A dish this easy, hardy and deliciously dependable should fill many roles.
Herby three-bean salad
• 1 1/2 teaspoons coriander seeds
• 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, plus more as needed
• 1/4 cup unsweetened rice vinegar, plus more to taste
• 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, minced
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
• 1 cup red onion, thinly sliced
• 1 cup fennel, celery or a combination, thinly sliced
• 8 ounces green beans, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2 1/2 cups)
• 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
• 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini or Great Northern beans, drained and rinsed
• 3/4 cup chopped fresh soft herbs, such as parsley, mint, dill, cilantro or a combination
• Flaky sea salt, for serving
In a dry medium saucepan (one large enough to hold the green beans), toast coriander seeds over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 2 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl to cool. Once the seeds are cool enough to handle, use a mortar and pestle to crack them, or place them on a cutting board and crack with the flat side of a chef’s knife. Set aside.
Fill the same saucepan you used for the coriander with salted water and bring to a boil.
While waiting for the water to boil, combine 1/4 cup vinegar, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper in large mixing bowl. Slowly whisk in olive oil. Add onion along with fennel or celery, or both, and toss. Set aside to marinate for at least 10 minutes while preparing the rest of the salad.
To the boiling water, add the green beans and blanch for 2-3 minutes, until they turn bright green and are crisp-tender. Immediately drain beans in a colander, then run cold tap water over them to stop the cooking. Once cool, pat them dry.
Add the blanched green beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans, herbs and toasted coriander seeds to the marinated onions. Season with remaining salt and pepper, and gently toss to evenly combine. Taste and add more salt and vinegar if needed. Drizzle with olive oil and flaky sea salt, and serve.
Total time: 20 minutes, serves 6-8.