Legumes. Pulses. Beans. Whatever you call them, they’re a magical fruit. Like… it’s hard to even know where to start with how great they are. They may be the world’s most perfect food. Want to be healthy? Eat beans. Want to save money? Eat beans. Sick of healthy food going bad before you can prepare it? Eat beans. Want, well, to be more “regular”? Eat beans. Want a food group you will never get bored with? Eat beans.
But maybe we should start with: Want to live to be 100 years old? EAT BEANS.
Really. Researchers set out to discover regions of the world that had the highest concentrations of people over 100. The five places they identified were Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Ogliastra Region, Sardinia; Loma Linda, California; and Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica. This is quite a disparate group of places, and their diets also had plenty of differences. Some drink wine copiously. Some shun all alcohol. Some emphasized fish, and some consumed lots of goat cheese. But guess what all the regions had in common? That’s right.
Granted, different regions liked different kinds of beans. In the Middle East, they favored chickpeas. (Obvs.) In Costa Rica black or red beans in gallo pinto are popular. In Japan, it was soy beans made into tofu.
What makes beans so healthy? Let’s start with the fact that they can count as both a protein AND a vegetable. You know, the two healthiest things you can eat. So, they’ve got you covered for belly-filling fiber, muscle-building protein, and superstar minerals like iron, zinc, potassium, and folate. Increasing your intake of beans can lower your risk of heart disease, help prevent some cancers, and go a long way to controlling your blood sugar if you are diabetic.
Beans and legumes even get their own heading on the World’s Healthiest Foods website. In a list of 100, they include 15 of them, with heavyweights such as lentils, pinto beans, green beans, dried peas, soy beans, and garbanzos/ chickpeas.
Legumes are one of the first things I think of when I hear people say healthy food is too expensive for poor people to afford. They may not have the same great PR buzz as almonds and blueberries get, but they are just as good for you, and they are one of the cheapest offerings in the grocery store, often around just a dollar a pound.
The other great thing about beans is how well they store. You have to be careful with comparable foods like fresh meat or vegetables, because they can go bad fast if you forget they’re in the fridge.
But canned black beans, frozen edamame (soybeans), or dried lentils? They will keep FOREVER. These are the friendly foods you find at the back of your cupboard just when you thought you were out of food, but couldn’t get to the store. Honey, it’s black-eyed peas for dinner!
Speaking of dinner, want some recipes? Here are some terrific ways to serve up your new favorite food, in rough order of how lazy or ambitious you are feeling.
Peas: Buy frozen shelled green peas. (Petite ones are sweeter.) Boil or microwave them, then add olive oil and salt. Done.
Lima beans: Buy frozen lima beans. Boil them until they’re really soft. Add salt and lots of butter. Done.
See the pattern? You can take it from here with the lazy recipes. In the “medium effort” category:
Make homemade hummus. Blenderize canned chickpeas, olive oil, water, lemon juice, garlic, salt, and tahini if you’re feeling extravagant. Sample recipe here, but I always add my ingredients by taste. Personally, I like to use lots of lemon juice.
Tofu stir-fry: Saute onion and garlic, add carrots and broccoli, then extra-firm tofu cut into bite sizes, and whatever other veggies you have on hand. Toward the end, shake on soy sauce.
Beans and rice: There is a simple recipe here. You can get more creative with ingredients and spices if you’re more ambitious. And if you want to copy the centenarians, the gallo pinto recipe is further down.
Black bean chili: This is my own recipe, and my own photo. I love this stuff in chilly (get it?) weather: Saute an onion in canola oil until translucent. Add in diced garlic and a green pepper, saute a couple more minutes, and shake in spices of cumin, paprika, and lots of chili powder. Pour in one can of diced tomatoes, water, and 3 bouillon cubes. Drain 3 cans of black beans. Put one of the cans into the blender with water and blend until smooth. Stir the beans into the pot, adding water, dried oregano, and more of the spices to taste. Sprinkle in frozen corn and let all the flavors blend well. Serve with crackers and shredded sharp cheddar.
Garlic chickpea spinach soup: Saute an onion til translucent. Add 4 cloves garlic. Add cumin and coriander to coat the mixture. Add water, veg bullion cubes, and a cubed potato, bring to a boil, turn down, let potato cook through. Add a can of drained chickpeas, then a block of frozen spinach, let everything get warm. In a small bowl, mix up 1T cornstarch, 2T tahini, and 2/3 cup yogurt. Add this to the soup. Add salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Here is the full recipe, which I have shared before.
Dal: This is an Indian lentil dish served with rice. The standard recipe calls for red lentils and I have shared it before. But my favorite version is made with chana dal, which is a yellow lentil. I got it from a co-worker when I worked at a call center, but I have modified the recipe somewhat. Here it is: Put an pot on the stove on medium-low and put in 2T of ghee/ butter with 1/2T each of mustard seeds and fenugreek. Saute until the seeds pop. Add a chopped onion and saute on low until almost golden. Stir in 1T each diced fresh ginger and garlic (add more butter if needed), 2 min. Add 1 diced dried chili, a couple whole cloves, 1 cinnamon stick, and 1/8 cup cashews, 1 minute. Stir in 3/4 cup chana dal–1 min. Pour in 2-3 cups of water and bring to a boil, then turn down, cover. Cook until dal is completely soft, adding more water according to preference. Toward the end, stir in 1/4 cup shredded coconut. Fresh cilantro is a good garnish.
Feeling ambitious? Here are the more involved recipes. Still cheap, still delicious, but needing more time or skill to make. But worth it!
Sardinia Minestrone: This one is from the Blue Zones website, which is the organization that brought us the research on the centenarians. It calls for three different kinds of legumes, so you know it’s good.
You can make homemade veggie burgers using beans or lentils. Here is a black bean burger recipe from Epicurious. The famous vegetarian cookbook, Moosewood, also has a great recipe for lentil-walnut burgers.
Last but not least, I have to include falafel. You can find the recipe here. They recommend serving falafel with tahini as the sauce, but I much prefer a tzatziki sauce, which is just plain yogurt with cucumber, lemon juice, garlic, and dill added. Perfect for hot weather.