Let's Picnic. I’ll Bring the Beans!

Let's Picnic. I’ll Bring the Beans!

Legumes are an often-overlooked group. This supergroup includes beans, peas and lentils. Usually low in fat and cholesterol and high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium, they also contain healthy fats, protein and fiber.

So why are some of the most versatile and nutritious foods available not served more often at American dining tables?

Mark Bittman, one the country's best-known, most widely respected food writers thinks he knows why. And he knows what he’s talking about. His award-winning How to Cook Everything series is mainstay of the modern kitchen.

The fast answer is that we live in a meat-centric culture. Isn’t the quintessential American dinner steak and potatoes? No one has taught many of us to eat legumes. Yet with a bit of practice, you can make a dinner centered on legumes every bit as satisfying as one organized around meat.”

Bittman spills the beans about legumes in this Q&A.

Q: For the legume newbies: what is your suggestion for an entry-level legume, and how is it prepared?

Bittman: Steamed edamame is a great way to introduce legumes into your diet, but you’re not going to eat a full meal of edamame. My favorite legume remains the chickpea. It’s versatile and filling, and again, it is easy to prepare from dried or canned beans. You can roast chickpeas with a little garlic and curry powder for a snack; sauté them with vegetables, herbs and lemon juice for a filling meal; or toss them on top of a leafy green salad. They’re also a wonderful addition to pasta dishes or stews, and a chickpea tagine is a great way to develop flavor in an all-vegetarian meal.

Q: In our busy no-time-to-cook mode, are there tricks to preparing legumes or are there any on-the-fly short cuts for soaking?

Bittman: Soaking is optional; unsoaked beans just take longer to cook. Of course, if you’re looking for real speed, you have two options: lentils, split peas and the like cook in less than half an hour. And there’s nothing wrong with opening a can of precooked beans. Actually there’s a third option: many freezer cases now have pre-cooked beans, and like canned beans, they just need reheating.

Planning ahead really helps. Put some beans in a bowl with water in the morning, and by the time you return at the end of the day, they’re ready to be cooked. Another option is to cover the dried beans with water, bring them to a boil and then let sit for an hour before cooking; this will also speed up cooking.

Q: Why are legumes considered a wonder food?

Bittman: As I mentioned, legumes are the most nutritious plant food. If we’re serious about addressing global warming or getting ourselves healthier, eating less meat is essential, and with less meat should come more beans. Americans eat twice as much meat as the world average. Not only do we not need all the protein we’re consuming, over consumption of animal products can lead to various health problems. Of course some protein is essential, and that’s where legumes and other protein-rich foods come in.

Q: What legume deserves more attention?

Bittman: I really think lentils are fantastic. They’re quick to cook and incredibly versatile – good in salads, dal, soups, even in dips for veggies or to spread on a sandwich. Really, all beans need more attention. They’re the most nutritious plant food. They’re often high in fiber and protein, and they should be making a regular appearance in everyone’s diet. 

On Another Note

Beans have been known to cause stomach aches and even open the door to food poisoning. Should you experience food poisoning and need to see a doctor, remember that where you go matters. Do your research about ERs versus urgent care now before you’re ill. That way, when you need urgent care, you know which care facility is best suited to your situation.

How do you practice bean safety? Spill the beans in our comments section with your tips for safe storage or a favorite recipe.

Originally published 7/5/2016; Revised 20121

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