Cool Beans

By Jaime Collins, Director of Marketing and Communications at Southwest Health.

The magical fruit, as they’ve been dubbed in a school-yard rhyme, are indeed both fruit and magic. While some cultures have long eaten beans because they’re abundant and cheap, the world is now waking up to the true magic of the legume family – the fact they are stupendously good for you. Because I’m passionate about healthy eating and living, I want to share some of what I’ve discovered about beans.

Talking nutrients now, beans (also known as pulses) hold important positions at the heart of the world’s healthiest diets and at the root of the longest living populations on the planet. That’s because they’re low in fat, high in fiber and dollar-for-dollar offer more protein than meat. High levels of important minerals they also contain, including iron, zinc, phosphorous, and B-vitamins.

Though shunned by many due to their reputation for making us gassy or perhaps because folks think them boring, neither of those common assumptions is accurate. Beans are, in fact, anything but boring as they come in many shapes, sizes, and colors. We can eat ‘em whole, grind ‘em up, split ‘em, and cook ‘em many delicious ways. Add them to everything from soups to stir fry. Substitute them for meat. Even make them the foundation of surprisingly scrumptious salads. The fact is, anyone can turn this versatile, wholesome, and inexpensive fruit into mouth-watering magic.

And that gas issue we made fun of as kids? Mostly a non-issue, that is. Yes, the human digestive system, I understand, has trouble digesting the complex carbs in beans which can result in some gas, at least initially. But, incorporating pulses in your diet over the course of a few weeks typically puts an end of that. Not to mention, a few spices like ginger and turmeric, which also add tons of flavor, also help halt gaseous side-effects.

When my wife and I first went mostly vegetarian a decade ago, what I feared most was missing meat, but beans quickly cured me of that restrictive predilection. One of the greatest surprises in the life of my taste-buds, in fact, was discovering my palate didn’t need a continual dose of meat to make it happy. Nor did my stomach need it to feel well fed. Beans helped fill whatever void I may have perceived. In the process, they made me stronger and healthier while greatly reducing my impact on animals and the environment. But, no matter whether you feel any need to make a similar environmental or barnyard impact, I still recommend putting beans at the top of your shopping list.

Trouble is, however, Americans don’t eat many beans. Not nearly what the US Dietary Guidelines developed by professionals tell us we should. Maybe folks don’t know what to do with them? Maybe looking at the instructions on those dry beans in the supermarket seems too much trouble? Let me assure you, if beans were a challenge, I’d be the first to find something else to eat. I am simply not personally interested in spending my precious free time in the kitchen. In my experience, canned beans and frozen beans alike offer me delicious variety and healthy options, too. Here’s one of my favorite (and easiest) dinners:

  • 1 can garbanzo beans
  • 1 can kidney or red beans
  • 1 can black beans
  • Half a red onion
  • Brick of feta cheese
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 can black pitted olives
  • A couple sprigs of basil
  • Balsamic vinaigrette (made with olive oil and no added sugar)

Drain and rinse the beans together in a colander. Pour into a large mixing or salad bowl. Chopped the onion and basil, slice the olives, dice the tomato, and crumble or dice the feta. Mix them all together. Pour a healthy dose of balsamic vinaigrette over the entire mixture and stir. Salt to taste and serve cold.

This is a very loose “recipe” and other beans, cheeses, and veggies (such as peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, corn, parsley and more) may easily be substituted to create a custom salad that’s all your own. I typically use homemade vinaigrette. If I buy one from the store, I insist on one of the few brands (Newman’s Own, for example) that don’t contain added sugar.

I also add a teaspoon or two of a chili paste mixture called Sambal Oelek, found in the Asian food section of the Supermarket. For me, a little Sambal adds a rich and complex punch that makes me salivate just thinking about this dish.

I eat this as a main course, but it makes a great side dish, too. I’ve also added cold rice and couscous to my bean salads, and in fact, mixing one of these up can be a great way to use up those leftover veggies, cheese, hard boiled eggs, and other items in the fridge.

Of course, eating beans doesn’t mean you have to give up meat. Maybe beans are an occasional substitute. They might simply be a cheap, healthy, tasty addition to your diet. Fact is, the benefits of beans are numerous and well documented. So why not give them a go?

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