Thursday, July 22, 2010

An Ode to Beans, Glorious Beans (How To Cook Dried Beans)

Beans are perhaps one of the most overlooked foods even though they are probably the most cost effective foods known to man! Legumes are versatile super foods which make great additions to our diet as they are powerhouses of good nutrition and good taste. They are readily available everywhere and can be stored for long periods without any special equipment like freezers or refrigerators. The benefits of beans are as numerous and varied as the number of types of beans - let me count the ways :D. I will try my best to list as many as I can.

Congenial gifts of bounteous beans
Nature-cooked into glorious grains;
Conjured by her the riches so held
Pretty and plumb in their various shells.
Nurturing all with fiber and more
Filling us with good health to the core;
With antioxidants, anthocyanins,
Bringing sweet healing to cure evermore.
And still more, with iron and vitamins galore
Without any fat ne'er cease to amaze;
Oh, eat them daily as never before
Our cups runneth over, our palates rejoice!
Everyone knows that beans pack plenty of protein. In addition to protein, they also contain lots of vitamins, minerals, and perhaps most importantly huge amounts of heart-healthy fiber, both soluble and insoluble. Fiber is crucial in contributing to a feeling of fullness and satisfaction by providing bulk, in maintaining cardiovascular health, and overall health by moving waste materials out of our bodies promptly and regularly. Beans are probably one of the tastiest sources of fiber. Regular consumption of beans have been shown to reduce cholesterol significantly. They are also good sources of antioxidants and anthocyanins (especially the rich colored ones) which protect and heal various organ systems in our bodies as well as prevent many types of cancers.

Plant proteins are gentler on our kidneys - research has proven this fact beyond a doubt. They have a low glycemic index which means that beans do not cause sharp spikes in blood sugar levels which is great for everyone but particularly people with blood sugar disorders such as hypoglycemia or diabetes. Beans are good sources of calcium and iron too. Beans have more usable protein than animal flesh pound for pound or gram for gram - and, this is a big and - beans give you the benefit of protein without the saturated fats, cholesterol and worst of all, inherent harmful bacteria, contaminants, and chemicals such as antibiotics and hormones present in even lean flesh. They contain little or no fat and so make great additions to no-fat or low-fat diets.

Beans contain varying amounts of amino acids; some lower than ideal amounts. But not to worry :-), this is easily remedied by eating a varied diet - combining the beans with cereal grains and/or a little nuts and seeds which amazingly are perfectly complementary to each other! So, if you include a variety of beans, cereals, nuts and seeds in your diet along with dark leafy greens, you will get all the protein you need and then some (and oh yes, you don't have to eat them together at every meal either). Mm, there is nothing so delicious and satisfying like a bowl of rice and beans! People have been successfully combining legumes and cereals for eons in famous combos such as these: rice/roti and dal, kichdi, pongal, risi e bisi, casamiento, dirty rice, etc, beans and corn tortillas, beans and pasta, couscous, etc.

All beans - fresh and dried - belong to the legume family as do lentils, various types of peas and peanuts. They come in various shapes, sizes and colors from the tiny green mung beans to the colossal white Lima or Gigantos. There are black, red, white, green, yellow and brown and even multicolored beans from the vastly popular chickpeas of hummus and falafel fame, most common green/yellow split peas, and the exotic many-colored Anasazi or scarlet runner beans. Best of all, most are readily available and very inexpensive especially if you cook them yourself which is not at all hard to do - just follow the directions given below. A pressure cooker will not only cut cooking time drastically but also save a great deal of fuel too - "win-win" any way you look at it. Slow cookers and Instant Pot work also. Yeah! Go Beans!!

Beans are beloved in many countries In Asia, the Americas, and around the Mediterranean - the Indians, Mexicans, Central Americans, Italians, Greeks, Turks, and Spaniards, all have their way with them. Most people are familiar with the delicious Bajjis/Pakodas, Hummus, and Edamame served as appetizers. One could not imagine Mexican meals served without re-fried beans or Frijoles. In many Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, beans are often made into an amazing array of desserts too numerous to go into here. More than any other cuisine, Indian cuisine is perhaps where beans really shine - you will find a bazillion recipes for an enormous variety of legumes coaxed into succulent salads, lip-smacking snacks, savory soups, incredible entrees, sensational side dishes and delectable desserts. Beans probably got their leading roles there from the long tradition of vegetarianism or just plain good-eatarianism!

In the face of all this information, my motto is to eat at least one type of legume a day :D - I firmly believe that a bowl of beans a day will keep the blahs away. If you are new to eating dried beans/peas, and wonder where to begin or are worried about digestion, start out slowly by eating small quantities of the smaller or split ones - two or three times a week. You will discover that the more often you eat beans, the quicker your body becomes accustomed to digesting them. In India legumes are typically cooked with cumin, ginger and/or asafetida to combat gas problems. Also, soaking the beans will eliminate the harder to digest compounds that dissolve in the soaking water which will be discarded before cooking. Some people recommend adding a couple of pinches of baking soda to the soaking water - I don't - we don't need any more sodium in our diet. There are endless recipes for beans in all the major cuisines of the world and everyone has their favorites from bland to smoking hot dishes; here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Initially, sprouted beans are a great addition to any diet as the sprouting process renders all the complex proteins and sugars easily digestible. Make your own (it really is a fun science project for people of all ages :}) or buy commercial beansprouts available in most markets. Try them in salads, stir-fries, steamed, etc. Here are a few recipes to get you started: Sprout salad, Sprout Snacks, SundalCorn Cakes, Fried Rice, Mung bean stew, and Vegetable Adai.

Next, add the easily digestible lentils, split/skinless dals/beans/peas. In India, red lentils and mung beans (especially the split, skinless yellow ones) are considered very easy on the system and are part of the repertoire of comfort/convalescent foods prepared for young children, people with delicate systems, and those recovering from an illness. Split beans/peas lend themselves to pancakes, salads, soups, and sides. Try: Lentil Salad; Adai, Dosa or Pesarat (pancakes); Kichdi, Pongal, Red Lentil Soup, Stone Soup, Rasam, Mung Dal Soup, Split Pea soup, Simple Dal, Molagushyam, Lentil & Veggie Stew, Olan, Sambar, etc.

Finally, once your digestive system becomes acclimatized, go right ahead and eat as many kinds as often as you like! Try different types of beans for their hearty textures, beautiful colors and delicious tastes. They are great in refreshing salads, delicious dips, hearty soups and bountiful stews. Here are some recipes to try:  Mediterranean Chick Pea SaladBlack Bean Salad, Hummus, Frijoles Mexicana, Vegetarian Chili, Mung and Kidney bean Stew, Chole, etc, etc.

Basic Directions for cooking beans:
  • I like to cook a pound or more at a time so that there is extra for another meal - it saves time, energy and money :-}. Cooked beans freeze amazingly well and are great to have extra on hand.
  • Choose the bean/lentil you want to cook; sort and pick over and discard discolored or damaged beans, little pebbles, clods of dirt etc.
  • Wash well - discard any floaters - and add a couple spoons of salt and plenty of water so the beans are submerged. Yes, you read that right, add SALT; it produces softer skins and superior tasting beans!
  • Soak or not? Soaking has the benefit of ridding beans and cereal grains (all seeds from plants) of ridding them of excess phytic acid and phytates which might interfere with mineral absorption - especially important for those who eat a plant based diet.
  • Soaking beans is not absolutely essential but beneficial: first and foremost, it improves the nutrient profiles and reduces cooking time. Secondly, soaking removes some of the hard to digest compounds present and reduces or eliminates flatulence. If the beans are small or split, generally they cook quite fast and do not require soaking but I do anyway as it eliminates the afore-mentioned phytic acid and other compounds. Small/split beans need only soak for a short time, like 30 minutes or so.
  • Soaking whole beans : there are two ways of soaking - long soak or quick-soak. The long soak is just that; my prefered method. Soak the beans in plenty of fresh water - most beans will double in volume when hydrated so a large container is necessary. Cover and let sit for 6 to 8 hours or overnight. To quick soak, bring the washed beans with water to cover to a good rolling boil and turn off the heat; cover, and allow to soak for 1 or 2 hours before proceeding. Quick soak works but does not have all the benefits of the long method.
  • Drain the soaked beans, rinse and cover with fresh water to cover by about an inch or so.
  • Bring the beans to a good rolling boil and reduce the heat.
  • Add flavorings (given below) of your choice.
  • Simmer the beans stirring occasionally until tender - this might take an hour or so depending on the particular bean and also their age. Alternately use a pressure cooker to reduce cooking time. Typically old beans take a lot longer to cook than a fresher crop. Add additional water if the beans dry out.
  • Add salt and simmer for another 15-30 minutes - for salads the beans should be well-cooked but not mushy; for mashing or making soups, they can cook a bit longer.
  • Allow the beans to cool in their cooking liquid for a few minutes; remove and discard flavorings.
  • If you are using them in a salad, season them while still warm so that they absorb all the flavors better. Mashing them while still hot gives you a better result also.
  • Beans freeze very well. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooled beans into freezable containers or bags. Seal, label, and date them. Typically I like to freeze 2 cup portions so that they freeze/thaw quickly and are perfect amounts. If using freezer bags, flatten them and stack them in the freezer to save space.
  • Do not throw away any bean broth - the Aqua Faba - it still has food value plus the dissolved fiber! Use the broth in soups, stews, casseroles, and baked goods.
Flavorings: For better tasting beans, you can add herbs and spices while the beans are cooking to infuse them with lots of flavor. Add the herbs and spices singly or in your favorite combination depending on your recipe. Remove and discard the flavorings especially the bay leaves after the beans are cooked and cooled.
  1. A clove or two of garlic and/or a small onion
  2. One or two whole dried or smoked Red peppers or fresh hot green chilies
  3. A couple of sprigs of sage
  4. A sprig or two of the herbs, i.e., oregano, thyme, parsley, etc based on your recipe
  5. One or two bay leaves
  6. One or two sprigs of Epazote (a Mexican herb) or a tsp (dry)
  7. Fresh ginger slices
I usually add green or red chilies to pinto beans; sage, garlic and/or other herbs to various beans depending on the recipe; and ginger and/or red or green chilies when cooking for Indian recipes. Enjoy!!

I know that this post is really long but one cannot say enough good things about the goodness of beans. Thank you all for reading through and I hope that you will enjoy the many benefits of beans for years to come.

Bon Appetit!

1 comment:

Hari Chandana P said...

Wonderful post.. Thanks for sharing !!