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Beyond the Beanstalk

April 24, 2008

11 Min Read
Beyond the Beanstalk

In American cuisine, the use of legumes has traditionally been limited to one dish—the rather uninspired baked beans. Although cowboys are said to love them, baked beans don't exactly offer a lot of culinary pizzazz, mainly begging the question, wieners or no wieners? Considering most people don't even bother cooking their own baked beans from scratch, it's not surprising that beans don't enjoy a gourmet reputation in this country. At best, many consider beans to be humble fare.

But as our culinary horizons broaden to include more sophisticated recipes from cuisines around the world, the importance and versatility of the bean is beginning to emerge. With the right preparation and balance of ingredients, beans can take center stage in dishes that are both elegant and satisfying.

Legumes, beans and pulses are three common, and sometimes confusing, terms used to describe beans. Although the three terms are often used interchangeably, they do differ slightly in meaning. Legumes are plants characterized by pods that enclose seeds. The term may also be used to describe the type of seed contained in these pods—soybeans or peanuts, for example. Bean is the general term applied to the seeds contained in the pods, or to fresh legumes with tiny seeds, such as green or wax beans. The term pulse means the dried, edible seeds from legumes, such as lentils and chickpeas.

Bean cuisine dates back at least 4,000 years, making beans one of the oldest foods on record. Dried beans are a staple of many cultures because they are inexpensive to produce, easily stored and rich in nutrients. For centuries they've been used as a valuable meat alternative because when combined with seeds, grains or dairy products, they provide a complete dietary protein. Beans are also a good source of both soluble and insoluble fiber, plus they're rich in calcium, phosphorus and iron.

The expanding natural foods industry and the increasing interest in vegetarian fare have drawn beans into the limelight. More varieties are now readily available for cooks to experiment with, and their true versatility is being revealed.

More To Beans Than Meets The Eye
To grasp the variety of beans available in natural foods markets these days, beans can be categorized according to color, cooked texture and flavor. These three characteristics form the palette cooks work from to prepare a broad range of recipes.

Bean colors vary from the vivid blue-black of so-called black beans to the light pink of pinto beans and the scarlet red of kidney beans. But beware to those planning a meal's eye appeal around a favorite bean. Beans often start out one color when dry and change color dramatically when cooked. For instance, dried bright orange lentils actually turn a dull yellow when cooked. The beautiful red and white Anasazi bean turns a light brown after cooking. How beans are handled can also alter their appearance. Fresh beans, such as edamame (soybeans), turn a vivid green when cooked and can add great eye appeal. At the opposite extreme, the black turtle bean, which can add a colorful element to salads and stir-fries, turns a rather unappealing light grey color when puréed.

Another way to categorize beans is by cooked texture. Some beans, such as lentils or pinto beans, disintegrate when cooked, and provide a soft, creamy texture that becomes the background element in a dish. These are the perfect beans for soups, refried beans or purées, but they are generally not as successful in salads and dishes that require a bean to hold its shape. Instead, mild, creamy beans allow other ingredients to be the stars of the dish. For example, in an Indian dahl (a stewlike dish), the lentils become the medium in which the vegetables are the standout ingredient. Other beans retain their firmness and individual identity, including kidney and black beans, giving them star status in dishes. Thus, these are the beans of choice in salads or a slow-cooked chili when bean shape retention is required.

Beans vary subtly in flavor as well. Some have a very mild flavor that becomes a background element, enhanced by spices and other ingredients. Red lentils, great northern beans and pinto beans all have a mild flavor. Garbanzos and favas, on the other hand, have a strong flavor that tends to dominate.

One other important differentiating characteristic between beans is their cooking time. A few beans, such as soybeans, favas, limas and black-eyed peas, are available fresh or frozen and require minimal cooking. Most beans, however, are usually found dried. In general, dried beans should be soaked overnight before cooking. This rehydrates them, and the plump, soft beans will cook more evenly. Beans can be boiled, slow cooked or prepared in a pressure cooker with excellent results. The exception being thin beans, such as lentils, most split beans (split peas and split mung beans) and fresh black-eyed peas, which should not be presoaked because they overcook easily and will turn to mush.

Before soaking, pick over the dried beans to remove rocks and debris. This is best done by placing the beans on a shallow baking sheet or flat basket. Arrange the beans to one side then gently tilt the sheet to allow the beans to slowly slide down to the other side. Remove anything that isn't a bean. Place the beans in a bowl and rinse well with several changes of cold water, then cover with about two inches of fresh water and allow them to soak overnight.

Some of the nutrients will be leached from the beans as they soak, as will some of the naturally occurring starches that may contribute to the flatulence. Therefore, it's best to drain the soaking water and cook the beans in fresh water. Although some nutrients are lost in the process, it seems like a fair exchange for avoiding some flatulence. Beans may be more easily digested if they are cooked with a small piece of kombu (a sea vegetable), a bay leaf or some epazote leaves (a pungent herb commonly used in Mexican and Caribbean cooking). Choose depending on the appropriate flavor for the dish. For flatulence-wary customers, advise them to cook beans thoroughly, become accustomed to eating and digesting them and learn which beans they digest the easiest.

One word of warning—don't undercook beans. When the trend of al dente pasta and a point vegetables is applied to beans, it's a disaster in taste and texture (undercooked beans also promote flatulence). Beans should be cooked until they are easy to mash with a fork, but not until they disintegrate. When in doubt, err on the side of overcooking. Don't add salt or acidic ingredients, such as tomatoes or lemon juice, to beans until they are fully cooked because this will toughen the beans. In general, cook beans in four times their volume of water; they'll plump to about three times their original volume. Cooking times for beans vary depending on bean dryness, age and altitude and humidity conditions.

The Nouvelle Bean
To lure potential bean lovers, try providing point-of-purchase information where you sell bulk beans. Recipe cards or a bean-cooking chart may encourage shoppers to try new varieties. Also, don't let newcomers be dissuaded by the time involved in presoaking and cooking. Instead, recommend they start with canned beans. There are many good brands (our subjective favorite is Eden Foods because they produce less flatulence and are unsalted), and it helps customers who may feel intimidated by the prep time involved in cooking beans from scratch. You can also recommend they use a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers drastically reduce cooking time, and slow cookers allow customers to put the beans on in the morning and have them ready at the end of the day. Beans can also be prepared in double batches and used in multiple recipes, or frozen for later use (most beans freeze well, thinner beans don't).

Also try experimenting with beans in the deli. Introduce bean-shy customers to beans by including them in salads, soups, spreads and wraps, or by offering bean cakes (think crab cakes). A tasty deli item could help consumers become courageous enough to experiment with bean dishes at home. If you do offer bean soups, keep in mind that many vegetarians select these as their main protein source in a meal, so include ample beans to provide a satisfying meal.

As international dishes merge into mainstream American fare, customers are treated to an ever-widening array of bean cuisine. That, and an increased interest in vegetarian food options, means beans are fast becoming a staple for many health-conscious Americans. With so many different legumes on the market, and an endless number of ways to prepare them, eating beans should never be boring.

Mary Taylor and Lynn Ginsburg are the co-authors of What Are You Hungry For? (St. Martin's Press, 2002) and can be reached via

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 22, 26, 28

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 26

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 9/p. 26

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