Anyone who thinks that meatless bean dishes don’t offer the heartiness of a meat-based meal should give the category another chance. As for those who think that meatless bean dishes tend to lack complexity and savory depth, I’m with you—and I have a recipe that will change your mind.
It’s a bean-based gratin, and it’s not loaded up with esoteric ingredients; in fact, you might have most of what you need on hand. Start to finish, you should be able to get this gratin on the table in just under 2 hours and have plenty of downtime to make a salad or green vegetable while it cooks.
I built the dish around creamy, nutty canned great Northern white beans. Canned beans are a real timesaver, and we’ve found that their quality can be more consistent than that of dried beans (see “Canned Beans: A Stellar Shortcut”).
The other core elements are meaty cremini mushrooms, which I browned with salt in an olive oil–slicked skillet to help quickly extract their moisture, and chunks of carrots, which add earthy sweetness and an appealing pop of color.
Next, I gently sautéed some chopped onion. When it turned translucent, I stirred in minced fresh thyme and garlic along with tomato paste, a rich source of savory glutamates. As the aromatics browned, a sweet, savory, herbal fond developed. Since acid brings flavors into focus, I deglazed the skillet with dry sherry, a fortified wine that would boost complexity.
Finally, I stirred in the carrots; the beans and their well-seasoned, starchy liquid that would add body to the gravy; and some water and simmered the stew in a 300-degree oven until the carrots were tender, which took about 40 minutes. I wasn’t surprised when the gravy tasted a bit lean and thin. In meat‑based dishes, the meat is an important source of fat. To add richness, I upped the oil I was using to sauté the aromatics to a generous ¼ cup. I also thickened the gravy with a little flour.
For textural contrast, I took a cue from cassoulet, the French bean casserole crowned with a crisp layer of bread crumbs. I tossed cubes of a country-style loaf with ¼ cup of oil (I was generous here again) and some minced parsley and scattered them over the gratin’s surface. I flipped on the broiler toward the end of cooking so the bread would toast evenly.
Crack through the crust and get a spoonful of the rib-sticking, savory beans and vegetables that lie beneath. I promise you won’t miss the meat.