Dried beans are one of the best bang-for-the-buck ingredients around.
Why? They come cheap. A one-pound bag can cost about 40 cents and a single serving costs about six cents. At the same time, one serving combined with rice or grain provides a perfect amount of protein and all the amino acids required to sustain life
But before you toss them in the budget bucket, let’s take a moment to appreciate the humble bean in its global glory.
Beans are among the earliest cultivated foods. Without them, mankind would still be hunting for dinner, unable to create and experience the finer things like opera, space travel and Facebook.
A welcomed guest at the tables of vegans and carnivores alike, beans are credited with keeping Europe alive through the Middle Ages and enabling world exploration.
Although beans don’t like to brag, they’ve enjoyed a bit of celebrity. They're mentioned in the Bible, the Iliad and by Shakespeare. Here’s a look at some of the most well-loved bean dishes from around the world:
1. Italy is famous for peasant food, and also for epicures who appreciate the pleasures of the table no matter how humble. Italians from Tuscany have been disparagingly referred to as mangiafagioles, or “bean eaters,” by other Italians for centuries, alluding to the economic necessity of their preferred protein.
But the mangiafagioles have embraced the moniker, raising bean preparation to an art. In fact, the popular local snack of white beans and sage drizzled with olive oil atop crostini is so delicious that Mario Batali offers it as an amuse bouche at Babbo, his popular Manhattan restaurant.
2. Portugal and France have also embraced the bean. The Portuguese have been combining white beans and kale with their famous linguica sausage for centuries to make a popular soup. This soup is as easy to make as it sounds. Simply brown some sausage in olive oil, add garlic, cannellinis and kale, and bring it all to a simmer with some chicken stock.
The French transformed the modest morsel from Norma Rae to Marilyn, partnering it with goose fat, duck confit and lamb sausage to create cassoulet. This intense and delicious stick-to-your ribs dish is enjoyed in French bistros all winter long.
3. The Chinese embraced beans before Europeans realized the world was round. They didn’t just dry beans. They created entirely new food products from soy beans, including soy sauce, tofu and pungent fermented black bean. Red or adzuki beans are popular in China, Japan and Korea for use in sweet desserts, including cookies, steamed buns and ice cream.
4. From Israel to Morocco, you’ll find chickpeas. In Israel, you can enjoy them in hummus, a spread made with garlic, lemon and olive oil, or in falafel, a spicy, heavily herbed, deep-fried ball. Falafel is typically tucked into pita and doused with hot sauce, tangy white sauce and topped with salad. In Morocco, chickpeas are always a part of couscous, where together the bean (chickpea) and the grain (couscous) combine to make a complete protein.
5. The United States and Mexico offer their own take on bean dishes, whether it’s Puerto Rico’s red beans and rice, New Orleans-style black-eyed peas, or Mexican refried beans.
Though the use of the bean in chili is hotly disputed (certain Mexicans and Texans believe that true chili is just meat and heat), most Americans wouldn’t recognize a bowl of chili without pinto, kidney or white beans. And where would our growing U.S. vegetarian population be without the comfort of black bean burgers and burritos?
But when it comes to an all-American favorite, no bean dish competes with the hands-down winner: Boston baked beans. Whether at a summer campfire or on a cold winter nights, there’s an honest perfection inherent in this slow cooked bean and molasses dish.
So although beans are great value, they’re more than just a budget option. I like to think of them as that intelligent, well-traveled, confident person in the room who doesn’t say much, but when they do, it’s captivating.