|Who would ever think, looking at a handful of dried beans—pebble-hard, utterly inedible—that when cooked, they are transformed into one of the most delicious foods on earth? That almost alchemic transmutation is but the first step on the fascinating road to discovering the sometimes hidden charms of legumes.
Beans are at long last finding the respect they deserve. High in protein, soluble fiber, vitamins, and minerals; low in fat; an excellent replacement for meat; the versatile medium for all manner of seasonings; and inexpensive, beans are being heavily touted by nutritionists and are suddenly the pampered darlings of restaurant chefs.
Home cooks are learning, too, about the many virtues of the legume, and are looking for sophisticated new, heart-healthy recipes, including revisions of classics as well as fresh approaches to the bean theme.
This book provides just that. American favorites such as Low Country Hoppin' John, Burgundy Street Red Beans 'n' Rice, and New England "From Scratch" Baked Beans are updated for the modern cook. Such international classics as Cassoulet with Herbed Pepper Crumb Crust, Havana "Moors and Christians," Soupe au Pistou, Pinto Bean and Jalape€o Quesadillas, and Gingered and Curried Red Lentils are translated and simplified for the American kitchen.
Beans are also used in new and fresh ways. Cannellini "Pesto" with Baguette Toasts, Angel's Hell-Fire Texas Black Bean Caviar, Black Bean and Sweet Potato Stew, Broiled Sea Bass on Green Lentil Salad, and Red Pepper Hummus are some of the contemporary recipes in the book.
On a recent visit to my localspecialty food market, I found all the common varieties of dried beans such as black, kidney, lentils, pinto, and navy beans. I also found Appaloosas, calypso beans, Swedish brown beans, Tongues of Fire, European soldier beans, rice beans, Maine yelloweyes, and wren's egg beans. Dozens and dozens of varieties exist, and, in an exciting new trend, growers such as Phipp's Ranch in California and Gary Nabhan at Native Seeds/SEARCH in Arizona are experimenting with cultivating heirloom beans that might have otherwise been lost to posterity.
Varieties in the color and shape of beans are their most noticeable characteristics, but subtle differences in flavor are also apparent. Here's a brief description of some of the most common beans.
Black Beans. Small, kidney-shaped, and shiny black, these beans have an earthy flavor that some describe as mushroomlike. A staple ingredient in Latin American countries, black beans are becoming very popular here, as well. Also known as turtle beans.
Black-Eyed Peas. A cream-colored kidney-shaped bean with a purple black "keel," this bean is associated with southern U.S. cooking as well as Africa and India. Black-eyed peas are widely available frozen and are also dried.
Chick-Peas. Pale tan, firm, and nutty-tasting, these are popular in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and India. Chick-peas are the main ingredient in hummus, a famous pur‚e or spread made with tahini. Chick-peas are also known as garbanzos and ceci.
Cranberry Beans. Large, pale pink beans with beige mottling, cranberry beans turn an even pinky brown when cooked. They have a mild, sweet, nutlike flavor and are used extensively in Italian cooking. Cranberry beans can be used interchangeably with pinto beans. They are also known as Roman beans and borlotti beans.
Dal. Dal is the generic name in India for all legumes, including lentils, peas, and beans.
Fava Beans. A large, pale green, earthy-flavored bean, the fava is available fresh in the spring and is a rare seasonal treat when shelled and eaten fresh. The beans are removed from their large green pods, blanched in boiling water, and then the tough skins are removed. When dried, favas turn light brown. Favas are sometimes also known as broad beans, though technically they are similar but not identical.
Great Northern Beans. Small, oval white beans with a mild flavor and slightly mealy texture, these beans can almost always be interchanged in recipes with other white beans such as navy beans. They stand up well to long, slow cooking, and are often used for traditional baked beans.
Kidney Beans. Large, sturdy, richly flavored beans that come in dark red, light red, and white. The red kidney bean is often used in the American Southwest in chili, the pink kidney bean is the "red bean" in New Orleans red beans and rice, and the white are the much-used Italian "cannellini."
Lentils. Available in various colors, including green, brown, and red, lentils are one of the oldest known cultivated foods. The disk-shaped, quick-cooking lentil is used in countless dishes throughout the world.
Mung Beans. Native to Asia, these small round beans are used there primarily to make bean sprouts. In India they are dried and eaten either whole or husked and split (mung dal), where they are also known as black gram, split golden gram, and urad dal.
Pinto Beans. Beige in color, with brownish streaks on the skin (resembling the coloration of a pinto pony), the pinto bean is associated with Mexican and South American cooking.
Split Peas. These are peas (both green and yellow) that are husked, dried, and split in half. Split peas need no soaking, and cook to a soft pur‚e in soups in under an hour.
Legume Lore and History
While I generally refer in this book to "beans," what I'm technically referring to are members of the legume family. Legumes—seeds that grow in a pod—include lentils, peas, split peas, and peanuts, as well as all of the beans such as soy, garbanzo, pinto, and many others.
Legumes are among the oldest foods known to mankind and can be traced as far back as the Bronze Age. In biblical lore, a dish of lentils and rice that is still a favorite in the Middle East is said to be the infamous "mess of pottage" for which Esau sold his birthright. Before the extensive cross-pollination of foodstuffs that took place worldwide during the Age of Discovery, each portion of the globe cultivated its own types of beans—soy and mung in Asia, chick-peas, lentils, and fava beans in the Mediterranean, and all types of haricots (kidney beans, pintos, navy beans) in the Americas.
For millennia, beans have helped provide the cornerstone of the staple diets of large numbers of the world's people, with nearly every regional cuisine featuring delicious, nutritious bean dishes.
The Nutritious Bean
Beans have been called the "near-perfect food," and they play a key role in the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid. Beans are high in complex carbohydrates, nonmeat protein, and dietary fiber, and are chock-full of vitamins and minerals. All legumes are well endowed with B vitamins, including thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, B6, and folic acid, and some contain Vitamin A. In general, beans are rich in iron, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, and potassium.
Beans contain zero cholesterol and derive only 2 to 5 percent of their calories from fat (the exception being soybeans, which are about 34 percent fat). Additionally, some studies have actually shown that legumes can help control blood cholesterol by fighting the deposit of platelets in veins and arteries. Of course, the trace amounts of fat in beans, as in all vegetables, is of the polyunsaturated variety.
Eating meals rich in beans can help people on weight reduction diets. Beans are digested slowly, thus promoting a longer-lasting feeling of fullness by delaying the return of hunger pangs.
Because they provoke a lower insulin response than do other carbohydrates such as bread, cereals, potatoes, and pasta, beans can also be a real boon to diabetics and hypoglycemics.
While beans are our best nonmeat source of protein, the protein is incomplete, lacking the essential amino acid methionine (as is the case with all plant sources of food). Nutritionists don't worry too much about this missing amino acid, assuming that what you might miss in one meal, you make up in another.
Storage and Cooking of Dried Beans
Dried beans need to be rehydrated by cooking in simmering water. As with all ingredients from nature, many variables will affect the cooked result, including the age of the beans and how they've been handled and stored, the altitude at which the beans are cooked (at higher elevations they take longer to soften), and the degree of water hardness (more minerals can make for longer cooking times). Furthermore, acid ingredients such as tomatoes, vinegar, or citrus juices will greatly retard beans' cooking times if added early on during the cooking process.