Cooking in the Tropics: Beans!
Beans have been an important source of protein throughout human history. Beans have been cultivated in Thailand since the early seventh millennium BCE (predating ceramics), and the oldest known domesticated beans in the Americas were found in Guitarrero Cave, an archaeological site in Peru, and dated to around the second millennium BCE.
Currently, the world genebanks hold about 40,000 bean varieties, although only a fraction are mass-produced for regular consumption. Most of the beans commonly eaten fresh or dried come originally from the Americas. Five kinds of Phaseolus beans were domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples: common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) grown from Chile to the northern part of what is now the United States, and lima and sieva beans (Phaseolus lunatus), as well as the less widely distributed teparies (Phaseolus acutifolius), scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) and polyanthus beans (Phaseolus polyanthus).
Here in the land of beans for every meal, I have come to appreciate and even to crave black beans. Because I like beans, I have paid attention to various recipes for cutting down on the indigestible sugars that render beans so…indigestible. Now, thanks to an article in a recent issue of the Los Angeles Times: “Don’t soak your dried beans! Now even the cool kids agree” (Russ Parsons, September 11, 2014), I now know that there is nothing I can do as a cook to ameliorate this condition.
Common wisdom in my world was that you had to soak beans overnight in order to cut the cooking time and to aid in digestion. The night before we have beans on the menu, the last thing I would do before I went to bed was put the dried beans in a pot of water to soak overnight. Forgetting to soak the beans was a mini-disaster in my world. And now Russ Parsons is telling me that all that fretting was for naught. Really? I had to try it out. So I quickly amassed an assortment of beans to test out this revolutionary new cooking technique.
The most important thing to remember about cooking dried beans is that no amount of soaking will make old beans soft. (Dried beans continue to lose moisture as they sit, and very dry beans may need days of cooking before they are soft enough to eat.) So, the fresher the bean, the faster it cooks.
I started my bean experiment with garbanzo beans. I put one pound of beans and the peeled cloves from one head of garlic into a pot with enough water to cover the beans by 2”. I brought the beans to a boil over medium-high heat, and then covered the pot and simmered the beans. I checked the beans every 15 minutes and continued to add water every time the level had diminished beneath the top layer of beans. In total, I added an additional 6 cups of water before the beans were soft enough to spice and eat. The total cooking time was one hour.
I have made several batches of black beans without presoaking them, and each time they came out perfectly. In fact, the organic beans I bought from the farmer’s market in Aranjuez were completely cooked in 30 minutes! Freshness is indeed the key to fast cooking time and great flavor.
My experiment with red lentils did not follow the trend. This time I found that soaking the beans not only lessened the cooking time, but it also improved the beans texture. The first time I made red lentils, I followed Aarti Sequeira’s recipe on the Food Network website and soaked the beans in a bowl of water for ½ hour. I then combined the lentils, 2 cups of water, 1 diced onion, 4 cloves garlic, 1 teaspoon of minced ginger, 2 diced tomatoes and 1 diced jalapeno in a medium saucepan and brought the water to a boil, then simmered the beans covered for 30 minutes until they were soft and almost falling apart. I added tempered oil (vegetable oil spiced with cumin, mustard seeds, turmeric, and paprika) and fresh cilantro and the beans were perfect.
The next time I cooked red lentils, I followed the same recipe except this time, I eliminated the 30-minute soak. Although I cooked the beans for an extra ½ hour, the texture wasn’t right. I used beans from the same batch, so age was not a factor here. Based on this rather limited research, I will still rinse and soak my red lentils before cooking.
Although most recipes I’ve read for cooking dried beans call for overnight soaking, Diana Kennedy (an authority on Mexican cooking) thinks soaking leaches flavor from the beans: “If you want the best-flavored beans, don’t soak them overnight, but start cooking in hot water,” she says in “The Cuisines of Mexico” (Harper & Row: 1972). I polled my friends here in Tamarindo. Some people soak the beans, but most local families just put the beans in water and cook them until they are done.
According to Russ Parsons, “few commercial canners soak dried beans before cooking. In fact, in a way, they don’t cook the beans at all. The heat and pressure of the canning process (called the retort) are enough to cook — perhaps even overcook — the beans right in the can.”
By the way, Russ Parsons thinks that the best way to cook beans is in the oven. I have tried that method for cooking beans (and rice) for a crowd. Bring the beans to a boil on the stove top, cover the pot (or put foil over a large roasting pan) and place it in the middle of a preheated 350-degree oven. Be sure to check the beans every 20 minutes to be sure there is enough water, and to test the beans for doneness. Remember that not all beans are created equal so test at least five beans before calling them ready.
Beans have significant amounts of fiber and soluble fiber, with one cup of cooked beans providing between nine and 13 grams of fiber. Soluble fiber can help lower blood cholesterol. Beans are also high in protein, complex carbohydrates, folate, and iron. Many public health organizations–including the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and the American Cancer Society–recommend legumes as a key food group for preventing disease and optimizing health. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans developed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (USDHHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends 3 cups of legumes per week (based on a daily intake of approximately 2,000 calories).
The Musical Fruit
The schoolyard rhyme from childhood celebrated a “musical” aftereffect to the consumption of beans. There are two different factors that make beans such a “musical” fruit. First, beans are high in fiber and can cause flatulence in those who are not used to digesting fiber. And although doctors tell us we should make sure to eat our fiber, it seems that most citizens of the USA don’t; hence our inability (dare one say, as a nation) to properly digest fiber is the cause of our flatulence when we eat beans. Second, beans contain complex sugars called alpha-galactosides. The human body does not produce enzymes to digest these sugars, and they pass through the stomach undigested until they reach the large intestine. There they ferment, producing gases — hydrogen, carbon dioxide and — in some people — methane. The degree to which different beans affect different people varies, but the truth is inescapable. And there seems to be little a cook can do about it.
Although eminent scientists, including one of the fathers of our country, Benjamin Franklin, have long studied solutions for the problem, (see Franklin’s essay, “letter to the Royal Academy” from the 1780’s), in fact it turns out that the surest cure for flatulence caused by beans is eating more beans.
“Apparently, if you eat beans regularly, the microflora [which ferment the sugars causing gas] adjust somewhat,” says Gregory Gray, who has been studying beans for 10 years at the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Western Regional Research lab in Albany, California. “If you eat bean-and-cheese burritos every day unless you have some kind of specific problem, you probably won’t notice it at all. In cultures that routinely eat beans, you don’t hear a lot of complaining about flatulence.”
Christina Spilsbury and Rick Macsherry have lived in Tamarindo since 1989. They own and operate Sunset Catering.