They’re as versatile as they are satisfying and economical. But if you think they’re fit only for burrito filling or tostadas, you don’t know beans.
A staple of winter meals, dried beans are enjoying a renaissance thanks in part to interest in plant-based diets. These are beans grown specifically to eat later; “fresh” dried beans were harvested last fall.
Available year round, dried beans are particularly handy meal makers in early spring’s “shoulder season” while waiting for other vegetables to arrive.
Most people think of beans either refried alongside Mexican entrees or floating in soup. But they also can be the foundation to salads – or a meal.
Longtime Sacramento chef, caterer and food consultant Dani Luzzatti makes her own pinto beans, both as an accompaniment or for use in other dishes.
“I put chopped onions, bacon, pinto beans and water in a large pot,” Luzzatti said. “As it cooks, I’ll season it with salt and pepper, cumin and cilantro. When they get to the point where the beans are still a little firm, I’ll smash a few with a fork to thicken the liquid. They’re a lot better for you than refried and full of flavor.”
That same method can be used with many kinds of beans; although they look and taste different, beans of similar sizes and types are pretty much interchangeable.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we’re not eating enough beans. Americans consume an average of 6.5 pounds of dried beans per year, with the biggest bean eaters in the West (due in part to our love of Latino food) and the South (red beans and rice, anyone?). The bulk of the national bean crop hails from Michigan and North Dakota.
But that national average is only about a quarter of the beans the USDA recommends. Under its dietary guidelines, we should be eating at least three cups of cooked beans a week. Why? They’re an excellent low-fat source of protein.
Because beans offer so much for so little, they’re the building block of many global cuisines. Dried beans can keep months – even years – with no refrigeration. They’re always in season. That also makes them an important ingredient for late winter meals – or as a pantry staple.
With increased interest in heirloom varieties and global cuisine, we now have many more beans available. A typical supermarket now stocks about 15 varieties of canned beans (which almost all are cooked dried beans) and more than 20 kinds of dried. But that’s just the start.
Through farmers markets and specialty markets, hundreds of varieties of dried beans are available: borlotti (or cranberry), Anasazi, canary, tiger’s eye, pinto, black, cannellini, tepary, calypso, mung, soy, adzuki, garbanzo, lentils, black-eyed peas, kidney, navy, lima and many more. Their evocative names reflect their worldwide origins.
For local restaurants and her weekly CSA (community-supported agriculture) customers, Suzanne Ashworth grows dozens of bean varieties at Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento. Dried beans are a regular part of her winter menu. According to Ashworth, “fresh” dried beans have more moisture – and less potential gassiness – than beans that have been stored for many months or even years. They also take less time to cook and offer more flavor.
After soaking the beans overnight, Ashworth cooks them with a little salt, a bay leaf and an avocado leaf until the beans are soft but still hold together. Here’s her basic recipe: “For a pound of soaked beans, add 10 cups of water,” she said. “Bring to a boil and then simmer two to three hours. As it simmers, add some bacon or the rind off some cheese, some chopped shallot, cloves of garlic and some chili powder, bay leaf and avocado leaf.”
For variety, she stirs in chopped chard or other winter greens when the beans are tender.
Other legumes – including split peas and lentils – take less time to cook, but still offer many of the same bean benefits.
“I love lentils,” said longtime Sacramento food and restaurant consultant Kathi Riley Smith. “I made dal (a traditional lentil dish) with cauliflower and potatoes, lots of onion, carrot and celery, topped with fresh squeezed lemon juice. My favorite is a lentil vegetable soup. I made some recently and added calabrese sausage and sautéed escarole. I ate it for three days.”
Cooked beans can be eaten as is or used in salads, soups, stews or other dishes.
Sacramento food expert Peg Tomlinson-Poswall loves black-eyed peas in soup.
“In the winter time, I make this soup with black-eyed peas,” she said. “I’ll eat it every day all winter. I use onions, carrots, celery, chopped-up kale, tomatoes, chili, leftover salsa; whatever I have on hand. It’s very satisfying – and easy.”
But she doesn’t limit herself to one bean.
“I also love garbanzos,” Tomlinson-Poswall added. “I love all the Mexican beans, especially black beans.”
Luzzatti uses black beans as a salad dressing. “I cook them with garlic and cumin, but you can also use them straight from the can,” she said. “Purée the beans and make a vinaigrette with rice wine vinegar. It’s a low-calorie, low-fat, flavorful salad dressing. It’s not pretty though; it can make the salad look a little murky. But it tastes great.”
Such beans as kidney and garbanzo are a favorite salad ingredient, but don’t stop there. Tomlinson-Poswall suggested this bean salad from the Prepkitchen in La Jolla: “They have a warm white bean salad,” she said. “It’s served with a pesto-based red wine vinaigrette on top of arugula and topped with shaved Parmesan. Delicious!”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.