Have you ever wondered why little white beans are called navy beans? Originally known as pea beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), they were renamed navy beans in the early 20th century because they had become a major staple of the United States Navy. Whenever I think about navy beans, recipes for baked beans and bean soup come to mind. In fact, I have recently found that, with navy beans, the variety of possible dishes are endless from start to finish, or from appetizers to desserts.
Navy beans are mild-flavoured, small, pea-sized beans that are creamy white in colour. They are dense and smooth, and they easily absorb flavours from sauces such as tomato and molasses.
The nutritional value of navy beans is very high and they bestow many health benefits. They’re an excellent source of dietary fibre, with one cup containing a whopping 19.1 grams (which is 76% of the suggested daily fibre intake). Navy beans are also an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering fibre, and they help to prevent blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly at the end of a meal. This makes them a good choice for diabetics. Combined with whole grains such as brown or wild rice, navy beans provide fat-free, gluten-free, high quality protein. It gets even better – navy beans are a great source of folate, manganese, vitamin B1, minerals, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, and iron.
The navy bean is Canada’s largest bean crop, with Ontario, Manitoba, and Quebec being the three major growing regions. Here in Ontario (especially around my home in London), we have been growing white pea beans since the early 1900’s. And for more than 50 years now, the town of Zurich, Ontario has hosted the annual ‘Bean Festival’ in August (visit http://www.beanfest.ca).
Bean crops are good for healthy soils and sustainable agriculture and they reduce overall the emission of greenhouse gases by using CO2 from the air. This, in my opinion, renders bean crops very environmentally friendly.
When I was a child, navy beans – or white beans, as our family called them – were a major staple in the kitchen. I don’t remember liking them too much at the time, but today navy beans are a comfort food for me.
Cooking healthy vegetarian meals for the family on a shoestring budget can be a bit of a challenge. So I was pleased to learn about the great variety of bean dishes that are both nutritious and economical. In the past, I had always made bean soup using a ham bone for the stock, but with a few modifications I have now mastered a recipe for vegetarian bean soup that uses vegetable broth instead. When I served it the first time, I decided not to tell the rest of the family that the soup contained no meat, only beans, in order to get their honest reaction. Turns out they loved it!
This past summer while visiting Minnesota, I bought some hand harvested wild rice. This new ingredient was then added to my repertoire of bean dishes, and I’m delighted to report that we have enjoyed some great casseroles, soups, and salads – all made with a combination of wild rice and navy beans. I have also made appetizers, desserts – and even breads and muffins. Wow! Talk about versatile – and best of all, it’s delicious!
Preparing and Cooking Navy Beans
It is important to remember that navy beans need to be soaked prior to cooking in order to rehydrate them. One way to do this is to cover them with cold water (three cups of water to one cup of beans) and let them sit overnight. However, I prefer using the ‘Quick Soak’ method: for each cup of beans, I put three cups of water into a pot. I add the beans to the water and bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and continue boiling for about two minutes. Then I let them stand for one hour, and then drain them. They are now ready to cook.
In a large saucepan, combine the soaked beans and water, using the same ratio of three cups of water for each cup of beans.
Cover the pot and bring to a full boil. Next, reduce the heat and simmer the beans for an hour. (Make sure that the pot is large as the beans will double in size after the soaking and cooking.)
I have been experimenting with different recipes and I have yet to find one I don’t like. In fact, I could give you a complete cookbook; instead I’ve narrowed it down to a few of my favourites, which are shared below.
I love vegetable soup and this recipe reminds me of the old story ‘Soup from a Stone’. I basically add whatever vegetables I have on hand. This is a hearty, healthy, and filling soup. (Makes about 8 servings)
- 3 cups cooked navy beans
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 2 stalks of celery including leafy tops, chopped
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 5 cups of liquid (I use the liquid from the beans and top it up with vegetable broth)
- 1/4 cup red lentils
- 1/4 cup pot barley
- 1/2 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp basil
- 1 bay leaf, crushed into small pieces
- Dash each of ground pepper and sea salt
- 1 large carrot, diced
- 1 potato, diced
- 1/4 head of cabbage, chopped fine
- 1/4 small turnip, diced
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 3-1/2 cups fresh or frozen plum tomatoes
Even without the bacon traditionally used in this dish, these baked beans are full of great flavour. (Makes 8 servings)
- 1 (16 ounce) package dry navy beans
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 1/2 green pepper, chopped
- 1 stalk of celery, diced
- Dash each of sea salt and ground pepper
- 1 (6 ounce) can tomato paste
- 2/3 cup of maple syrup