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Legumes Pack a Hearty Nutritional Punch

By Jennette Turner

From little red lentils to big white lima beans, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) for centuries have been considered staple foods by cultures all over the world. Extremely versatile, beans come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes and can be prepared in a multitude of ways. From soups and salads to casseroles and spreads, either simple or sophisticated, beans can nourish and satisfy you.

Legumes pack a hearty nutritional punch. They contain as many phytochemicals (substances in plant foods that help prevent degenerative diseases like cancer and heart disease) as vegetables and fruits. Legumes are rich in minerals, including iron, phosphorus and zinc; contain several of the B vitamins; and have both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. They’re also loaded with the soluble dietary fiber that helps prevent colon cancer and maintain regularity.

Legumes also contain vegetable protein, which though not complete, still offers ample nutrition. To be a “complete protein”, a food needs to contain all eight of the essential amino acids - our bodies aren’t able to make all of the proteins they need to function properly without them. All eight are found in animal products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, so when beans are prepared or served with even a small amount of animal protein, the body assimilates them much more readily, and the essential amino acids they lack are supplied.

Traditional cuisines around the world reflect this practice: South and Central American pork and bean dishes, beans and beef or cheese in Mexico, garbanzo and lamb stews in the Middle East, and good old American split pea soup with ham. This approach makes a lot of sense economically, too: it’s a great way to stretch your meat dollars and save money.

It is a common mistake to think that beans need to be eaten with grains. Grains can supply different essential amino acids than beans, and theoretically, eaten together the combination would constitute a complete protein. However, all plant sources are low in cystine, tryptophan, methionine, and threonine. For most people, combining beans and grains together in the same meal provides too much fiber and carbohydrates at one time, causing bloating and other digestive distress.

Unfortunately, beans do have a somewhat bad reputation. (Remember the “Musical Fruit” song?) Beans are hard to digest for many people, but careful preparation can prevent much discomfort. The gas that people experience from eating beans comes from complex sugars that aren’t easily broken down by the digestive system. Long soaking and cooking times help break these sugars down before they can cause problems for us. (For stubborn cases, try “Beano”, available in the HBC dept.)

Though many recipes, especially those for lentils or split peas, do not call for a soaking period, all legumes need to be soaked for 8-24 hours. They also need at least 1 hour to cook, and most need closer to 2 or 3 hours. The bigger the beans, the longer the cooking time. Little red lentils cook in an hour; kidney beans can take 4-6 hours. (Note: You do not have to be in the kitchen the whole time they’re cooking- just check on them periodically and use a low heat. Or use a crock pot, and let your beans cook all day while you’re at work!)

When you first bring the beans to boil there will be some foam on top. Skim it off as best you can. Then lower the heat and let your beans cook. Don’t add any salt (including tamari, shoyu or umeboshi vinegar) to beans until they are tender, or they will remain hard and indigestible. Add your salt at the end or at the table.

To further enhance the digestibility of legumes, start adding small portions at a time to your diet. This way you won’t be overloading your system. And always chew beans well, too. Our fast-paced lives don’t always give us enough time to sit down and enjoy our food, and our digestion suffers when we rush through meals. Complex carbohydrates such as legumes and whole grains need to be chewed well in order to be thoroughly digested.

Beans need something acidic so they don’t taste flat. Add a little lemon or lime juice, or your favorite vinegar at the end of cooking to give them a lift. Pungent flavors also improve the taste of beans - garlic, ginger, cayenne, chili pepper, curries, and cumin are all good additions to your cooking legumes. Scallions or raw onions make a wonderful garnish for cooked beans.

The Wedge (and your local library!) has a great selection of cookbooks and magazines which contain recipes for beans. I like Deborah Madison’s wonderful book, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which has a very thorough section on legumes. You can also ask an HBC staff member for a recommendation.

The next time you’re walking down the bulk aisle, take a moment to notice all the different kinds of beans, peas and lentils available. Try a new one!

Here are two easy recipes to get you started:

South of the Border Beans

1 c. pinto or black beans, soaked and drained
4 c. water
1 bay leaf
1 onion, chopped small
2-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. cumin
1tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. oregano
butter (OR olive oil)
2tsp. salt + 2 T. lime juice OR 2 T. umeboshi vinegar
OPTION: 1/2 lb. chicken breast, cut into small bite-size chunks
OPTION: red onion, scallions or cilantro for garnish

1. Bring the beans to boil. Skim off any foam. Add the bay leaf and spices.
2. Lower the heat and cook 1 hour or more, stirring occasionally.
3. Add the onion, garlic, butter (OR olive oil), and chicken, if you’re using it. Cook 1 more hour. Stir often and watch the water levels.
4. Add the salt and lime juice OR umeboshi vinegar. Adjust to taste.

These beans can be used in burritos, tacos or tostadas. Add salsa, cheese, lettuce, avocado, or any other toppings. They’re also good for breakfast with eggs, or as a side dish with dinner.

French Lentil Soup

1c. French lentils (small green lentils), soaked 8-24 hours and drained
5c. water
1 bay leaf
1 onion, chopped
2-4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3-4 carrots, chopped
1tsp. basil
1tsp. sage
2 T. olive oil
2 tsp. salt
1-2 T. balsamic vinegar
OPTION: 1-2 homemade sausages from the Wedge Meat Department, any kind, cut into pieces

5. Bring the beans to boil. Skim off any foam. Add the bay leaf and spices.
6. Lower the heat and cook 1 hour or more, stirring occasionally.
7. Add the onion, vegetables, garlic, olive oil, and sausage, if you’re using it. Cook 1 more hour. Stir often and watch the water levels.
8. Add the salt and balsamic vinegar. Adjust to taste.

Jennette turner is a Natural Foods Educator in Minneapolis. She Teaches public and private classes, and offers individual nutrition consultations. Jennette launced Dinner with Jennette (, to make it easier for people to incorporate natural foods into their diets. she can be reached at / 612-374-6039

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