Take advantage of bean dips' versatility with recipes for starters, spreads and toppings.
Credit: Rosemary-Chickpea Spread

Virtually any kind of bean can be mashed, spiced, and turned into a nutritious bread spread, veggie dip, and more. Beans seem to bring out the best in other ingredients and are a terrific match for all manner of spices and herbs.

That quality isn't lost on restaurant chefs who offer bean spreads as breadbasket accompaniments. In Los Angeles, the chefs at Ciudad blend chickpeas with roasted red peppers to offer with baked crackers for customers to nibble while they peruse the menu.

"Bean spreads are sort of a cross between an amuse-bouche and the bread course. They provide something more savory and appetite-stimulating than simply bread and butter or olive oil," says Nancy Civetta, spokesperson for Chefs Collaborative. Rich in fiber and packed with protein, bean spreads also start a meal in a nourishing way, she adds.

Bold flavor inspires the versatility of the following recipes, which can be the springboard for vegetarian meals. For starters, slather any of them on a grilled vegetable sandwich. Spread a flour tortilla with low-fat cream cheese, add your choice of spread, and top with fresh greens. Roll it up into a wrap, or slice the wrap into half-inch rounds for attractive, easy pinwheel hors d'oeuvres.

Many of these spreads are a natural with Mexican-themed dishes. Try the Caramelized Black Bean "Butter" on corn tortillas with your choice of cheese for quick and simple quesadillas, or spoon Tex-Mex Pinto Bean Spread into taco shells, and top with the usual fixings. Use one of the spreads as an enchilada filling with sautéed vegetables, such as zucchini and mushrooms, and prepared salsa.

Other recipes are Mediterranean-inspired. The Cannellini Pesto spread makes a delicious substitute for tomato sauce on a pizza, while the Provençal Olive Spread is good on pasta.

Whichever you make, these spreads will keep for up to a week stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Considering how many ways there are to enjoy them-and how easy they are to make-you may want to keep a couple of extra cans of beans in the pantry.