I’m not totally sure why July 3rd was chosen for “Eat Beans Day,” but does it really matter? Most of us could stand to eat more beans, and if it takes a special “day” to get us to put more beans into our diets, then that’s ok with me. It’s time these lowly legumes get the respect they deserve—it’s time to tout their nutritional merits! (That was “tout,” not “toot,” and I promise that will be the only “magical”-type reference I’ll be making in this post, no matter how easy or tempting it is to create fitting puns.)
I love beans. There’s something supremely homey about a bowl of slow-cooked beans. They are filling, yes, but beyond that, their warmth, soft texture and their cooked-for-hours taste just makes me feel good inside. Because both of my children like beans (ok, maybe not quite as much as I do), I make a meal out of them (in some form) at least once a week—usually twice. They are delicious, versatile, highly nutritious and easy to keep on hand.
For this article I decided to focus on dried beans. Yes, canned beans have their merits as well (and research has shown that rinsing canned beans can decrease their sodium content by a significant 40%). All beans are healthful, and keeping both canned and dried beans in the pantry is a smart idea. However, this is a slow cooker website, and well, cooking dried beans in the slow cooker is so darn easy! Plus, knowing how to deal with dried beans is just a good skill to have…and as silly as it seems, there’s something about purchasing dried beans that tells the other customers in line behind you at the supermarket “Yes, I really do know how to cook! In fact, I can make these hard, little beans into something amazingly delicious!” Nobody needs to know that you only know how to make chili or baked beans—and frankly, it doesn’t matter anyhow. The point is that you’re cooking, and you’re eating beans. And for that, you’re already way ahead of most of the folks you’ll encounter in the checkout line.
Bean Nutrition: Beans may be diminutive in size, but they pack a nutritional punch that’s hard to beat. Beans provide protein, fiber, complex carbs, and a bevy of vitamins and minerals including folate, manganese, potassium, iron, phosphorous, copper and magnesium. Of course they are also saturated- and trans-fat free and are low in fat overall. Plus, being a plant product, they are naturally cholesterol-free. Beyond these attributes though, beans boast a good dose of beneficial phytochemicals (health-promoting plant chemicals). Oh, and did I mention that they’re inexpensive, widely available and easy to cook? Truly, it amazes me that more folks don’t get on the bean bandwagon. For some great info on dried bean nutrition, and how to use them, check out the US Dry Bean Council website.
Cooking with Dried Beans: For the most part, any canned or dry-packaged bean variety can be substituted for another, but be aware that cooking times will vary from type to type. Try a few different types and choose your favorites. All beans blend well with a variety of foods and spices, since they absorb flavors from other ingredients. We’ve got easy instructions for cooking dried beans in the slow cooker in our new book, “Everyday Gluten-Free Slow Cooking.” In general, we use two different methods to hydrate beans for slow cooker recipes: precooking the beans or soaking them. Precooking is used when there is an acid present in the recipe, such as vinegar in baked beans. Soaking dried beans is used for non acidic recipes, such as soups. The slow cooker is a great appliance for preparing big batches of dried beans, which you can then freeze for future use. Easy plus economical—what’s not to like?Serving Beans: Since it’s summertime and you might be looking for an easy baked bean recipe to accompany your barbecue menus, consider our Vegetarian New England-Style Baked Beans. It’s a great introduction to cooking beans in your slow cooker. Other ideas for serving beans include:
- Puree them into a dip for gluten-free chips
- Use pureed beans as a spread for crackers
- Sprinkle cooked beans on salads for color and protein
- Add leftover beans to soups or stews
- “Stretch” ground meat with beans
- Perfect at least one bean recipe you can make without thinking (mine is black beans and rice with taco toppings)
- Think comfort food: slow cooked beans and ham, sausage and beans, baked beans
- Create a signature chili (unusual beans would make it even more “yours”)
- Freeze cooked beans in 1-2 cup portions for later use
- Go meatless with a pasta, bean and veggie entree or salad
Get Acquainted With Dried Beans: Here are some of the more common dry beans available. The pictures and descriptions are from the CDC’s website, www.fruitandveggiesmatter.gov.
Adzuki Beans are small, with a vivid red color, solid flavor and texture. Originally from Asia, its name means “little bean” in Japanese. Its red coloring – red being the most important color in Eastern celebrations – means that it is greatly used in festive or special meals.
Large Lima Beans are large and flat with a greenish-white color. The bean has a buttery flavor and creamy texture. This bean is named after Lima, Peru, and is popular in the Americas, both in its natural state and dried.
Pink Beans have beautiful pink color and are very popular in the countries of the Caribbean. Pink beans are of medium size (similar to the Great Northern and the Pinto) and have a refined texture and delicate flavor.
Green Baby Lima Beans come from Peru and are very popular in the Americas. The baby variety is much loved in Japan for making desserts from bean paste known as “an.” These are medium-sized flat beans with a greenish white color, buttery flavor, and creamy texture.
Small Red Beans are particularly popular in the Caribbean region, where they normally are eaten with rice. Dark red in color, small red beans also are smoother in taste and texture than the dark red kidney bean.
Dark Red Kidney Beans are large and kidney-shaped with a deep, glossy red color. They have a solid flavor and texture. These beans are produced mainly in the northern U.S.A. and owes popularity in America and Europe to the bean’s large size, bright color and solid texture.
Black Beans are sweet tasting with an almost mushroom-like flavor and soft, floury texture. These beans are medium sized, oval, with a matt black color. They are the most popular beans in the Costa Rica and Cuba.
Light Red Kidney Beans have a solid texture and flavor. They are characterized by their large, kidney shape and a pink color. This bean is popular in the Caribbean region, Portugal and Spain because of similarity to the canela bean.
Navy Beans are small, white and oval with a refined texture and delicate flavor. These are the beans used for the famous Boston- and English-baked beans because their skin and fine texture do not break up on cooking. These beans were named for their part of the U.S. Navy diet during the second half of the 19th Century.
Cranberry Beans are known for their creamy texture with a flavor similar to chestnuts. Cranberry beans are rounded with red specks, which disappear on cooking. These beans are a favorite in northern Italy and Spain. You can find them fresh in their pods in autumn. They freeze well.
Black-eyed Beans have a scented aroma, creamy texture and distinctive flavor. These beans are characterized by their kidney shape, white skin with a small black eye, and very fine wrinkles. Originally from Africa, it is one of the most widely dispersed beans in the world. Black-eyed beans are really a type of pea, which gives it its distinctive flavor and rapid cooking potential, with no pre-soaking needed.
Pinto Beans are the most widely produced bean in the United States and one of the most popular in the Americas. Pinto beans contain the most fiber of all beans. Characteristically known for their medium-size, oval shape, they are speckled reddish brown over a pale pink base with solid texture and flavor.
Great Northern Beans are a North American bean, popular in France for making cassoulet (a white bean casserole) and in the whole Mediterranean where many beans of a similar appearance are cultivated. These beans have a delicate flavor and thin skin. They are flat, kidney-shaped, medium-sized white beans.
Garbanzo Beans or chickpeas are the most widely consumed legume in the world. Originating in the Middle East, they have a firm texture with a flavor somewhere between chestnuts and walnuts. Garbanzo beans are usually pale yellow in color. In India there are red, black, and brown chickpeas.
There are so many beautiful and tasty beans to try, and so many ways to use them, that we’ve got no excuse for eating more beans—whether it’s “Eat Beans Day” or not!
–Kit Broihier, MS, RD, LD