Beans are such a "powerhouse food" that a recent USA Today article has dubbed 2012 "the year of the bean."
Patti Geil, a Lexington registered dietitian and the author of Magic Beans, is a bean advocate.
"The nutrient profile of beans is so strong and versatile that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 considers them to be both a vegetable and a protein food," Geil said.
In addition to being an excellent source of low-fat protein, iron and zinc, beans are packed with fiber, potassium and folate. And, "Beans absorb the flavors in which they are cooked, enhancing the taste of any dish they're used in and making them almost interchangeable for one another in recipes, she said.
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Kim O'Donnel, USA Today columnist and author of The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook, challenges Americans to eat three half-cup servings of beans, peas or lentils (legumes) a week.
"Beans are cholesterol-free and nutrient-dense, including antioxidants from their pigmented skins. They're loaded with fiber, which helps us feel full for longer and stabilizes our blood sugar, a surefire way to help keep diabetes at bay," she said. "They're a lean source of protein, at pennies per serving, and they are deliciously versatile."
O'Donnel suggests we leave our comfort zone of canned beans and try dried beans. Cooking dried beans takes more time than opening a can, but you'll find that dried beans are more flavorful and less mushy than their canned counterparts, she said.
Here are some bean-cooking tips from Whole Foods Market.
■ Arrange dried beans on a sheet pan or clean kitchen towel and sort through them to pick out shriveled or broken beans, stones or debris.
■ Rinse the sorted beans well in cold running water.
■ Soaking beans before cooking helps to remove some of those indigestible sugars that cause flatulence. There are two simple ways to get the job done:
Regular soak: Put beans into a large bowl and cover with 2 to 3 inches of cool, clean water. Set aside at room temperature for 8 hours or overnight; drain well. (If it's really warm in your kitchen, soak the beans in the refrigerator instead to avoid fermentation.)
Quick soak: Put beans into a large pot and cover with 2 to 3 inches of cool, clean water. Bring to a boil, then boil briskly for 2 to 3 minutes. Cover and set aside off the heat for 1 hour; drain well.
Here are some varieties of dried beans and peas and how to use them.
Adzuki: These little dark-red beans are sweet and easy to digest. Splash them with tamari and barley malt, or mix them with brown rice, scallions, mushrooms and celery for dynamite, protein-rich rice patties.
Anasazi: This burgundy-and-white heirloom variety is popular in Southwestern recipes, especially soups. They make an excellent substitute for pinto beans.
Black turtle: Combine with cumin, garlic and orange juice, or toss with olive oil, cilantro and chopped veggies for salads.
Black-eyed peas: These creamy white, oval beans are ubiquitous in southeastern states, where they're a traditional New Year's dish. Toss them with yogurt vinaigrette, tomatoes and fresh parsley.
Cannellini: These smooth- textured beans are packed with nutty flavor. Add them to tomato-based soups like minestrone, or toss with olive oil and black pepper for a satisfying side dish.
Garbanzo (chickpeas): This prominent ingredient in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and East Indian dishes (hummus and falafel) has a mild but hearty flavor. Garbanzos are a good foil for strong spices like curry powder, cumin and cayenne pepper, so add them to salads, soups and pasta dishes.
Flageolet: This creamy heirloom bean is used in French country cuisine as a side dish for lamb and poultry. Its delicate flavor is enhanced by aromatic onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. They're delicious in tomato sauces, too.
Great Northern: They're the largest commonly available white bean, but they're all soft and mild on the inside. Great Northerns make for delicious baked beans, or add them to soups and stews with longer cooking times.
Green lentils (French lentils): These lentils hold their shape well and have deep, rich flavor. They're an excellent addition to salads, spicy Indian dal or simple lentils and rice.
Green split peas: Split peas shine in soups where they're cooked until creamy to bring out their full, sweet flavor. Serve them with a dollop of minted yogurt for an Indian touch.
Kidney beans: These large, red beans are popular in chili, salads, soups and baked beans. Make sure to cook them until completely tender and cooked through to eliminate the gastric distress-causing toxin phytohaemagglutinin that's present in raw and undercooked kidney beans.
Lima beans: Add them to minestrone and other soups, or combine them with corn and green beans for succotash.
Lupini: At Italian fairs and Spanish beer halls, these beans are a popular snack. Technically a member of the pea family, these flat, coin-shaped, dull-yellow seeds are second only to soybeans in plant protein content. Allow for a long soaking period and extended cooking time to reduce their potential for bitterness.
Mung: You probably know mung beans for their sprouts, but the beans themselves are revered as a healing food. Mung beans range in color from greenish-brown to yellow to black and have delicate, sweet flavor. They need no presoaking, cook quickly and are easy to digest.
Pinto: A favorite in Southwest and Mexican dishes, pinto means "painted" in Spanish. These earthy beans have a delicious, creamy texture, ideal for refrying. Combine with onions, chili powder, garlic and tomatoes as a filling for enchiladas or sauté cooked beans with olive oil, garlic and tamari.
Red: These small, dark red beans are subtly sweet and hold their shape when cooked. They make a great choice for soups and chili and as a companion to rice.
Red lentils: This variety of lentil isn't really red. In fact, their soft pink color turns golden when cooked. Note that red lentils cook quickly and don't hold their shape, so they're best in soups or purées or cooked until creamy with Italian seasonings.
Split peas: While green peas are picked while immature and eaten fresh, dried peas are harvested when mature, stripped of their husks, split and dried. Split peas don't require presoaking, and their mild flavor and creamy texture make good companions to garlic, onions, dill, curry and ginger.