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The Delights of Bean Cuisine

Versatile legumes are regaining the respect of top cooks

BROOKE DOJNY has just spilled the beans: Slowly and surely, legumes are gaining star status in the culinary world.

Fava beans at four-star restaurants. Black beans in salads and soup du jour. Chickpeas in spreads, such as hummus. Kidney beans with spicy rice. Pinto beans in burritos.

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Beans are ripe for exploration, declares Ms. Dojny, who has just come out with the cookbook "Full of Beans: 75 Exciting Tasty Recipes."

The food that has sustained humans for millennia is coming back around, she says, noting that beyond beans' nutritional value they are inexpensive, have a long shelf life ("They've sustained armies"), and can make delicious dishes.

So why did Americans forget about "nature's near-perfect food," as beans are sometimes described?

"For a couple of generations, we lost the knowledge of what to do with beans. Eating meat became a status symbol, and people started to look down on beans as peasant or 'lowly' food," says Dojny, a columnist for Bon Appetit magazine. They seemed relegated to the shopping lists of vegetarians and avid soup-makers.

Now that is changing. Beans are no longer the Rodney Dangerfield of the food world. They are getting respect.

A large part of the resurgence in beans can be traced to the openness in this country to ethnic food, Dojny says.

She mentions Indian, South American, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisines all having a strong bean presence. Plus beans - being somewhat neutral in flavor - lend themselves to spices, which Americans are also embracing more.

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The average American eats 15 pounds of beans a year. (If you want to add beans to your meal repertoire but are worried about their reputation as the "musical fruit," go gradually, Dojny says.)

Dojny encourages people to try out some of the lesser-known beans. As for preparing beans, many people ask: What's better, soaking dry beans or using canned? To which Dojny replies, it all depends on the recipe and whether or not you're in a hurry. In her opinion, there's not much difference in quality.

But, she adds, one of her pet peeves in restaurants is the tendency of some chefs to serve beans al dente. "Beans should be cooked to tender," she says.

Dojny's current favorite is black beans. "The Latin American influence has moved northward. If you season them well, they are so good ... and they look so pretty."

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