How to Prepare High Protein Meals with Beans

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Make high protein meals by trading meat for protein-packed beans.

Like a lot of other children, my 17-month-old son, Bix, loves bedtime stories. Here's one you might remember: There once was a boy named Jack, whose mother could barely afford to feed the family, so she sent her son to town to sell their only cow. Instead, Jack trades in the cow for some "magic" beans. When Jack hands his mother the beans, she tosses them to the ground in disgust. Overnight, the beans sprout, and by the next morning, they have grown into a tall, thick plant that reaches the heavens. Jack climbs the beanstalk and in the end brings his mother back a small fortune, ensuring the family's future.

There's a lot to be learned from Jack's exchange of a cow for simple legumes. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, farmed livestock is responsible for 18 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 37 percent of the emissions of methane. In addition, 65 percent of the emissions of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, come from cow manure. All together, livestock produces more greenhouse gases than the transportation sector, including cars, trucks, SUVs, and airplanes.

"Reducing meat, egg, and dairy consumption and choosing plant-based organic foods is one of the best ways consumers can reduce their carbon footprint," says Danielle Nierenberg, a senior fellow at Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization, and an animal-agriculture and climate-change specialist at the Humane Society of the United States. Which makes forgoing meat in favor of protein-rich legumes a great way to help out Mother Earth.

Now's the time to try replacing the pork in a cassoulet with haricots blancs and substituting chickpeas for chicken when preparing a soup. Rediscover the culinary potential of these humble fruits of the earth in meals that might normally include meat, and, like Jack, give something back to your Mother.

See also3 Ways Going Vegan Reduces Your Carbon Footprint

The nutritional benefit of beans

Beans have long played a leading role in sustaining billions of people across the globe, providing a filling, delicious source of protein and fiber. They are one of the oldest-known farmed foods, because people have long understood the capacity of legumes to provide energy and nutrition. "But please don't think of beans as poor-man's meat," says Donna Winham, assistant professor of nutrition at Arizona State University Polytechnic. Legumes, she says, should be celebrated for what they are—an accessible source of nutrition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rates beans
as an inexpensive source of protein. A half cup of dry legumes provides 10 percent of the recommended dietary allowance.

And unlike fatty animal proteins, beans are heart healthy. Winham recently conducted a study on pinto beans and found that her subjects reduced their cholesterol levels by 8 percent—a significant drop—after just eight weeks of eating a half cup of beans per day. "Perhaps not as good as a drug that lowers cholesterol, but for a minor change in the diet, the effect is quite profound," she says.

Winham notes, too, that beans are an excellent source of folate, especially important for women of childbearing age, because the nutrient helps prevent neural damage in growing fetuses. Moreover, a half cup of cooked dried beans generally has only about 120 calories and supplies as much as 29 percent of the minimum daily requirement of the B vitamin thiamine as well as significant amounts of other B vitamins. Poor-man's meat indeed!

Choosing a type of bean

There are thousands of varieties of shell and snap beans in the world. Many appear in the bulk bins and produce sections of supermarkets and at farmers' markets. Beginning a wider exploration of beans, I half hoped to find a magic harp or a cranky giant coming my way, but I was just as pleased when my discovery amounted to learning just how versatile beans are.

Canned and jarred legumes didn't seem to be in keeping with the spirit of caring for the earth—cans, bottles, and paper labels are labor intensive to create and to recycle. And experimentation quickly convinced me that, in flavor and texture, dried and fresh beans are truly superior to their canned counterparts. It just takes a bit of planning to incorporate soaking times into a meal schedule. For the impatient, smaller legumes cook faster. Red lentils, for example, take about 20 minutes to cook without presoaking. And, of course, fresh beans—like seasonal fava, lima, and cranberry beans, and green, yellow, and purple snap beans—cook in boiling water in just a few minutes.

I started by making a simple white bean purée, a take on a classic Italian dish that is nothing short of sublime. I used the hot-soak method recommended by many chefs and nutritionists.

To one cup of dry cannellini beans (about half a pound), I added five cups of filtered tap water. Beans generally rehydrate to twice their dry size, so I put the beans in a 12-quart stockpot. I brought the pot, uncovered, to a boil, let it roll for two to three minutes, removed the pot from the heat, covered it, and let it sit for an hour. I used the time to read another story to my son, snip some rosemary from my garden, and retrieve a food mill from the back of the pantry.

After discarding the soaking water, I replenished the pot with eight cups of cold filtered tap water and set the beans to cook over a medium flame. They were cooked tender in just under an hour. After draining what little water remained, I put the cannellini through the food mill. I didn't want the purée to be too smooth—a bit of texture celebrates my having made the dish from scratch.

See alsoWarm Pinto Bean Salad with Shiitakes

Preparing beans

Once the beans had been milled, I gently stirred in a bit of vegetable stock, some sea salt, finely chopped rosemary, and a tablespoon of olive oil. Delicate and splendid, this creamy concoction was at once earthy and celestial. Served alongside toasted slices of crusty whole wheat bread and sautéed broccoli rabe with currants, it was a complete meal that both my husband and son proclaimed a success by virtue of their gobbling up every morsel. Since I wanted to celebrate the bounty of the Earth Day season, I created a salad for lunch the following day. I used fresh fava beans and young asparagus stalks, two sweet harbingers of spring. After plunging the beans, pod and all, in boiling water for about five minutes and letting them cool, I shelled them and slipped each bean out of its milky-white outer skin.

Another evening, my husband, son, and I sat on our front stoop with bowls of lentil stew warming our laps. Watching the sunset while we dined alfresco gave me a warm, happy feeling. And then I thought back to all the people before me who have dined like kings on simple, humble, yet magnificently nourishing beans. Our dinner paid tribute to these gems of the earth, and perhaps planted a seed in my son's mind that will grow into a lifetime of caring for the planet, long
after bedtime stories about a mother, her son, and some extraordinary beans.

How to cook legumes

Know when to soak and how long to cook any kind of bean.

"Bean" is the generic name for a variety of plants in the legume family (which also includes peas and lentils), says Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and the author of Beans: A History. Beans have three stages of development: young, fresh-shelled, and dried. Some require lots of
soaking and cooking; others come ready to serve, pod and all.

Young beans: The first stage of bean development is when both seed and pod are tender, making the whole pod edible raw for most varieties. Look for green string, yellow and purple wax, Chinese long, and Italian flat beans throughout the year, depending on where you live. Peak season is late summer and early fall.

Fresh-shelled beans: As a bean matures, the pod becomes tough and hard to digest, so the seeds are re-moved, or shelled, and cooked for a short time (from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on size). Look for lima, soy (edamame), dragon tongue, cranberry, fava, and goa beans. The season for these shelling beans is shorter than that for fresh beans, generally late spring to early summer. Fresh lima and cranberry beans can be found midsummer to early fall. Edamame are available frozen all year round.

Dried beans: The final stage is when the pods have dried on the vine or stalk, and the beans move freely within the no-longer-edible pod. At this point the beans or seeds are removed and usually soaked in cold filtered water for several hours or overnight (or, if you're in a hurry, hot-soaked for an hour) before being cooked in fresh water for about an hour or until tender. Look for a huge variety of dried beans, peas, and lentils in bulk or bags all year round. Choose familiar favorites like chickpeas; lentils; white, black, pinto, kidney, pink, and red beans; and black-eyed peas. Or try more unusual versions such as adzuki, anasazi, canary, corona, marrow, moth, scarlet runner, and steuben yellow beans.

Karen Kelly is the author of The Secret of "The Secret": Unlocking the Mysteries of the Runaway Bestseller.

See alsoThe Natural Gourmet: Make Great Beans From Scratch