In his new book, Ken Albala looks to inspire financially strapped Americans to pick beans over beef

Aah, autumn. The days are getting shorter, there’s a nip in the air, you can’t afford to drive your car, and the economy is going belly-up: It must be time to cook a big pot of warm, comforting beans. Almost the whole world over, throughout recorded history, dependable, nutritious and adaptable beans have been the sustenance that kept people alive when times were tough. One would think that during the current recession, Americans would be eating beans and cornbread again, like settlers did on the frontier just over a century ago.

But Ken Albala, author of “Beans: A History,” notes that America is the exception to the rule. We have a somewhat tepid love affair with baked beans and pork and beans, but these are relegated to side dish status. What we really care about, apparently, is animal protein.

“We’re addicted to meat. Food is the last thing that people in a country like ours would change (in a recession). In fact, I think people turn more to comfort food, which means more meat, even when its price goes up,” Albala said. “Unless you’re eating beans to retain some cultural heritage, or are motivated by health or the environment or whatever, beef is what’s for dinner.”

Albala frequently bucks this trend, and readers of Albala’s book will most likely be inspired to do so as well.

“I just made some scarlet runners yesterday and ate them for breakfast,” Albala said last week. His favorite, while they’re in season, are “fresh cranberry beans, lightly boiled and dressed with good olive oil, lemon, sea salt and tomato. Fresh oregano from the garden, too.”

He’s less enthusiastic about one unusual Japanese dish using small soybeans: natto. They are, in his terms, “just plain weird.”

“Imagine tiny brown beans in a kind of caramel-colored mucus, exuding an earthy odor of ammonia and rotting compost. Then plunge in the chopsticks and lift a few beans to your mouth. From the beans stretches a web of sticky strings that if you are even slightly uncoordinated attach themselves to your face and clothes …” he writes.

If there’s only one thing to get out of “Beans: A History,” it’s that the diversity of bean types and bean dishes and recipes in the world is awesome. There are Italian-style beans, African beans, Latin American beans, Asian beans, American beans, Middle-Eastern beans and French-style beans, not to mention all the regional specialties and variations. East Indian cuisine alone, in which beans are revered (since Hindus tend to be vegetarian), offers myriad options for lentils and split peas.

For someone looking to introduce some variety into their same-old recipe habit, beans are the ideal gateway food. And for anyone whose grocery budget really has shrunk, dried beans can be much more interesting and delicious and most likely more economical than the cheapest meat options.

On the other hand, those who have no money worries can choose to enjoy beans at higher prices, as chefs turn to specialties like beluga lentils to add local or regional interest to their menus.

“Heirloom beans, very large, small or rare, are showing up in fancy restaurants. Call it zolfino and put it on bruschetta, and people will pay for it,” Albala said.

Shopping for and cooking beans

Beans come pre-cooked in cans, or dried and uncooked in packages or in the bulk section of the grocery store. Look at the farmers’ market for fresh beans or grow some in the garden. Some, like scarlet runners, have really beautiful blossoms. If you buy pre-cooked beans in cans they will be more expensive than the uncooked ones in bags or in the bulk section.

If the store doesn’t provide cooking instructions for its bulk foods, any basic cookbook will, or instructions can be found online. Not surprisingly, vegetarian and ethnic cookbooks normally include more bean recipes than regular, all-purpose American cookbooks.

Dried beans vary greatly in their cooking times; it all depends on just how dried they are and whether or not they were soaked in water overnight. So when using a recipe, taste the beans as they’re cooking to check whether or not they are done; do not rely only on a timer or the recipe’s estimate. Smaller beans like lentils and split peas take much less time than the larger garbanzos or kidney beans.

If the length of time required to cook beans in boiling water is too daunting, consider using a pressure cooker. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully and be sure the seals are good and the pressure gauge is working.

With cooked beans, you can’t go wrong mixing them with onions, olive oil, tomatoes and herbs. Alternatively, sautéed onions and bacon with cooked beans make a lovely combination all by themselves.

Note regarding recipes from “Beans: A History.” Ken Albala prefers not to talk about measurements, just proportions, and his recipes are written in conversational style. I usually estimate that a 1/2 cup of dried beans will be sufficient for one person when they’re cooked and served with other things, such as rice.

Ken’s Scarlet Runner Beans

Boil fresh beans in water, barely covered, until soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add olive oil, salt, chopped shallots and lemon juice, and cook very low with the cover off until the water is cooked off. You can also grate a tomato into it. Luscious.

Yield : Varies

Nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate due to recipe variables.

Carol’s Lentils and Sausage

I like to cook this with pardina lentils but almost any kind of lentil works great.

3 cups water

1 1/2 cups lentils

1/2 onion, diced

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 bay leaf

2 big links of sausage (Polish or Italian style, or whatever you like)

2 to 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Fresh or dried herbs such as basil, oregano, sage and parsley, to taste

Salt and pepper, to taste

Bring the water to boil and add the lentils. Cook at a simmer until the lentils are cooked through, then remove from heat. If there is still water in the lentils, that’s fine. If there’s none, add a little.

When the lentils are almost done, put the onion in a heavy skillet with the olive oil and bay leaf and sauté for a few minutes before adding the sausages. When the sausages are almost done, pour the lentils into the skillet, making sure there is enough liquid to keep the lentils from burning while the sausage links finish cooking.

When everything is cooked, season with the balsamic vinegar, the herbs, and the salt and pepper. Divide sausages into smaller pieces. Serve hot, in shallow bowls, with good crusty bread and butter.

Yield : 3 to 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: Unable to calculate due to recipe variables.

Dhosas (Bean Pancakes)

From “Beans: A History”

“Dhosas are easy to make given a little patience with the fermentation process and can be filled with virtually anything, much like a burrito or crepe.” Find urad beans at specialty groceries or online.

Today the proportions of rice and urad dhal (urad beans) are usually three to one or more, but equal parts also produce an excellent pancake with a richer bean flavor. First soak the beans and rice separately overnight. The next day put them in a blender with sufficient water and a little salt, to make a thick batter. Let this batter sit in a warm place for at least 24 hours during which time it will increase in volume and ferment, taking on a sourish smell. Then heat the largest frying pan available or griddle, preferably nonstick, and swirl a ladle full of batter onto the well-greased surface. Carefully turn over when brown. The results will be crispy and flavorful but pliant enough to wrap around fillings.

Hoppin’ John

From “Beans: A History”

Soak beans (black-eyed peas) overnight and drain, although this is not strictly necessary. In a capacious pot add the rinsed beans, fresh water, a chopped onion, bay leaf, thyme, and a smoked ham hock. Simmer long and as slowly as possible until the beans are toothsome. Remove the hock, finely shred and return to the pot. Add a little salt and pepper and some rice, with a little more water if necessary and cook about 20 minutes longer until rice is cooked through. Garnish with unspeakable quantities of hot sauce and, for the effete, a flourish of parsley or other such nonsense. If you are in a Creole mood substitute red beans and say “red beans and ricely yours” and pretend you’re Louis Armstrong.

Sopa de Frijoles Negros Cubana

From “Beans: A History”

Soak black beans overnight, discard water. Make a soffrito of onions, garlic and green peppers with a bay leaf and cumin, fried in olive oil. Add beans, a hunk of ham and cover with water. Simmer for about an hour or until tender. Remove ham and dice. Return to soup. Add salt and pepper to taste. Mash some of the beans to make a thick soup. At the very end add a good dash or two of sherry or vinegar. Serve on top of a mound of white rice, garnished with a chopped egg, chopped raw onions, and chopped cilantro.

Carol Price Spurling is a freelance food writer and columnist from Moscow, Idaho. Contact her at www.plumassignment.net or www.kids-in-the-kitchen.net.

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