Healthy habits // Bean counting

The recession and increase in food prices have spurred a lot of questions from people lately about how to economize in their food budget and still be able to eat healthfully. One of my first suggestions is to look at legumes (beans, peas and lentils).

From little red lentils to big white lima beans, legumes have been considered staple foods by cultures all over the world for centuries. Legumes pack a hearty nutritional punch and contain as many phytochemicals (substances in plant foods that help prevent degenerative diseases like cancer and heart disease) as vegetables and fruits. They are rich in minerals including iron, phosphorus and zinc, and they are a good source of several B vitamins. They are also loaded with the soluble dietary fiber that helps prevent colon cancer and maintain regularity.

It is a common mistake to think that beans need to be eaten with grains. Legumes contain vegetable protein, which, though not complete, still offers ample nutrition and aids in nutrient absorption. To be a “complete protein,” a food needs to contain all eight of the essential amino acids. All eight can be found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products. Our bodies are not able to make all of the proteins needed to function properly without these amino acids, so when beans are prepared or served with even a small amount of animal protein, the body assimilates the lacking amino acids much more readily.

Traditional cuisines around the world reflect this practice: South and Central American pork and bean dishes, beans and beef or cheese in Mexico, garbanzo and lamb stews in the Middle East, and good old American split pea soup with ham. This approach makes a lot of sense financially, too. It’s a great way to stretch your meat dollars and save money.

Unfortunately, beans do have a somewhat bad reputation. They are hard to digest for many people, but careful preparation can prevent much discomfort. The gas that people experience from eating beans comes from complex sugars that are not easily broken down by the digestive system.

Though many recipes, especially those for lentils or split peas, do not call for a soaking period, all legumes need to be soaked for 8–24 hours. They also need at least one hour to cook. In general, the longer you cook your beans, the more digestible they will be. Slow cookers are an excellent tool here — you can let your beans cook all day while you’re at work!

It is important to note that you should not add salt to beans until they are tender, or they will remain hard and indigestible. Only add salt at the end of cooking. A bean is fully cooked when it is easy to smash between your tongue and the roof of your mouth; if you can’t do that, keep cooking.

Beans also need something acidic so they don’t taste flat. Cook them with tomatoes or add a little lemon or lime juice, or vinegar to give them a lift. Pungent flavors improve the taste of beans, too. Garlic, ginger, cayenne, chili pepper, curries and cumin are all good additions to your cooking legumes, and scallions or raw onions make a wonderful garnish at the end. And always chew your beans! Our fast-paced lives don’t give us enough time to enjoy our food, and digestion suffers when we rush through meals.

Jennette Turner is a natural foods educator in the Twin Cities. Information about her workplace classes, consultations and her online meal planning service, Dinner with Jennette, can be found at www.jennette-turner.com.