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A beginner's guide to beans

The essentials about this cheap, healthy food -- plus recipes. Yum.

By Karen Datko Oct 22, 2009 2:26PM

This guest post comes from Kris at Cheap Healthy Good.

 

Some will balk at their flavor and size. Many will have texture issues. And still others just won't enjoy the gas.

But know this: There are few cheaper, healthier, and more versatile foods than the humble bean. Members of the legume family, beans can be found everywhere from gourmet restaurants to campfire cauldrons. They've been vital to the survival of certain populations, and instrumental to the development of particular cuisines.

 

Also, they taste good.

Still, there are folks out there unfamiliar with chickpeas and pintos, kidney and black beans. And for them, CHG proudly presents the following: a breakdown of why beans are wonderful, plus 42 tried-and-true recipes in which to use them.

Health benefits
Low in fat, high in protein, and astronomically high in fiber, beans work beautifully as the main components of recipes, but also as fabulous alternatives to meat. This is for a few reasons: A) They create a complete protein when paired with nuts, seeds or grains; B) their chemical composition makes you feel sated longer than a lot of other foods; and C) they have a bulky and substantial mouthfeel, so you never feel deprived. Studies have found them to be solid tools in weight loss and maintenance, and integral to the prevention of all kinds of diseases.

If that ain't enough for you, this WebMD blurb is pretty convincing: "In a recent study, bean eaters weighed, on average, 7 pounds less and had slimmer waists than their bean-avoiding counterparts -- yet they consumed 199 calories more per day if they were adults and an incredible 335 calories more if they were teenagers." Sweet.

P.S. True to the well-known rhyme, beans make you both smartier and fartier. They contain both certain vitamins that improve brain function AND undigestable sugars, which lead to exciting intestinal activity, which leads to gas. So there you go.

Price
Grown globally from Ethiopia to Australia, beans are some of the most plentiful -- and subsequently cheapest -- edibles anywhere. A pound of dried beans in Brooklyn will generally run about $1, and will produce four to six cups of food after rehydration.

Compare that with meat. In my neighborhood, a pound of chicken breasts (one of the healthier animal options) runs $1.69 on sale. They shrink slightly when cooked, ultimately producing around two cups of poultry.

Let's do some math. One pound of cheap chicken is $1.69 divided by two, or 85 cents. One pound of beans is $1 divided by five, or 20 cents. Using these (incredibly) rough numbers, chicken breast is 425% the price of dried beans.

Of course, the numbers will vary by area, sales, and math skills, but you get the idea.

Dried or canned?
It's a controversy as old as storage itself: dried or canned beans? On one hand, dried beans are universally cheaper, and widely considered to possess a creamier consistency and better overall flavor. On the other hand, canned beans aren't terribly expensive themselves, and the taste difference is pretty negligible when you're talking about everyday kitchen use.

The tiebreaker, then, is time. If you have the wherewithal, forethought, and 90 to 480 minutes to rehydrate a bag of dried chickpeas, you'll be rewarded in kind. If you're throwing dinner together and an hour-long prep time is crazy talk, canned beans are the way to go.

It's worth noting that if respected cooks aren't using canned beans already (Giada DeLaurentiis, Sara Moulton, etc.), they're starting to come around. Even die-hard dried fans like Mark Bittman have been giving props to metal dwellers recently. Meaning: don't fear the Goya.

Introducing ... the beans
If you've ever tried chili, hummus, minestrone, Texas caviar, Mexican food, Indian food, Italian food, or, er, refried beans, you've already experienced the wonder of the bean. They're omnipresent in cuisines all over the world, and come in a range of flavors and sizes that can be adapted to thousands of dishes. Here are six of the most common found in the U.S., along with a few recipe suggestions for each.

(A quick note before we get to the beans themselves: There are a zillion types of legume, and some (like the soybean) are rocketing in popularity stateside. But to keep things manageable, we're sticking to a few big ones.)

Black beans
Used frequently in Latin cuisines, the black bean is a small, ebony bean with an earthy flavor. I find it pairs very well with grains, and makes for a stellar soup.

Black-eyed peas
A terrible band, but a wonderful food, black-eyed peas are all over Southern cuisine. Like other beans, they're great sources of fiber, folate and protein. Unlike other beans, you will always feel like they're looking at you.

Cannellini/white beans
There are a ton of variations on the white bean, but I dig cannellinis in particular for their creaminess and flavor. Found in many Italian dishes, you'll find that Microsoft Word often corrects its spelling to "cannelloni," which is annoying.

Chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
Without chickpeas, there would be no hummus. And without hummus, there would be no joy. Vital to Italian, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines (among others), the plentiful and versatile garbanzo bean can be found in virtually every form, from dip to stew to flour (though I have yet to see a chickpea smoothie). Due to its subtle flavor and increasing ubiquity in the U.S., I like to think of the chickpea as a gateway bean; if you like it, odds are other legumes will soon follow.

Kidney beans (red and pink)
Substantive and quite large in comparison with other common legumes, kidney beans go great on salads and substitute fabulously for meat in chilis and stews. And seriously, what's a frugal kitchen without red beans and rice?

Pinto beans (frijoles)
Wonderful on their own and even better mashed, these pink-brown legumes claim the great honor of being the only bean my mom likes. Also, I could be talking out my neck here, but I find pintos a little sweeter than black beans and chickpeas.

Multiple beans
Each of the following recipes uses more than one type of bean.

And that's our ballgame. Readers, how about you? What are your favorite bean recipes?

Related reading at Cheap Healthy Good:

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