healthy eating

The magical fruit


Beans are cheap, easy, delicious and nutritious. Highly versatile, they can be the main attraction for dinner or a simple side show. And they are a natural peace maker in a combo vegetarian and omnivore household. The hubby is less likely to need his post dinner ham sandwich after our vegetarian dinner if his belly is full of beans. In fact, beans have long been the poor man’s meat in less affluent countries. But I’ve recently educated myself on the less nutritious aspects of improperly prepared beans. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

Beans are legumes. Part of the vegetable family. There are thousands of varieties of beans and most will provide a similar punch of high-fiber, protein, folate and iron. While not always the most cost conscious, my favorite heirloom beans come from Rancho Gordo. Steve Sando at Rancho Gordo is doing great work saving heirloom beans and they are delicious!

Dried vs. Canned

It’s true that canned beans offer the least amount of effort. Got a can opener? You’re good. But if you’ve eaten beans prepared from fresh dried beans, you know there’s a big difference in taste. And if you’ve prepared dried beans, you know they are really pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Plus, dried beans are significantly less expensive than canned beans. Organic dried black beans cost about $0.77 per cup less than their canned counterpart. Finally, canned beans sit in a can that’s lined with myriad chemicals. Maybe BPA has been phased out of some canned but it’s been replaced by other, possibly less understood, chemicals. I prefer my beans without any chemical additives.

Dried beans do take a little planning ahead that canned beans don’t require. Soaking makes beans more easily digestible, which I’ll get into in a minute. If you have the foresight, by all means, soak them. But if you want to make black beans on a whim, don’t let a lack of soaked beans stop you. The harm, I think, comes from eating unsoaked beans regularly. If you’re a regular bean eater, you need to start soaking.

Soaking Beans

Let’s talk about soaking. I recently bought “The Art of Fermentation” by fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz. In it, he writes about the benefits of soaking grains and legumes to reduce the anti-nutrients and toxins and make them more digestible. This isn’t a new practice. In fact, it’s an ancient practice used regularly in Asia and some parts of Africa but much less common in Western countries. Given the rise in things like food intolerance, leaky gut, allergies, gluten sensitivity, it’s worth considering whether our food practices are a contributing factor.

The qualities that allow properly dried beans to be stored for lengths of time are the very properties that make them hard to digest. Phytic acid is found in beans, grains, nuts, and seeds. It’s an organic acid that can combine with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc in our bodies to block their absorption. Phytic acid and the enzyme inhibitors in beans can inhibit enzymes critical to the digestion of food in our stomach. The key to minimizing the anti-nutrients and enzyme inhibitors in beans is to trick the legume into thinking it’s time to sprout a new plant. This germination process causes the bean to activate its enzymes. To sprout, a bean needs moisture, warm conditions, sufficient time and slight acidity. For a detailed article on phytic acid and legumes, grains, nuts and seeds, see this article.

There are a variety of recommendations on just how to soak beans. I prefer to keep things as simple as possible. I don’t want to have to consult a chart every time I soak a bean.  One thing to remember is that dried beans swell when soaked so be sure to use a container large enough to hold the growing beans. To start, soak beans in 2 – 3 times the amount of filtered water for at least 24 hours, changing the soaking water at least once. Ideally, the next step is to sprout beans. To do so, drain the soaked beans and return the drained beans to a large mason jar or similar container with the lid replaced with a mesh screen or cheese cloth. Invert the jar so that the beans are not sitting in water. Rinse the beans and replace the lid twice a day for 2 to 3 days. You’ll start to see a little sprout coming out of the beans after 2 or 3 days.

Cooking Soaked Beans

Your soaked and sprouted beans are now ready to cook. You can spice them a whole host of different ways. My method for making beans is to put 2 – 3 cups of beans in a covered pot. I like Le Crueset or Staub but any covered pot will do. Don’t delay making beans because you don’t have a fancy pot. Next, I cover the beans with about an inch of water above them. Bring it to a boil on the stove top. Then, I either turn it down to a simmer for 1.5 to 2 hours on the stope top. Or I put it in a 325 to 350 degree oven for 2 hours or so. Both methods work. Add in some crushed garlic, chopped onion, smoked paprika, cumin…so many options to flavor beans!

So there you have it. Go out and get yourself a 5-pound bag of black beans right now and plan your week. I’m thinking black bean enchiladas one night, maybe a bean dip for lunch, huevos rancheros for breakfast. Mmm…delicious!

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