DISCUSSING legumes often brings out the child in us. Many of us wouldn’t admit to finding fart jokes funny but the rhyme that goes: “Beans, beans, the musical fruit; the more you eat the more you toot” makes most people smile.
Many find legumes – dried beans and pulses such as lentils, red kidney beans and chickpeas – inconvenient and boring, as well as embarrassing. This is a pity as they are an excellent and economical food. Legumes are a great source of protein and minerals, are filling but low in calories and their fibre is a very important food for healthy gut bacteria. And by now we understand the immense importance of healthy gut bacteria for everything from immunity to weight management to mood.
Yes, they do contain sugars known as oligosaccharides which are the substances that contribute to gas production if not properly broken down. Some people do have particular issues breaking down sugars like this (those with “fodmap” sensitivities). However, most of us are going to be fine, provided we understand how to prepare legumes properly and allow our digestive systems time to adjust when we start to introduce them into our diet.
Most people prefer the convenience of canned beans. They are cheap and as simple as opening the can. However canning beans means they are cooked under pressure rather than soaked and then simmered on the stovetop. This means the oligosaccharides may not have time to break down well enough, and to my taste the texture and flavour are often compromised.
So I prefer to prepare beans from dried. To eliminate the inconvenience factor I prepare a whole packet at once, then freeze the cooked beans in meal portions (such as the equivalent of a drained can); they can be retrieved from the freezer and thrown into a dish at the last minute.
You can add them to almost any savoury dish including soups, stews and salads. For salads, if you forgot to thaw them in the fridge beforehand tip the frozen beans into a colander and separate them under running water, they’ll thaw while you prepare the rest of the salad. If time really is short, put them into a centimetre of water in a small saucepan and bring to the boil, they’ll be ready to eat in a couple of minutes.
Note that the key to efficient dried bean cooking is a good long soak, ideally with a mild acid such as two teaspoons of yogurt stirred into the soak water. Most recipes will tell you to “soak overnight”, which would result in trying to cook the beans the next morning while you’re rushing off to work or your volunteer commitments. No worries: just leave them to sit soaking quietly for the rest of the day as well. The extra long soak reduces cooking time; this is how I do it and I am yet to notice any deterioration. In fact the small amount of fermentation that occurs when soaking at room temperature is part of the digestion-enhancing process.
To cook: drain and rinse, add plenty of fresh water, bring to the boil then simmer long enough that the beans become tender but not mushy. Test every so often; extract a couple of beans and taste; if the beans submit gracefully they’re done; if they resist, keep simmering, keeping the water level up. Many beans are cooked even though not completely soft; please don’t overcook them as mush is both unpalatable and unworkable, and you will usually be adding them to a dish for further cooking anyway.
And retain the cooking liquid; it makes very good soup stock, especially if you put some dried seaweed in (wakame works best) during cooking as the minerals in the seaweed add valuable nutrients and the mucilage imparts a lovely velvety texture.
Lentils are the exception to all the above. Red (orange, really) split lentils cook in five minutes and brown lentils anywhere from fifteen to thirty minutes, much less if pre-soaked for a few hours. Even so, brown lentils will tolerate pre-cooking, freezing and thawing too.
Regardless of whether you use canned or home-cooked legumes, most do require some work to make them really tasty. Meat, chicken and the like have abundant inherent “umami”, the Japanese term for that savoury deliciousness that adult palates enjoy. Beans can taste mealy and bland until your palate gets accustomed to their subtle appeal and until you learn recipes that incorporate ingredients to liven them up.
That is why I recommend that meat eaters start by adding some cooked beans to whatever meat-based dish you are preparing. The added beans will bulk out the dish and give you leftovers to enjoy on toast another time, or you could reduce the amount of meat used and still have a satisfying and tasty meal. Few beans are likely to completely dominate the flavour of the dish and a well chosen variety can greatly enhance it. Search cookbooks or online recipe sites for recipes that already combine meat and beans to get some ideas about good combinations.
Once you’ve got used to eating some beans you might try preparing dishes that don’t require any meat at all. Stay tuned; I plan to publish some of our favourites in future editions of the Post.
Adapted from Family Circle, The Complete Casserole and One-Pot Cookbook 2003
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 lamb forequarter chops, cut in half and edge fat trimmed.
1 onion, chopped
2 large celery sticks, chopped
1 medium-large carrot
3 cloves garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon dried chilli flakes
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 ¼ cups cooked beans or 1 can beans drained and rinsed (eg black beans, borlotti, red kidney or black-eye beans)
1 cup stock (chicken stock, bean cooking liquid, or water plus stock cube or powder)
2 bay leaves
¼ cup lemon juice
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon shredded fresh mint
- Preheat oven to moderate (180C, 350F)
- Heat the oil and brown the lamb chops then transfer to a casserole dish.
- Add the onion, celery and carrot to the pan and cook over low heat 10 minutes or till golden and just tender.
- Add the garlic, chilli and cumin seeds, cook for 1 minute.
- Add the beans, stock and bay leaves and stir through, then transfer the mixture to the casserole dish.
- Cover and bake for 1 hour or until the lamb is tender.
- Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Stir in the lemon juice, parsley and mint just before serving, serve with steamed vegetables and rice or mashed potato.
- This quantity gives three portions; feeds two for dinner plus a serve to enjoy another time; freezes well.