Confessions of a beanoholic
Beans don’t get nearly enough credit. In my opinion, they are one of the best foods anyone could eat. They’re a very low-fat source of protein, they’re high in the kind of fiber that helps lower blood cholesterol and maintain even blood sugar levels, they’re packed with cancer-fighting antioxidants and B-vitamins and they’re a good source of iron. Oh, and they’re cheap!
I’ve heard many carb-phobic women talk about avoiding beans because they’re “high-carb,” which makes me nuts. I’d recommend beans to anyone looking to control their weight; between the super-filling fiber (go ahead and try to eat more than a cup in one sitting. You’ll want to explode.), their high protein content and their naturally low-fat nature, they’re my secret weapon to feeling truly satisfied after a lower-calorie meal. (In fact, when my 3pm hunger rumble rolls around, one of my favorite snacks is a small cup of lentil soup, which has 200-300 calories and keeps the munchies at bay until dinner.) I eat beans almost every single day in some form or another.
Canned vs. dry
Canned food as a genre gets a pretty bad nutritional rap, and generally speaking, it’s for good reason. Canned beans, however, are an exception in my book. Unlike many other vegetables, beans only lose a small percentage of their nutrient value when canned: ~15%, according to the sources I consulted. To me, this is a very worthwhile trade-off for convenience, as most working people I know aren’t going to soak their dry beans overnight in anticipation of tomorrow’s dinner. The one exception to the low-nutrient loss is folate: beans, which are naturally high in folate–a nutrient especially important during pregnancy–lose about half of this nutrient during the canning process. So if you are pregnant and depending on canned beans as a key source of folate in your diet, be aware that you should be looking to other foods-and possibly supplements–to ensure your needs are met.
The exception is dry lentils and split peas, which cook quite fast. It is much cheaper and tastier to prepare these from dry rather than buying them canned, and that’s what I do.
Also, I steer clear of canned baked beans. They’re full of added sugar, and there are so many healthier ways to enjoy beans, as you’ll see below.
There are too many to list, really, so I will offer just a few key highlights.
- Beans support cardiovascular health through their cholesterol-lowering effects (compliments of the fiber) and their mineral content (see discussion below on magnesium and potassium.) If you live with someone who has heart disease but is resistant to making dietary changes, try incorporating a weekly 3-bean chili meal into their rotation (see recipe below). It’s so hearty and substantial that it somehow doesn’t feel “vegetarian” (god forbid!), and could be a first step toward opening them up to healthy, satisfying meals which don’t feature a big hunk of red meat at the center of the plate.
- The type and amount of fiber in beans promotes a slower release of the beans’ carbohydrates, which helps control blood sugar levels. This keeps you feeling fuller for longer and prevents the blood sugar spikes and crashes which lead to hunger…and is especially beneficial for people with diabetes.
- Beans are a very good source of iron. If you like breathing as much as I do, then you want to be sure to get sufficient iron from foods in your diet. (Iron is responsible for transporting oxygen through your blood via its home in your red blood cells.) Despite the fact that they contain natural compounds called phytates, which bind to iron and prevent absorption, beans have enough iron that a fair amount will be absorbed nonetheless. Also, you can greatly improve absorption of the iron in beans by eating them with foods rich in vitamin C, such as tomatoes or bell peppers or any cruciferous vegetable. Groups with increased iron needs include children, teens, pregnant women and pre-menopausal women, so beans can be an especially excellent addition to their diets.
- Beans contain high levels of antioxidants. This type of antioxidant, called an anthocyanin, is the same type found in grapes and berries, and has been attributed with inhibiting the growth of malignant tumors and preventing the type of inflammation that can exacerbate chronic conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The amount of antioxidant content will vary by type of bean, but as a rule, the darker the bean, the more antioxidants it will contain. Black beans and dark red kidney beans, therefore, are great choices.
- Beans contain high levels of many vitamins and minerals, including certain B vitamins (folate and thiamin), which are essential co-factors in energy metabolism and play an important role in forming new DNA for cell replication. They also contain minerals such as magnesium–a key electrolyte which has a role in regulating heart contractions and stabilizing your bone matrix– and potassium, which also helps regulate normal heart contractions and maintain a healthy blood pressure. Some varieties are even decent sources of calcium, especially white beans.
Keep a well-stocked bean pantry
My pantry is always stocked with several cans of red kidney beans, black beans and garbanzo beans. I’ll often keep a can or two of cannelini beans and pintos as well, but there are so many varieties, so pick your favorites and keep them in stock. Refried beans are a great staple, too. Look brands that are low in added salt, but if you can’t find them, then rinsing your canned beans before use will help to remove some excess sodium.
Additionally, I always keep dry brown lentils, red split peas, yellow split peas and green split peas in my pantry. Once in awhile, I’ll splurge on French lentils (aka lentils du puy) or Beluga lentils–named so because of their resemblance to the caviar. These latter varieties hold their shapes much better when cooked and are better suited for use in salads.
I know this seems like a lot of beans to keep in a pantry, but they never go bad and are a reliable protein option for those weekday dinners when you’ve got no meat or fish in the house but still want something substantial and filling.
My favorite, fast ways to prepare beans, culled from all over the world:
1. Bean Salads
- Click here for an awesome “formula” to make bean salads from multiple types of beans, courtesy of the New York Times. My favorite one is the Italian version using cannellini beans and champagne vinegar. It takes 5 minutes to make and is a fantastic appetizer or side dish. No joke: I once caught a houseguest raiding the refrigerator of our beachhouse in the middle of the night, devouring the leftover Italian bean salad straight from the Tupperware. It’s THAT good.
2. Split pea and lentil dishes:
- Click here for my go-to red lentil soup recipe from Cooking Light magazine. If you have an immersion blender, this recipe is even easier to make. A 1-cup serving is only ~250 calories with 17g of protein and 7g of fiber! And it’s beyond delicious. And baby-friendly, too.
- Click here for my favorite 30-minute recipe for yellow split peas from the Mayo Clinic. I use more spinach than the recipe calls for (the bagged variety works just fine here), and you can, too. Put on a pot of rice, millet or quinoa before starting the bean part and the entire meal will be ready to eat in the time it takes to watch half of a Law & Order rerun.
- Click here for an awesome main-course salad recipe using French lentils, shrimp and green beans, from one of my favorite chefs/cookbook authors, Bill Granger. You can use frozen shrimp to make this recipe even more convenient.
- Split pea soup is one of my winter favorites. This recipe comes from the Daily Soup cookbook, my version of which is stained and dog-eared and falling apart from overuse. I eat mine vegetarian, but if you have kids (or husbands, in my case), that like the smoky flavor effect of those bits of ham floating around in it, I’ve recreated that effect by cutting up small pieces of a nitrite-free, lower-fat organic chicken hot dog (like Applegate Farms brand, for example), and adding them in right at the end once the soup is done just so that they warm up. (They’re already pre-cooked.)
- Chili is one of my all-time favorite dishes to make, and one I’d recommend for anyone who needs more iron in their diet. This is especially important for pre-menopausal women, pregnant women, people with anemia and vegetarians/ vegans. Whether you add ground meat (ideally, turkey) to your chili or keep it vegetarian, chili is an excellent source of iron..especially since the vitamin C-rich tomatoes and peppers will aid in iron absorption. Click here for a super-easy vegetarian chili recipe from Martha Stewart… all you do is chop up a bunch of veggies and dump them in the pot at once…. then add a bunch of canned ingredients and let it cook. Voila! To keep it low in fat, I use plain lowfat greek yogurt in lieu of sour cream as a garnish, and/or just a sprinkle of shredded sharp cheddar for flavor.
4. Indian-style bean stews
- On my laziest of lazy days, I turn to these admittedly overpriced ($3.99/packet) but VERY tasty, convenient, and low-sodium spice mixes from Arora Creations. The Rajmah blend is for canned red kidney beans and the Punjabi Chole is for canned garbanzo beans (chick peas). Each packet has instructions on the back to make a fast stew using fresh chiles/hot peppers, fresh tomatoes (I substitute 1 15-oz can can of diced tomatoes), onion, ginger and cilantro. I use one can of each type of bean for either mix, though, just for variety. Each packet makes enough stew to serve 4-6 people. Put on a pot of rice or your favorite grain before starting the stew or serve with your defrosted, leftover teff crepes, and dinner will be ready in 30 minutes or less. Leftover stew also makes a great filling for burritos, tacos, crepes or omelets.
5. 20-minute Moroccan-style chick pea “tagine”
- Before starting, put on a pot of whole-wheat couscous (or get the same effect from millet, if you are gluten-intolerant). Then, just add one 15-oz can of chick peas to this easy recipe for Steamed Butternut Squash with Chili Sauce and you will have a super-fast, super-healthy Moroccan-style tagine to serve over the couscous. (Hint: go ahead and use 1 TBSP of oil to saute the onion… no need to use the broth method suggested in the recipe. A little smidge of fat will help you absorb the squash’s Vitamin A.)
So there you have it: all of my bean-making, bean-eating secrets, revealed. I’m always looking for more, though, so if you have any others that are hits in your kitchen, feel free to share!Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.