Passionate Palate: Reconsidering the lowly bean

Mixed dried beans

By Margi Lenga Kahn, Special to the Jewish Light

Beans get a bad rap. They get blamed for flatulence. They get snubbed because they lack the cachet of Kobe beef, risotto or duck confit. They get shunned for allegedly taking too long to cook. But I’m here to defend this humble legume, which is a hidden gem in the culinary realm of ingredients.

Beans are members of the legume family, which includes peas, lentils, and peanuts. They are nutritious, economical, and versatile. And while the United States actually grows most of the planet’s beans, they are treasured staples in cuisines around the world. For example, try to imagine an Asian meal without at least one soy-based ingredient, such as soy sauce, miso, tofu, bean sprouts, edamame, peanuts, or tempeh. Or an Indian meal without a lentil daal or chickpea stew.  Or a Mexican meal without black beans, pinto beans, refried beans or a bean stew.

And the list goes on. Middle-Eastern cultures use chickpea and fava beans to create the ubiquitous hummus. Beans are a staple of Cuban cuisine, where they are served with rice and used in stews and soups. Cassoulet, the classic stew of southern France, is based on navy beans. And what home-cooked Italian meal does not begin with a bean-laden bowl of minestrone. Even our ancestors in the Shtetls throughout Europe feasted on cholent, a bean stew that cooks overnight, for their festive Sabbath meal.

This widespread use of beans is not accidental.


“Beans are a great source of protein, fiber, iron, potassium, and folic acid, ” says Pam Lazaroff, a licensed dietician based in St. Louis.  “Our bodies need fiber,” she added. “A cup of pinto beans, for example, provides 16 grams of fiber. You would have to eat 8 slices of whole wheat bread to get that much fiber. Optimally, we should have 25 grams of fiber daily.”

Lazaroff worked as an outpatient dietician at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center for 13 years and is now in private practice. She recommends a diet rich in beans and various grains for her clients who want to become vegetarians, who have heart disease, who want to lose weight, or who are interested in lowering their risk of cancer. Most of us fit into at least one of those categories.

“Beans are complex carbohydrates,” says Lazaroff. “That means they take longer to digest, which keeps us feeling fuller longer. A diet rich in beans, in combination with various grains, is the ideal way to get protein without having to eat animal products.”

Also, dairy products, such as eggs and cheese, can be combined on your menu with beans for a complete protein. And while the complimentary grains and dairy must be eaten the same day as the beans, they do not need to be eaten at the same meal. If you have a glass of milk at breakfast, say, and a cup of black bean chili for dinner, you will satisfy all your daily protein needs.

There are other foods that help our body take advantage of the nutrients in beans. For example, when you include legumes in a meal with fruits or vegetables, the vitamin C in the fruits and vegetables enables our bodies to absorb the otherwise inaccessible iron in the beans.

As for the infamous flatulence “issue” often associated with beans, Lazaroff recommends cooking legumes with any of the following anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: fennel, turmeric, lemon grass, dill, oregano, rosemary, cilantro, bay leaf, cumin, cinnamon, or ginger.  She explains that these herbs and spices help reduce intestinal inflammation, a culprit of flatulence.

Furthermore, some nutritionists believe that soaking beans in a baking soda-water solution will help break down the complex sugars that are difficult to digest. That is because the complex sugars, if left intact, can ferment in our intestinal tract, thus producing gas.

To soak beans, simply rinse, drain, and place them in a large bowl.  Add three times as much cold water and one teaspoon baking soda. Stir and cover your bowl with waxed paper or plastic wrap and let the beans sit at room temperature for at least 6 hours or overnight. Drain and rinse the beans before cooking them.

Cooking the beans is simple.  Place them in a large pot, sprinkle with a pinch of baking soda, and cover them with cold water. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until the beans are fork- tender. Then drain and rinse.  Your beans are now ready to use in your favorite recipe. If you have more beans than you need, the extra can be stored in an airtight container in your refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Depending on the type of bean you use, cooking times will range from 45 minutes for lima beans to 3 hours for soybeans. A pressure-cooker will significantly reduce those cooking times to 5-12 minutes.

Still another way to reduce the flatulence caused by the sugars in beans, and perhaps the best advice of all, is to simply eat more beans. Dr. Leonard Weinstock, a gastroenterologist with Specialists in Gastroenterology in Creve Coeur, offered the following explanation:

“Adding more fiber to your diet in the form of beans and other legumes will initially produce more gas.  However, in time, the colon responds to the additional fiber by becoming more active. Regularity improves, so there is less build-up of gas and it becomes less of a problem.”

If you are short of time and have forgotten to soak your beans, reach for that can of beans in your pantry. Though comparable in nutritional value to dried beans, canned beans have copious amounts of sodium.  You can get rid of some of that sodium by rinsing the canned beans under cold water in a colander until the water runs clear. Additionally, look for beans on your grocer’s shelves in cans marked “low sodium.”

Although dry beans are cheaper than the canned ones, either way is remarkably economical. A pound of dry organic beans, which will yield five to six cups of cooked beans, or 10 to 12 servings, ranges in price from $1.69 for soybeans to $2.69 for cannellini beans.  By comparison, a 15-ounce can of beans costs between one and two dollars, depending upon the variety of beans.  While that can will yield just three servings, at even 65 cents per serving, canned beans are a bargain.  The bottom line, for both your health and your pocketbook: eat more beans.

There are so many exciting ways to introduce beans to your regular meals.  Consider adding a cup of cooked beans to your dinner salad or tossing them together with a can of tuna fish. Sauté some minced garlic and onions in a few tablespoons of olive oil, add a cup of beans, mash the mixture, season with salt, pepper, and any type of fresh or dried herb for a tasty condiment for toasted bread. Or mix a can of beans with corn kernels, chopped red onion and garlic, sliced cherry tomatoes, and toss the mixture with any vinaigrette for a delicious accompaniment to grilled fish, chicken, or beef.

The possibilities are endless. Here are just a few of my favorite bean recipes.  If you have some of your own, please share them with me by e-mail.  I will try to post them in an upcoming column. Here’s to good health.

Margi Lenga Kahn is the mother of five and grandmother of three.  A cooking instructor at the Kitchen Conservatory, she is currently working on a project to preserve the stories and recipes of heritage cooks. She welcomes your comments and suggestions at [email protected] .