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At the Heart of Soul

Mon, 02/13/2023

At the Heart of Soul


They are everywhere, but at the same time they are often so overlooked –a barely touched side item on a cafeteria or fast-food lunch plate- that it seems that they are virtually nowhere on the food scene radar.

They get a bad rap (who has ever been to summer camp and not come home singing that ditty, Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart….?) a situation made worse by the fact that commercially they are most frequently offered as a generically awful version of a classic (and very tasty) New England dish.

And yet they are among mankind’s most nutritious, longest lasting, and earliest cultivated foods.

Properly speaking, beans and their cousins, peas and lentils, are all legumes, foods that come from plants that produce their seeds in pods.  Sometimes, as with snow peas, sugar peas, and green beans, we eat the pod.  Most of the time we don’t.

But their range, both in type and in places where they are grown and used, is enormous.  There are over 16,000 species of these plants and evidence of their cultivation and use has been found in archeological sites in the Middle East from as far back as 9000 years ago.  They were being farmed in Central America by 5000 BC and in China 4000 years ago.

They range in size from delicate pink lentils and tiny mung beans to the larger fava, butter, Gigandes, and the huge Royal Corona beans.

Some of their names are familiar –pinto beans, red kidney, and black-eyed peas.  Some, particularly the peanut, many people don’t even think of as beans.

Many people think of them as bland, but that says more about the shortcomings of those preparing them than it does about these tiny morsels of filling and satisfying nutrition.  A number of people think of them merely as peasant food because of their long role as central to the winter diets of poorer folk around the globe.  But that is what most people do not realize, the secret hidden behind their humble façade: because they are almost always initially cooked in a liquid, these seemingly lackluster seeds can absorb a wide range of both complex and subtle flavors.  Moreover, they can be served cooked and whole, puréed, cooked down into a soup, added as an enrichment to all sorts of stews, or mixed in various proportions with pastas and grains.

Navy beans, slow cooked with yellow onions, molasses, and spices such as cinnamon are familiar to almost anyone how has ever been invited for some down-home BBQ.  Red kidney beans and rice have been a staple in many homes for generations.  And black-eyed peas and sausage?  Who can resist.

Regional flavorings can give these basic dishes an extra flare, turning them into Cajun wonders or an array of international surprises.

As just one measure of their versatility, think of this: almost all of us have had pinto beans flavored by being cooked with a smoked ham hock or neck bones.  But if you cook this mixture down until the meat falls off the bone and the beans begin to dissolve, you essentially have a wonderful soup that just needs more water added to bring it to the right consistency. 

Green ‘n’ beans, a dish that across multiple variations is made from Siena in Tuscany to South Carolina, is an incredible marriage of only the simplest of foods.  Yet it is exquisite.

Lima beans –frequently the bane of kids everywhere because they are too often just boiled and put on the table- can be livened up by adding sugar to the water while they’re cooking and/or topping them with butter and lemon juice before serving.

Now, the question of what wines to serve if beans are on the menu depends upon how the beans are prepared.  If you’ve gone with something hearty as the flavoring, a smoked meat for example, you may want to consider a bright white varietal with some fruit in the back.

Beans baked with molasses and accompanying spices, by contrast, can stand up to a robust red with some body.

Ultimately, as always, it depends upon your palate and your preferences.

But either way, it is high time we rediscovered these little treasures that our grandmothers cooked and their grandmothers before them.  There’s a reason why beans turn up in cuisines around the globe and we’ve been eating them for thousands of years.

So open that bottle and pass them beans….