Lighthearted Lesson in Legendary Legumes
Beans are the Rodney Dangerfield of the vegetable world – they get no respect. From campfire songs (c’mon, admit you know it – “Beans, beans are good for your heart…”) to campfire scenes (Blazing Saddles anyone?), legumes have been the butt of juvenile humor for years. So unfairly maligned, yet they are the unsung rock stars of nutritional and culinary history.
Legumes, or Fabaceae, have been a revered food in civilizations from Egyptian royalty to Ancient Greece, plus some 20,000 years of Eastern culture. Valued for their high nutritional value, they are also one of the earliest staples and cornerstones of human survival. It is edible as both a fruit pod (e.g. green beans) and a dry seed (e.g. soup beans), which can be stored for extensive periods – for food or plant in the future.
My journey into the world of Phaseolus vulgaris started several years ago when I wrote about a dear family friend who sent us some Chaco Canyon bean seeds. Although we were not familiar with them, we grew them and they were absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, I did not save the seeds from those plants, and, sadly, our friend had passed away.
In honor of our friend, I searched all over for Chaco Canyon seeds. This led me to the ancient Anasazis, who lived in the bean’s namesake region of the American Southwest, where they cultivated it. Then to the 1500 Year Old Cave Bean – discovered in an ancient cave in New Mexico where native civilizations once flourished. Centuries later, both types continue to produce plants from passed-down seeds. Likewise, a black bean variety – Cherokee Trail of Tears – was carried by natives on the notorious forced relocations of the 1830s. The beans were among the survival foods that kept them alive, and replanted in their new location. Generations later, that seed is also available and viable.
In addition to its noble lineage, the legendary legume is exceptionally loaded with nutrition – protein, fiber and minerals. With no saturated fats, and help in lowering cholesterol, it is truly a “super food.” As an economical staple, it is fundamental to any diet – especially the popular non-meat, plant-based regimen.
However, here is where the illustrious legume parts company (so to speak) with some folks: oligosaccharides. This substance can cause, er, discomfort since it is a fiber that is hard to digest. Unless it is broken down before it reaches the digestive tract, this results in, um, the vapors. While not at all harmful, that reaction can be uncomfortable. And even though it is a perfectly normal (and universal) reaction, accidental results are neither (gasp) acknowledged, nor discussed in social settings (unless in the company of teenage boys.) (Pro Life Tip: get a dog and keep them close.)
The point here is that many people just refuse to eat beans for that reason.
Yet, there are two very simple solutions to this problem. One is an enzyme-based supplement (brand name Beano) that neutralizes the gas in the digestive system. It is readily available over the counter and works quite well for most people.
The other solution for dry beans is to brine them for at least 24 to 48 hours before cooking. Soaking in plain water helps, but adding a small amount of salt effectively addresses the gassy issue. As proven by America’s Test Kitchen (this cook’s favorite Crazy Science food lab), adding just three tablespoons to four quarts of water produces a much more user-friendly dish. And the salt rinses out – it doesn’t contribute much to sodium levels. (Bonus Pro Life Tip: use an Instant Pot to pressure cook them – it takes a lot less time and you don’t have to monitor.)
One remarkable attribute of this exceptional Angiosperm is the diversity of colors, styles, and edibles they produce as seed beans. You are probably familiar with the more common navy, garbanzo, pinto, or kidney beans. But there are actually 18,000 species of plants in the legume family, presenting both an opportunity and a challenge for the home gardener – which ones to plant for the season.
In our garden, we like to mix up the styles – traditional snap beans – Blue Lake or Yellow Wax, with some of the ancient seed beans mentioned above. We also like to include different colors – Scarlet Runners, Pink Slippery Silks, Purple Blauhilde, multi-colored Dragon Tongues to name a few. All contribute to diversifying a verdant garden. The snap beans provide summer-long fresh vegetables for steaming or sautéing. The shell beans provide a fun after-summer activity of drying and shelling for use as soup beans or saving for next year. Here’s a sample of what we grew this year:
So, the next time you consider beans for a meal, don’t be afraid of the outcome, just focus on flavor and nutrition. If you take the precautions mentioned, you’ll enjoy your super food, and not worry about (insert your favorite euphemism for the F word). If you’d like to learn more about legendary legumes, or Aerostatics, call Bernie. He’s a self-proclaimed expert on both subjects!