The "master bean maker" is what I call her because she makes a pot of beans pretty much better than anyone I know. They are always flavorful and toothsome, and I'm so lucky that my friend Jean Newman is more than happy to supply me with some of her great beans from time to time. They are so good that one time she set a small bowl of her home-cooked beans on my desk with a note: "BW, This should provide you with several meals. Enjoy! Love, J." The very next morning she found the same container empty on her desk with a note that read: "J, Thanks for the beans. I can't believe I ate the whole thing! BW."
I couldn't help myself. I, too, thought I would get several meals out of that bowl of beans but after I reheated them, I kept going back for a few more spoonsful. Before I knew it, I had eaten every delectable morsel. Fortunately, that isn't a bad thing, because beans are nutrition powerhouses and unfortunately underutilized in most American diets.
Beans are considered a super food—high in protein, vitamins, and minerals. According to Marie Hill, lead clinical dietitian at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano, they are also an excellent source of soluble fiber, which can help decrease cholesterol, and insoluble fiber, which can reduce the risk of some cancers. Due to all of those factors, beans can be considered a complex carbohydrate, which will not cause a sudden spike in blood glucose levels like simple sugars can and are a recommended carbohydrate source for diabetics.
Naturally fat free, you can get maximum nutrition without maximizing your daily calorie allowance. They are also economical. A bag of beans is relatively inexpensive and will triple in volume when cooked. A one-pound bag equals 2 cups of dry which in turn equals 6 cups of cooked. With a half cup being the recommended serving size, one pound of beans provides 12 servings.
But with so many kinds of beans to choose from, are some more nutritious than others? Hill says that eating a variety is the best rule of thumb. Each different bean has a unique nutrition profile, all beneficial to overall health. The various colors provide a different anti-cancer phytochemical/antioxidant benefit. Eating beans on a regular basis is recommended unless your physician has restricted fiber, potassium, or phosphorous in your diet for medical reasons.
But if soaking and boiling dried beans takes more time than your schedule allows, it's okay to use canned. While some vitamin and anti-cancer phytochemical properties can be altered in the canning process, the mineral, protein, and fiber content remain intact. But look for low-sodium or no-salt-added beans. If they are not available, then rinse the beans in a colander with lots of water. This will wash away up to 40 percent of the sodium. Also don't add any salt to the final product. Hill says that eating fresh will generally provide the most nutrition benefits, but canned beans are better than eating no beans at all.
Beans and water are all you really need to make a pot of beans, but beans can be bland-tasting unless you are using an heirloom variety that has tremendous flavor all on its own. To make Jean's Beans, she adds vegetables, garlic, stock, herbs, and smoked bacon or ham to give the beans added interest.
But Jean isn't the only one on staff who loves to prepare beans. Steve Beavers, our marketing and creative director, says he cooks beans often. For one of our potluck luncheons recently, he prepared savory red beans and rice, with fresh parsley, diced ham, and hot sauce for added zip. He also prefers using brown instead of white rice for added fiber. Pairing beans with grains, like rice, makes them a great substitute for higher-fat protein sources, like red meat, as well as a satisfying main course entrée. Production director Jennifer Coen has been experimenting with different varieties of heirloom beans and has found a Tuscan-style stew she likes that's baked in a low oven. The recipe calls for runner cannellini beans and kale added for an additional nutrition boost.
Once beans are cooked, they can also be rinsed and added to all kinds of dishes to make them more beneficial, like soups, salads, dips. For example, I love the chicken chili with white beans from the Junior League of Plano award-winning cookbook, Lone Star to Five Star, on a cold winter's night. The chili has the right amount of spice thanks to the addition of chopped jalapenos and seasonings like cumin and cayenne. One of my favorite pasta sauces is actually a recipe from a friend's Italian grandmother and it calls for the addition of great northern, fava, or cannellini beans. I use whole grain or fortified pasta to make it a little healthier. A bean and tuna salad is a mainstay at my house for a quick meal since it can be assembled ahead and keeps nicely in my refrigerator for two or three days. I've also served it as a topping for bruschetta.
Texas Health dietitian Marie Hill combines several different kinds of cooked beans with a little bit of olive oil and lemon juice. To this she adds a variety of ingredients—herbs, bell peppers, tomatoes, corn—and serves it either as a side dish or as a nutritious addition to other dishes. For more free healthy recipes using beans, Hill recommends visiting the American Heart Association website at health.org. Click on "Nutrition Center" to find additional tips and recipes.
Nutrient dense beans are an important addition to one's diet. Since I started adding beans on a regular basis to mine about a year ago, along with a step-up of my exercise routine, I've lost several pounds. I find small amounts of them filling and satisfying, whether they're homemade or from a can. Now I need to make a resolution to become a "master bean maker" too.
Here's wishing you a healthy, prosperous, and peaceful New Year.
Barbara Walch is Plano Profile's food editor, and is a member of
the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).