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Bean in Love

There's a lot to like in these legumes

By David Szanto

Much maligned throughout history the humble bean has been mocked in song for their gas-generating tendencies, reviled by lima-phobic young eaters, and degraded in cartoons as the food of hobos. Even fairy tales belittle beans: Remember Jack’s mother looking about as thrilled as a Charbonneau witness upon learning of her son’s cow-for-three-beans dealings? Despite the bad rap, beans should be loved, indeed adored. For not only are they deliciously diverse, they counter the widespread myth that you need to spend a lot of money to eat well.

Beans are members of the legume family, which includes peas and lentils. These plants have been cultivated on this continent for as long as 7,000 years according to certain evidence: The haricot bean derives its name from the Aztec word, ayacotl. Today, they are eaten around the world as whole foods or as transformations into other products. The soybean, for instance, gives us tofu, miso, soy sauce, milk, mock meats, and cooking oil. They’re even eaten fresh as that pre-sushi staple, edamame.

Beans are also recognized as a healthconscious source of low-fat nutrients. A symbiotic relationship between the plants and microorganisms in their roots allows nitrogen in the air and soil to be manufactured into protein. Few other plant-based foods are as nutritionally complex. And consider this if you want to be a good global citizen: You can produce enough meat on one acre of land to feed one person for two and a half months; beans grown on that same acre would nourish a person for seven years. This is also good news for your wallet: A bag of dried beans—enough for a week’s worth of hearty dining—can be purchased for just a couple of dollars.

So what about beans’ secondary presence—those gaseous echoes a day later? Beans contain two sugars, raffinose and stachyose, which are neither broken down nor absorbed by the digestive system. In the intestine, they ferment, producing larger-than-usual amounts of gas. Boiling and soaking dried beans, then jettisoning the water before cooking, can offset this problem. The unfortunately named dietary supplement, Beano, can also be taken before eating, and helps break down beans’ complex sugars in the gut.

So how’s the best way to get to know these fine, flavourful foods? Southern, Latin American, and Cajun cooking offer many different versions of rice and beans, complemented with savoury salsas and spices. Québecois baked beans are a breakfast-table staple—satisfying and cozy, they provide lessfatty fuel than sausages for a day of springtime skiing. The unctuous pasta e fagioli (pasta with white beans), topped with a little olive oil and shaved parmigiano reggiano is a homey favourite any time of year, and Middle Eastern cuisine avails itself of the hard-working garbanzo bean, or chick pea, in hummus and falafel.

The next time you’re grocery shopping and find yourself in the meat section, take a moment and consider trading that package of beef for some magical beans. You might just fall in love with a mysterious stranger.

David Szanto is a PhD student in gastronomy at Concordia University and a professor of food culture and communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy.

Spring 2014, Vol 6 N°2

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