Cool Beans

We know the verse (“beans, beans, the musical fruit …”) is going through your mind right now, so just go ahead and complete the thought. We’ll wait.

OK? Yes, there is that aspect of beans to discuss, but we’ll come back to it later. Right now it’s time to consider them as a healthful and — maybe just as importantly, these days — economical source of protein.

Mary Wilson, registered dietitian and extension nutrition specialist with the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, said that actually, dietitians recommend beans for everybody, not just those who are grappling with tight budgets.

“We as Americans are rather poor consumers of legumes,” Wilson said of the plant family that also includes peas and lentils. “Every time I lecture on something, if I have an opportunity to plug beans, I do. It’s such an inexpensive protein source. They’re low in fat, an excellent source of protein and easy on the budget.”

Consider: 1 pound of dried pink beans — which would cook up to 6 cups, drained — was listed at $1.29 on the Web site of a supermarket chain with stores in Southern Nevada. That compared to $3.49 a pound for 80 percent-lean ground beef — which cooks up to about 2 cups, drained. And the savings go up when larger bags of beans are purchased.

As for nutrition, 1 cup of cooked dry beans contains about 230 calories, 11/2 grams of fat and 9 milligrams of fiber. About 1 cup — 8 ounces — of broiled 80 percent-lean ground beef contains about 560 calories, 37 grams of fat and no fiber.

No wonder there’s increased interest in beans these days. Jeane Wharton, executive director of the United States Dry Bean Council in Pierre, S.D., said while she didn’t have sales figures, the council’s members who are producers have reported that sales are up, and members who are in the nutrition field are reporting more inquiries about incorporating beans into a healthy diet.

More beans also are finding their way to families in need. Sharon Mann, community-relations director of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, said beans are among the packaged foods that are distributed in bags of groceries to local families, currently about 175 a day.

And Mann said the organization’s St. Vincent Lied Dining Facility serves a free meal at 10:30 a.m. daily to anyone in Las Vegas who’s hungry. That’s usually a substantial stew, she said, containing beans as well as other protein sources, pasta, rice and/or vegetables, which provides sustenance for an extended period.

The protein in beans is incomplete, Wilson said. There are, she said, eight amino acids that are not produced by our bodies and that we have to get from food. Animal products contain all eight, she said, but vegetable sources lack one or two.

“In order to build muscle mass and be functional in the body, it has to be a good protein,” she said.

But the deficiency, she said, can be easily remedied by combining beans with rice or other grains, nuts or small amounts of meat, eggs or dairy products, which supply the missing amino acids.

“Beans and rice is an excellent complete protein,” Wilson said. So are a peanut-butter sandwich (peanuts being a legume), bean burritos and hummus and pita bread.

“There are lots and lots of different combinations,” she said. “It’s not very hard to do, as long as their diet is diverse.”

Wilson also noted that while conventional wisdom used to hold that, in order to make the protein complete, the grain or nut needed to be consumed with the beans, it’s now considered effective if the complementary foods are consumed within 24 hours of each other.

Beans offer other pluses. In addition to protein, Wilson said, legumes contain complex carbohydrates, fiber, B vitamins, zinc, potassium, magnesium, foliate, calcium and iron. Most also are low in fat, she said, with the exception of soybeans. And, she added, beans have been shown to protect against cancer at various sites in the body, produce a low rise in blood-glucose levels in diabetics after they’ve eaten, and may improve blood-cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure.

So what’s not to like? Well, that brings us back to Paragraph 1. The problem, Wilson said, is that beans contain complex sugars and we don’t have the enzyme necessary to digest them. So they hang around in the intestine and ferment, leading to bloating and the dreaded gas.

Soaking — either traditional overnight soaking at 3 cups of cool water to 1 cup of beans, or a quick soak, which involves the same proportions, boiled for 2 minutes and than allowed to stand for an hour — helps in this regard, as does thorough rinsing of either cooked dry beans or canned beans.

“I do all of the above things, but still find the best way to prevent gas is to use Beano,” Wilson said of the commercial product that provides the needed enzyme.

Another alternative is to eat more high-fiber foods, including beans, which can lead to fewer problems in the future.

Until then, you’re on your own.

BLACK BEAN CAKES

3 15-ounce cans, rinsed and drained, or 51/4 cups cooked dry-packaged black beans

2 large eggs

3 cups toasted fresh breadcrumbs made from crustless French bread, divided

1 cup chopped red bell pepper

1/2 cup chopped green onions (about 4 onions)

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 teaspoons chili powder

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

4 tablespoons vegetable oil

Bottled salsa

Sour cream

Avocado slices

In a blender or food processor, puree 2 cups of black beans and the eggs until smooth. Stir in remaining beans, 11/2 cups breadcrumbs and the next 10 ingredients.

Using your hands shape the mixture into 10 1/2-inch-thick patties, using about 1/2 cup mixture for each. Transfer patties to a baking sheet. (Can be prepared up to 4 hours ahead.) Cover and chill.

Coat cakes on both sides with remaining breadcrumbs. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add 5 black-bean cakes and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Repeat with remaining cakes.

Transfer to plates. Serve topped with salsa, sour cream and avocado slices.

PASTA E FAGIOLI

10 ounces (11/4 cups) dry navy beans, soaked

6 cups water

11/2 teaspoons salt

2/3 cup oil, plus 3 tablespoons oil (divided use)

1 bay leaf

2 or 3 garlic cloves, whole, plus 1 or 2 crushed garlic cloves

3 carrots, diced

2 stalks celery, sliced

1 large onion, chopped

1 teaspoon dry oregano

1/2 teaspoon dry basil

Salt and pepper, to taste

6 to 7 tomatoes, peeled and chunked

1/2 pound shell macaroni

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Drain beans; cover with water. Add salt, 2/3 cup oil, bay leaf and whole garlic cloves. Simmer gently until beans are tender, 2 to 3 hours. Drain, reserving liquid; discard bay leaf and garlic.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in large frying pan. Add carrots, celery and onion and cook until onion is soft. Add crushed garlic and seasonings and simmer 30 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook another 10 minutes.

Cook macaroni in boiling salted water until just tender. Drain. Combine beans, vegetables and drained pasta with 11/2 cups bean liquid. Cover and simmer another 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Garnish with chopped parsley and serve with grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves 6 to 8.

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