Are you mystified by mung beans? Confused by kamut? Loopy for lentils? Don’t be! We have the tips to get you cooking with these nutrient-dense, economical, and darn tasty ingredients in no time.
It Takes An Ashram
In the last Vegucated newsletter, I talked about Planning for Your Newly Plant-Based Life, and boy howdy, did we receive some marvelous follow-up questions about those magical beans and grains we mentioned as being an economical and tasty staple in any diet. Your questions coincided with my recent trip to an ashram, where I worked with (and consumed) food in its most unfettered form. There, we enjoyed buckwheat with dates for breakfast, dal with lentils and mung beans for lunch, and kasha stir fry for dinner. In addition to helping the kitchen staff veganize some traditional Ayurvedic recipes, I picked up some fantastic tricks for preserving the most nutrition and bringing out the finest taste in our beany and grainy friends. Pull up a bean bag and take a knee.
Names & History: Beans, peas, and lentils (also known as “legumes” or “pulses”) are seriously ancient superfoods. Evidence shows that peeps were cultivating these bad boys as far back as 7,000 years ago. What? Yes. While only a fraction are mass-produced for consumption, there are around 40,000 varieties of beans alone. And with sassy-names like “Eyes of Goat” and “Tongues of Fire,” get ready to never be bored again.
Why They Rock: Nutritionally, beans boast a unique combination of protein, soluble dietary fiber, and complex carbohydrates. A cup of cooked beans can provide as much as 9 – 13 grams of fiber. Economically, they’re cheap as can be. Time-wise, with a few prep steps, you can have a jammin’ meal in no time. Environmentally, they’re extremely easy to cultivate and sprout, and demand very little water or space. Good for you, your wallet, your watch, and the world. Check.
Why They Get a Bad Rap: They can cause flatulence, thanks to oligosaccharides, a type of sugar molecule found in cabbage which can be difficult for folks to digest.
Cooking with Beans
Like you, I want to serve food that makes people say, “Yum!” and not “TOOT.” Fortunately, there are some techniques that make cooking beans simpler and less gassy. For peas and legumes, you will still need to sort and clean, but you don’t need to necessarily soak, as they contain little to no gas-inducing saccharides. If you’re more of a canned beans person, you need only to drain and rinse your beans before you start working them in to your recipes. And, if you’re working with dried beans, which are the most economical route, here are some tried-and-true steps for making the most of the little gems. Be sure to select organic options whenever possible.
- Sort: Yes, it’s a bit tedious. But, sifting the pebbles and silt that can naturally settle in a bag of beans will save you on future dental bills, and can actually be a meditative exercise in mindfulness. At the ashram, sorting beans was a very sought-after gig, because it gave people time to appreciate the composition of each and every little bean. And, if we can appreciate even the smallest bean or pea, what bigger things in our life will we come to appreciate?
- Rinse: Pop your sorted beans in a colander and give ’em a rinse of cold water to remove any remaining silt.
- Soak: Sure, you can cook beans after rinsing, but soaking can greatly reduce some of those indigestible sugars that can make beans so musical. Some recommend alkalizing beans by adding baking soda or apple cider vinegar to the soaking process. Consensus on these methods vary, so scan these resources before determining the right soak for your lifestyle (sounds so serious!). Chez Bettay, VeganCoach, and Savvy Vegetarian all have lovely guides for soaking and cooking our bean pals.
- Cook: The recipes for beans are endless, and in many cuisines, beans are combined with coriander, cumin, anise seeds, and other natural carminatives, which make those flatulence-causing sugars easier to digest. At a loss for what recipes to make? We love this savory White Bean and Garlic Stew, this Acorn Squash, Pear, and Aduki Bean Soup with Sauteed Shitakes, and this simple Three-Bean Salad. And don’t forget dessert! Beans are popping up in everything, even your favorite brownies. Beans allow you to get creative and are the sneak ingredient in many of your favorite veggie burgers, falafel, muffins, and dips that lend a creamy, nutty, substantial flavor and texture.
Names & History: An ancient buddy of legumes and pulses are grains. For agricultural purposes, grains are often broken into categories like: Cereal grains, pseudo cereal grains, and oilseeds. You’re probably familiar with wheat, rice, oats, and maize (corn), but what about some of their more exotic cousins like teff, millet, and amaranth? The first cereal grains were thought to be cultivated some 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Whoa.
Why They Rock: Grains pack a lot of nutrients in a little, calorie-dense, easy-to-replant package. For struggling civilizations, a handful of grain meant a future crop was possible. For us, grains boast fiber, and some, like quinoa and oilseeds, like hemp, provide significant amounts of protein.
Why They Get a Bad Rap: In our process-obsessed agricultural system, grains have been bleached, hulled, refined, and productized beyond recognition, whisking away much of their nutritional value. Moreover, gluten-intolerance and Celiac disease have made glutinous grains, like wheat, unpopular. When eaten alone, grains can be deficient in the essential amino acid lysine, which is why many cultures combine grains with beans and legumes to form a more complete protein profile.
Be A Grain-iac
Praise be! Grains require less sorting and rinsing business than their bean counterparts, and still offer lush variety and many uses.
- Cook: Grains are a little less complicated than beans, but cooking times vary. Chez Bettay and the Holy Kale have handy guides on cooking times for different grains.
- Mill: Grains can also be milled into flours and used in baking. The Kitchn has a lovely guide to milling your own flour which will make you feel like a modern pioneer person. The picture above is of a drool-worthy cake that Nava Atlas makes. You can use your own freshly milled flour to give it, and other baked goods, a toothsome texture.
- Soak: Some say that soaking grains ups the nutrient content and reduces phytic acid, which can inhibit the absorption of certain minerals. This is a less popular approach, but a burgeoning area of grain preparation, nonetheless.
- Pop: Move over, corn! Popping certain grains has become an increasingly pop-ular (see what I did there?) way to up the fiber content and crunch of your favorite snacks. Amaranth, quinoa, and millet are especially easy to pop. Intrigued? Here’s a how-to guide to popping your socks off. Now, make me proud and sneak some popped millet into the movie theatre.
- Make Some Tasty Stuff: Armed with this knowledge, don’t let us dissuade you from cookin’ up a big plate of grains, because that’s some good stuff. That said, allow me to posit some other favorite recipes that give grains an interesting twist: These gluten-free Buckwheat and Chickpea Nuggets combine grains and beans in tasty packages you’ll want to store in your pockets, Napoleon Dynamite style; This Whole Grain Carrot Cake with Lemon Glaze and these Four Flour Shortbreads are yummy excuses to mill your own flour; and, This Wheatberry Paella with Chickpeas and Leeks sounds complicated, but serves up an elegant and easy meal.
Oh yeah, and did you know you can increase the nutritional content of your beans, legumes, seeds, and grains by sprouting them? Sprouting can render beans and grains easier to digest, and up A, B, C, and E vitamins by 15 times the original content. It may sound like some hippie-psuedo-science, but sprouting at home is a cinch and a great way to maximize whole foods. We love these easy-peasy online guides to safe sprouting.