At this point in the summer, I start any cooking early, well before the sun blasts into the kitchen, while the morning light is golden and cool. Right after breakfast is a good time to put a big pot of beans that have soaked overnight on the stove, to get them gently bubbling with bay leaves and onion. They'll become the backbone of a simple vegetable salad and garlicky bean spreads for sandwiches and bruschetta through the week.

White beans are especially good because they cook up to be plump and tender and, when drained and doused with olive oil, coarse salt and ground pepper while still warm, they turn creamy rich and flavorful. Once they're finished, they're set aside until I decide what to do with them.

In Italian kitchens, beans are as versatile as pasta, though unlike pasta, beans can be prepared ahead and held for several days without losing their texture or taste.

Now that our farmers markets are at their peak, the options for fresh vegetable and bean salads are endless. Right now, I go for cherry tomatoes popping with tart-sweet juices and crisp, cooling cucumbers. Together they're a perfect match with silky white beans.

When sparked with a tangy vinaigrette and handfuls of fresh herbs, white bean salads make a fine side to grilled chicken, pork or fish. Toss in cubes of hard cheese or crumbled feta or cured meat or smoked fish, and you have a satisfying main dish in minutes when it's too hot to turn on the stove or light the grill.

Also, bean salads travel beautifully to a picnic, the cabin or campsite — or even a lawn chair right outside the kitchen door.

Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.

Tomato, Cucumber and White Bean Salad

Serves 4.

Note: Cook a batch of white beans early in the day to have on hand and enjoy through the week. They're firm and slightly nutty-sweet and well worth the little effort. In a pinch, use canned beans, but be sure to rinse and drain them well. This salad will hold nicely in the refrigerator a day ahead. If you don't have cannellini, great northern or white navy beans make fine substitutes. From Beth Dooley.

• 3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

• 1 large garlic clove, smashed

• 1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil

• Generous pinch salt, to taste

Generous pinch freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• 1/4 c. thinly sliced red onion

2 c. (1 pint) mixed cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered

1 medium cucumber, seeded and diced into 1/2-in. pieces

1 1/2 c. cooked, drained white beans (see directions below) or canned white beans, rinsed and drained

• 1/4 c. pitted diced kalamata olives

• 1/3 c. chopped basil

• 1/4 c. chopped parsley

• Pinch of red pepper flakes

Directions

In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic and mustard. Whisk in the olive oil and a generous pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

In a medium bowl, combine the onion, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, white beans, olives, basil and parsley, and toss in the vinaigrette. Season with red pepper flakes and more salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.

To cook cannellini beans: Keep in mind that 1 cup of dried beans equals 2 1/2 cups cooked (recipe is easily doubled). Rinse the dry beans in a colander and place them into a pot. Add enough water to cover the beans by 2 inches and allow to stand at room temperature overnight. Or "quick soak" the beans: After rinsing the beans, place them in a pot and add enough water to cover the beans by 2 inches. Set the beans over high heat, bring to a boil, turn off the heat and allow them to sit for an hour.

After the beans have soaked (either overnight or quick soaked), drain in a colander, and place them in a pot, then add enough water to cover the beans by 4 inches. Add a bay leaf and half an onion and set the pot over high heat. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook the beans until plump and tender. Cooking time will range between 45 and 60 minutes. Drain, reserving the cooking liquid, and remove and discard the bay leaf and onion. Store any extra cooked beans in their cooking liquid in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or freeze. The cooking liquid makes a terrific base for soups and stews.

Nutrition information per serving:

Calories 255 Fat 15 g

Sodium 160 mg Carbohydrates 25 g

Saturated fat 2 g Added sugars 0 g

Protein 8 g Cholesterol 0 mg

Dietary fiber 6 g

Exchanges per serving: 1 ½ carb, 1 lean protein, 2 ½ fat.