Let's Picnic. I’ll Bring the Beans!

Let's Picnic. I’ll Bring the Beans!

They’re popular at backyard barbecues and picnics in the park. Whether they’re sweet or spicy, oven-baked or slow-simmered on the stove, beans are tasty fare that pack a healthy punch.

Beans are legumes – a super food group that also includes peas and lentils. Legumes are often low in fat and cholesterol, but high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. They also contain healthy fats, protein and fiber. Still, for most people they are not part of the daily menu.

Why are some of the most versatile and nutritious foods available not served more often at American dining tables?

Mark Bittman, one the country's best-known and most respected food writers thinks he knows why. And he knows what he’s talking about. As the author of the award-winning How to Cook Everything series, he's a mainstay of the modern kitchen.

The fast answer is that we live in a meat-centric culture. Isn’t the quintessential American dinner steak and potatoes? No one has taught many of us to eat legumes. Yet with a bit of practice, you can make a dinner centered on legumes every bit as satisfying as one organized around meat.”

Bittman spills the beans about legumes in this Q&A.

Q: For the legume newbies: what is your suggestion for an entry-level legume, and they way to prepared it?

Bittman: Steamed edamame is a great way to introduce legumes into your diet, but you’re not going to eat a full meal of edamame. My favorite legume is the chickpea. It’s versatile and filling, and easy to prepare from dried or canned beans. You can roast chickpeas with a little garlic and curry powder for a snack. Sauté them with vegetables, herbs and lemon juice for a filling meal. Or toss them on top of a leafy green salad. They’re also a wonderful addition to pasta dishes or stews, and a chickpea tagine is a great way to add flavor in an all-vegetarian meal.

Q: In our busy no-time-to-cook mode, are there tricks to preparing legumes or short cuts for soaking?

Bittman: Soaking is optional. Unsoaked beans just take longer to cook. Of course, if you’re looking for real speed, lentils and split peas cook in less than half an hour. And there’s nothing wrong with opening a can of precooked beans. Many freezer cases now have pre-cooked beans. Like canned beans, they just need reheating.

Planning ahead really helps. Put some beans in a bowl with water in the morning, and by the time you return at the end of the day, they’ll be ready cook. Another option is to cover the dried beans with water, bring them to a boil and then let them sit for an hour before cooking. This will also speed up cooking.

Q: Why are legumes considered a wonder food?

Bittman: Legumes are the most nutritious plant food. If we’re serious about addressing global warming or being healthier, eating less meat is essential. Americans eat twice as much meat as the world average. Not only do we not need all the protein we’re consuming, over consumption of animal products can lead to health problems. Of course, some protein is essential, and that’s where legumes come in.

Q: What legume deserves more attention?

Bittman: I really think lentils are fantastic. They’re quick to cook and incredibly versatile – good in salads, dal, soups, even in dips for veggies or to spread on a sandwich. Really, all beans need more attention. They’re the most nutritious plant food. They’re often high in fiber and protein, and they should be making a regular appearance in everyone’s diet. 

On Another Note

Beans can sometimes cause stomach aches and even open the door to food poisoning if not well cookedleaving site icon If you experience food poisoning and need to see a doctor, remember where you go matters. Do your research about ERs versus urgent care now before you’re ill. That way, when you need urgent care, you'll know which care facility is best for your situation.

Source: Healthy Food Trends: Beans and Legumes, leaving site icon MedlinePlus, 2022; How to avoid poisoning from red beans, leaving site icon Food Safety News, 2021

Originally published 7/5/2016; Revised 2021, 2023