[dropcap]I[/dropcap] never met a bean I didn’t like. I am a bean lover, a “mangiafagioli,” or bean-eater, the Italian nickname for people from Tuscany. Whether Boston-baked, refried, brothy, stewed, or my favorite–cooked and mixed with rice–the humble bean is a complete and perfect food. Protein-rich, nutritious, inexpensive, and stomach-satisfying, beans speak a universal message of home and where they grow.
In German Milwaukee where I was raised, beans meant thick, hearty white bean soup made with navy or great northern beans, onion, bay leaf, and ham. In Miami we love to eat delicious Cuban black beans with rice or spicy black bean soup. In Dallas, pinto beans, refried or brothy, accompany just about every Mexican or Tex-Mex dish. Another version of the abundant pinto is gallo pinto, a Guatemalan dish with lots of sautéed onions, rice, and salsa or pico de gallo. Priscilla, my Tulsa friend from the Dominican Republic, has served me her delicious moro di habichuelas, black beans and rice made with green pepper, capers, celery, garlic, herbs, and tomato paste.
In Barcelona we ate fabada asturiana, a rich bean stew made with fabadas, large dried white beans. We liked the dish so much we purchased a bag of beans and brought them home only to have them hatch bugs several months later! Fava beans are common broad beans eaten everywhere in Italy. But our favorite Italian bean is the cannellini, or white kidney bean. In Tuscany we found them already cooked and refrigerated in the fresh food section of the local grocer and made not just Tuscan bean stew, but a garlicky appetizer of beans, olive oil, sage, and fresh tomatoes spread and heated on day-old Tuscan bread.
I could go on and on. There’s Mediterranean hummus made with chickpeas, lentil soup that my French cooking teacher thought worthy of a first course in her famous restaurant, and black-eyed peas, which, as every Southerner knows, are to be eaten on New Year’s Day and any other day of the year. Unless you live in New Orleans, where it’s customary to make red beans and rice on Monday, washing day. My husband’s version serves it with Polish sausage. Vegetarians have long sworn by the joy of beans, including substituting them for beef in veggie burgers. A black-eyed pea patty with red pepper dressing and grilled garlic shrimp goes a long way toward turning the humble bean into a feast.
The healthy benefit of beans
There are many health benefits to beans, which are full of fiber that can inhibit cancer and control blood sugar levels. Beans and lentils were among the foods sent to King David’s army to restore its strength. In Genesis God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant-yielding seed that is on the face of the earth, every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” Perhaps my favorite “seed in its fruit” is a seasonal bean grown here in Savannah: low-country butter beans. Butter beans are fresh, not dried, lima beans, and if you can’t get them from a farmer’s market, they are available frozen.
Butter Beans with Corn and Okra over Rice
6 slices smoked bacon, diced
1 pound fresh lima beans
2 T butter
1 small onion chopped
1 green pepper chopped
2 cloves garlic minced
1 pound okra sliced (or 1 c frozen)
3 ears silver queen corn off the cob (or 1 1/2 c. white corn frozen)
1 t salt
1 t pepper
½ t cayenne pepper, plus Tabasco sauce as desired
Cover beans with chicken or ham stock. Boil and simmer 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté bacon till brown. Add butter, onion, green pepper, garlic, corn, and okra and sauté 2-3 minutes. Add to beans and simmer 15-20 minutes or until beans are tender but not soft. Correct seasonings and serve over rice.
Quick cooking hint: When using dried beans, cover with water, boil one minute, and soak one hour. This way you don’t have to soak the beans overnight. To eliminate gas, drain the soaked beans, cover with clean water, and boil.
I almost never met a bean-lover unwilling to share his enthusiasm about beans. Visit a foreign country and ask the locals what foods they like to eat. I guarantee the question will break down cultural barriers, especially where beans are a diet staple.
So if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll send me a recipe for your favorite bean dish. I can’t wait to try it.
Joanne Cutting-Gray, Ph.D., is an author, scholar, and lifelong student of cooking. She lives with her husband in Savannah, Georgia.