Bean Cuisine for Hearty Winter Dining

Remember as kids what a blast we had singing those lively old ditties about beans being a musical fruit and how they were good for the heart? In fact, recent studies have proven that beans really are good for the heart and if we eat more we will definitely feel better.

Technically speaking, beans are considered a vegetable although botanists classify them as fruits. They are the seeds and pods of a wide variety of leguminous plants, most of which belong to the common green bean family (phaseolas vulgaris), which can be traced back 7,000 years in Mexican and South American history and culture.

A dried bean – one that has been dehydrated of body moisture as a means of preservation – has an indefinite shelf life. Drying not only renders a whole different taste and texture to beans, but also makes them perfect for transporting as they can be sacked under a ton of weight without incurring damage.

Dried beans are one of the most nutritionally compact foods available, thus they have held ground for centuries as a reliable staple used by explorers, traders, settlers, prospectors, cowboys and other adventurers who needed a dependable, non-perishable food that was easy to tote and required nothing more for fixing than a fire, a pot and water for cooking.

In the olden days beans were a number one staple for rural folks like my grandparents who had to stock up their pantries for winter with non-perishable foods.

Grandma always joked that “a green bean was a vegetable but a dried bean was a meal”. She grew and dried various types of beans in her garden and bought the more exotic ones she couldn’t grow from the grocery store in town – proving that beans were one food worth opening your purse for.

When I was a kid, her pantry shelves were laden with burlap bags and glistening jars full of various types of beans for which she was forever finding new recipes. Grandma made everything from medicinal bean teas to soups, baked beans, bean patties, stews and even desserts out of her wonderful stash that made its way to the table as a main course far more often than meat did!

There are thousands of varieties of beans from around the world, and since many of them have different names from country to country it’s easy to get confused – especially when using ethnic cookbooks where beans go under their cultural names. For example, in the United Kingdom and Australia, lima beans are usually referred to as butter beans. When in doubt, substitute beans that are closest to each other in colour and size.

When served in their fresh form, beans are properly referred to as legumes. In their dried state, they are known as dried legumes or dried beans.

In the Middle East, many types of dried beans, lentils, whole and split peas are collectively known as dhal. In Europe and Asia, dried members of the bean family are grouped as pulses – a term that has loosely made its way into North America as meaning leguminous plants in general. Dried whole peas, split peas and lentils are often grouped along with dried beans, although they are a different species of plant.

Beans are a rich source of vegetable protein which is a low fat alternative to animal protein, therefore they are a perfect choice for those wishing to cut down or eliminate meat from their diets. And unlike meat and poultry, beans are a protein-rich food that is free of growth hormone chemicals, preservatives and additives. And if you purchase organically grown beans, you can steer clear of the herbicides and pesticides found in their commercially grown counterparts.

They are rich in fibre and complex carbohydrates and are a good source of B vitamins including folic acid. Beans supply iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium, and are low in sugars, have little fat and no cholesterol.

Aside from being good for the heart and a comfort food for the soul, in recent years beans have gained recognition as having the remarkable power of helping to reduce various types of cancers and controlling diabetes, and are a number one food for those trying to take off pounds sensibly.

Studies have shown that adding beans to one’s diet can also help to improve the digestive system and lower the risk of colon cancer. It is also reported that eating beans regularly can help to reduce blood cholesterol, thus lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Grandmother claimed that beans strengthen the immune system, which is why she always served plenty of them in the winter to help ward off cold and flu.

PREPARING BEANS FOR THE TABLE

When cooking dried beans,  the question is: whether or not one should soak. A bean loses about 85 per cent of its moisture upon dehydration. To have a delectable, tender bean on the plate, you must restore enough water to make it plump but not so much as to create a mushy mess. There’s always a difference of opinion over how long to soak beans. The one thing you don’t want to do is soak out all the nutrients and pour them down the drain.

Here’s how grandmother taught me to do it for recipes calling for the use of whole cooked beans. Presoaking makes the beans more attractive and helps them stand up better in recipes. Sort beans, discarding duds – those that are worm bitten or discoloured – and wash well under cold running water to remove traces of sand and burlap fibres if the beans were bagged. Use 3 cups of water to 1 cup of beans.

Cover and let soak in a cool place or fridge until plump, from 3 to 8 hours depending on the bean, adding more water if the beans absorbed more than expected. You can skip the soaking process for recipes that call for pureed beans as they will not need to hold their shape.

Some bean experts claim that if you discard the soaking water they will be easier to digest, or in other words, be less gas-producing. I have found that if you eat beans regularly your system will adjust and you won’t have a problem with (all jokes aside) flatulence. If you’re not accustomed to eating beans, start with smaller helpings until your system builds up the needed enzymes for digesting. There are digestive enzymes on the market such as Beano to help ward off gas. Grandmother’s old herbal recipe calls for dissolving a teaspoon of baking soda in a glass of warm water and drinking after a bean-rich meal.

Beans should be simmered gently, never violently boiled as this will cause them to go mushy and lose their attractive appearance. A perfectly cooked bean should be tender to bite but still attractive to look at, never mushy or falling apart. A slow cooker is ideal for cooking beans as it produces a tender batch every time while eliminating the chance of their boiling down and burning. Some folks cook beans in the oven but I find that the heat is too harsh for good results.

If the recipe calls for cooked beans without the liquid, drain the beans, reserving the cooking water for another use. It is a perfect base for soups or gravies and will save in a covered container for several days in the fridge, or can be frozen for longer storage.

Leftover cooked beans can be made into dips such as hummus (which is good made from any type of bean), formed into patties and fried, added to salads or frozen for use in pies, casseroles and stews. I do not soak beans when making soup but some cooks do. Suit yourself.

Grandmother’s number one cure for cold and flu is a cup of bean tea which is simply bean water seasoned with salt, pepper and a little dried mint. Bean water also makes a natural, mild laxative. Omit the mint and sip slowly before going to bed.

BEAN FLOUR

For those seeking gluten-free flour, beans are the answer. Bean flours are one great way to bean up your diet! You can replace traditional wheat flours with a portion of bean flours in any recipe – a general rule of thumb is to use a ratio of one part bean flour to three parts wheat flour for a nutritional boost in baking recipes.

I find that bean flour is a wonderful thickener for soups, gravies, puddings and sauces as it leaves no starchy taste (as does cornstarch) and blends smoother than the traditional flour and water mixture. When added to boiling water, bean flours thicken in about a minute and after cooking for a few minutes longer are ready to eat. They are also a perfect pantry staple for cooking up a quick bowl of nourishing cream of bean soup or adding an extra kick of protein to any other soup or stew recipe that cannot stand alone as a full meal deal.

You can buy commercially prepared bean flours at health food stores – with more common choices being navy, great northern and lima beans, black bean, pinto, garbanzo, kidney and pea flours. Or you can make your own bean flours at home as I do.

Dry beans can be ground into flour using an electric or hand grinder or flour mill. For smaller quantities (let’s say for a quick cup of ‘instant’ soup, gravy or pudding thickener), I have had good results using my blender. Try grinding a small handful first to see if your blender is capable of handling such a task. If so, process small batches at a time, dumping and cleaning dust from blades in between batches. I like to grind the beans a little courser for instant soups as it gives more body.

So now it’s time to bean up your cuisine. Try the versatile recipes that follow for some super healthy eating.


RECIPES

DRIED BEAN SOUP MIX

You can buy different blends of dried bean soup mixes or make your own. It’s fun, easy and inexpensive. Mix and match your choice of beans – lima, black, fava, adzuki, red, kidney, pinto, navy, great northern, black-eyed beans to name a few. Have fun, don’t fret about measures and keep in mind that you can add whole or green and yellow split peas and colourful lentils as well as barley, brown or wild rice or anything else your heart desires. Store in a capped jar until ready to use.


HOMEMADE BEAN SOUP SPICE

Put the following ingredients in a bowl: 6 Tbsp dehydrated soup vegetables, 3 Tbsp dried parsley, 2 Tbsp of dried basil, 3 Tbsp onion soup mix, 3 Tbsp dried minced garlic, 1Tbsp black pepper, 1 Tbsp dried, crushed chili peppers. Mix well and store in a spice jar. Use desired amount to flavour bean soups. You can also add cardamom, cumin, ginger powder or any other dried spices or herbs you fancy in a soup.


INSTANT CREAM OF BEAN SOUP

This makes 2 to 3 servings but can be doubled. Bring 2 cups water to a boil. Add enough homemade bean soup spice to season the water. Stir in 4 tablespoons coarsely ground beans or bean powder of choice, more or less depending on desired thickness. Cover and simmer gently 3 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning.


CHUNKY WHOLE BEAN SOUP

Put 6 cups water and 4 cups chopped stewed tomatoes with their juice into a stock pot. Season with homemade bean soup spice or add salt, pepper and other spices of choice to suit taste. Add 2-3 cups of dried bean soup mix or a blend of any beans you wish. Add 1 chopped onion, 2 stalks diced celery, 1 cup chopped carrots, 1/2 cup each chopped turnip and parsnip. Cover pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the largest bean in the pot is tender. Don’t worry about the smaller fry getting soft or falling apart as these are intended as thickener for the soup. Taste and adjust seasoning. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese before serving.


VEGETARIAN BEAN ‘BURGER-WICH’

Here’s a tasty bean burger that your kids will devour, perhaps without even knowing that they’re wolfing down beans. Mash 2 cups of cooked kidney beans for a darker coloured burger or lima, navy or other lighter beans for a lighter one. Add 3 Tbsp ground flax seed, 1 minced onion, 1/2 cup grated carrot, 2 cloves mashed garlic and salt and pepper to taste. Blend well and form patties. If mixture is too soft to hold shape, add wheat germ or bread crumbs. Dust with bean flour and set in fridge for a couple of hours before browning in vegetable or olive oil. Sprinkle with paprika and serve burger fashion with fixings. Makes 4 to 6 patties.


BLACK BEAN ROLL

This is a wonderful appetizer, good served hot or cold.

Filling – Put 1 cup of washed black beans, 1 minced onion, 2 cloves mashed garlic in medium-sized saucepan and cover with 3 cups of water. Bring to boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer until the beans go mushy. This will take several hours. You can do them in a slow cooker if too busy to keep an eye on the pot. When beans are soft, drain off the liquid into a saucepan and bring to a rapid boil. Add beans by the spoonful, mashing after each addition, and boil down until mixture is thick enough to hold shape. Or you can puree in the blender until thick. Cool mixture and form into two logs about 6 inches long. Freeze one log for future use. Put the other in fridge to set.

Dough – Make your favourite whole wheat baking powder biscuit dough replacing 1/2 cup of wheat flour with bean flour. Roll out jelly roll fashion to fit over the log. Place log on the dough, roll up and pinch seam closed. Place on oil baking sheet and bake at 425F for 25 minutes or until golden. Slice and serve.


COMMON TYPES OF BEANS

Lima Bean – these come in two sizes – baby or large. They are flat, slightly kidney shaped, whitish with a greenish tinge and named after Lima, Peru where they are very popular.

Black Bean – sweet, matte black coloured beans with a mushroom-like aroma and soft floury texture, Cuba’s most sought after bean.

Fava Bean – plump, off-shape, toasty brown, similar to a garbanzo bean or a chickpea in size.

Adzuki or Red Bean – similar to black beans in taste and vivid red in colour, are very prominent in Japanese cooking. I have found that black and adzuki beans can be used interchangeably.

Kidney Bean – sometimes labeled Mexican Reds, most often associated with chili con carne and refried beans.

Pinto Bean – similar and interchangeable with kidney beans, oval shape, speckled reddish brown, most popular bean produced in the USA, contains the most fibre of all beans.

Navy Bean – the ‘pork and bean’ king, also used in baked Boston and English beans, small, white, oval, the number one bean of cowboys and early settlers. Named after the U.S. Navy, whose diets were rich in navy beans during the 19th century.

Great Northern or White Bean – popular in the Mediterranean and France, delicate flavour, flat kidney shaped, can be interchanged with navy or lima beans in most recipes.

Garbanzo Bean – also known as chickpeas, one of the world’s most popular beans from the Middle East, pale yellow to reddish brown, common use in hummus.

Black-eyed Bean – kidney shaped, white skin with a black eye, hence their name. Not technically a bean but rather a pea that is rooted in Africa. You can use pinto in place of black-eyed beans in most recipes.

Cranberry Bean – a beautiful bean, a little harder than other types to come by, beige with red flecks, very pretty bean that’s a favourite in Italy and Spain.

Mung Bean – tiny round beans, dark green coats, cream coloured bodies, most familiar in our country as a bean for sprouting, but are nice in soup mixes for eye-catching colour and shape.

Soy Bean – round, neutral colour, packed with protein, rich in oil, used extensively for making soy milk, tofu, flour, roasted snacks.

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