Food prices in Canada jumped nearly five per cent in 2021 and may rise another seven per cent in 2022, adding nearly $1,000 to the annual family food bill. Choosing beans instead of animal proteins at least part of the time, can save resources and stretch your food dollars.
By CINDA CHAVICH
The Beaneater (Il Mangiafagioli) is a famous Italian painting, Annibale Carracci’s snapshot of a day in the life of a 16th-century Tuscan peasant.
The image is simple — a man digging into a bowl of white beans, with a loaf of bread and jug of wine at his side. Though it’s a rustic dish, it’s still something you’ll find on every table among “the bean eaters” of northern Italy.
Beans were once considered peasant food in many parts of the world, an inexpensive source of protein that formed the filling backbone of everyday meals, from Italian Ribolitta soup, scented with garlic and rosemary, to French cassoulet, a hearty bean dish studded with bits of savoury sausage and duck confit, or Indian dal and chickpea curries. Wherever meat was expensive or scarce, inventive cooks used legumes in hearty dishes that rose above their simple parts.
We are still enjoying these delicious dishes today. And with food costs high, and interest in eating less meat for both environmental and health reasons, there are even more reasons to embrace the humble bean.
Canada is a world leader in legumes, a major producer of dried beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, and the largest pulse exporter, with 80 per cent of the crop sent around the world. Despite prairie droughts, Canadian farmers produced a 325,000-tonne pulse crop this year, and though prices may be a bit higher, beans are a bargain by any measure.
Pulses are healthy, high-fibre source of plant protein and are considered a sustainable, eco-friendly crop — the plants pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, which means they don’t require the high levels of fertilizers that increase the carbon footprint of other food crops. Pulse crops are very efficient water users, and when farmed using zero-till methods, pulse crops can also sequester carbon.
Most of these pulse crops are grown in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, so an important piece of the Canadian food sovereignty story, too.
Look for Canadian-grown dried beans in bulk food sections and Middle Eastern grocers or buy unique heirloom beans from specialty suppliers.
For Good Measure has a good selection of bulk organic beans. Vancouver’s The Flourist (formerly Grain) buys beans and grains direct from prairie farmers, including pinto, black and navy beans, and literally puts these rural personalities on the packaging of their pulses. If you can find heirloom or heritage bean varieties (like the ones grown by Rancho Gordo in Napa, California), and cook them simply to taste the differences between varieties like black and white Orca beans, striped Tiger Eye, mottled red Jacob’s Cattle, and pale green flageolets.
You can even try growing your own heirloom beans to dry them for storage. Plant heritage beans from Salt Spring Seeds, West Coast Seeds or the Canadian heirloom bean specialists, Heritage Harvest Seed Co. in Manitoba.
A HEALTHY PULSE
Beans, lentils and chickpeas are not only healthy for the planet, but they are also gaining popularity as health-conscious consumers move to vegetable-forward diets.
Whole peas, beans and chickpea or bean flours, can be incorporated into various food products, from burgers to pasta, offering vegetarian and gluten-free options, or used to replace at least part of the meat in everyday dishes, stretching the budget and boosting healthy fibre.
That’s another way to look at beans, even if you’re not a strict vegan. Combining ground meats with beans makes healthy, high fibre burgers. A cassoulet or traditional bean soup may be seasoned with small amounts of ham or duck confit, but it’s the beans that do the heavy lifting, producing a rich, savoury, filling dish with far less animal protein.
Or you can choose a classic Indian lentil or chickpea curry that’s completely meat free.
Pulses have twice the protein levels of grains, and when combined with grains provide a complete protein, along with high levels of soluble and insoluble fibre, and micronutrients. Eating pulses can decrease your cholesterol and blood pressure, while high-fibre beans, with their slow digesting starches, help with managing blood glucose levels.
And because they’re low fat and filling, beans may even help with weight loss.
While it’s easy to make any bean dish with canned beans, if cook them from scratch, you’ll be rewarded with flavourful beans that have firm skins and the kind of “bite” that creates a superior result.
I experimented with cooking many different types of beans from scratch while writing 225 Best Pressure Cooker Recipes, and found pressure cooking speeds up the process considerably, and results in lovely, toothsome beans that can be precooked and frozen for convenient use later.
Dry beans don’t need to be soaked overnight, but it will reduce their cooking time, especially if your beans are older, and help to keep their skins intact. Try to buy beans from a grocer that has a high turnover — you’ll be rewarded with fresher, tastier dried legumes.
To speed up the soaking process, cover beans with lots of water in a saucepan, bring them to a boil, then cover the pot and set it aside for an hour to soak. A similar trick can be done using a stovetop pressure cooker or Instant Pot. Just bring the beans and water up to full pressure, then remove from heat and let them stand until the pressure drops.
Then you can cook your beans — usually for about an hour on the stovetop or 20 minutes in the pressure cooker — with aromatics such as garlic, onions and herbs, a ham bone or a classic mirepoix or sofrito, and have them ready to eat (the starchy cooking liquid is delicious, too) or to add to any dishes you like.
Season the cooked beans well with salt and pepper and let them cool in the cooking liquid to soak up the most flavour.
To season the cooked beans for a side dish, add a chopped chipotle chili in adobo sauce and some cilantro for a Latin meal; or stir fresh chopped herbs, like rosemary, thyme, or basil and parsley, with a little garlic and butter or cream, into a pot of tiny French flageolets.
Plain, pre-cooked beans will keep in the refrigerator for a week or can be packaged and frozen, ready to use in salads, soups and other bean dishes. A pound of dried beans (about 2 cups) yields 6 cups of cooked beans, equivalent to three large 540-ml cans.
If you plan to puree your beans or chickpeas for a recipe, canned products are fine. Just make sure to rinse away the salty liquid in the can, then proceed with your recipe.
A WORLD OF BEANS
Old-fashioned chili, baked beans and pea soup are classic Canadian traditions, but there are so many different cuisines to explore when you start cooking with legumes.
Beans offer a blank slate for assertive herbs like rosemary and sage. Smoky bacon and ham add flavour and fat to many classic bean dishes and soups, while bits of other rich proteins (think duck, lamb shoulder or pork sausages) are perfect partners for beans and lentils.
Hummus may be the easiest way to serve chickpeas — simply pureed with olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and tahini (sesame paste) to scoop up with pita chips. In Greece, giant gigantes beans are cooked with olive oil, garlic, dill and tomatoes for a rich, satisfying meat-free meal.
Chilies and spices are essential additions to curries and dal, or Mexican bean dishes. Black beans are combined with pork in Feijoada, a classic Brazilian dish, and in the Caribbean, it’s red beans and rice with coconut milk, chilies and thyme.
Of course, baked beans on toast make a simple supper across the UK and, in Canada, white beans are traditionally baked with maple syrup.
As Deepak Chopra reminds us, eating less meat “offers us a path toward a more ecological, sustainable, humane and compassionate world.” And bean cuisine is a great place to start!
KNOW YOUR BEANS
Beans come in every shape, size and colour. While many are interchangeable, they do have distinct characteristics. Here’s a primer:
Navy are the smallest while beans — they cook quickly, mash easily and are good for soups, baked beans and creamy dips. Slightly larger Great Northern beans have a nutty flavour and firm texture, good in cassoulet. Cannellinis are even larger, meatier and typically used in minestrone or stews as they retain their shape well. Pale green baby limas or larger butter beans (a.k.a. gigantes) are starchy and buttery, served with herbs for succotash or Greek dishes.
Red kidney beans are the largest and most common red bean, used in Indian rajma masala curry and three bean salads. Pink Pinto beans, the beans with the most fibre, are preferred for chili, refried beans and Tex-Mex dishes.
Kidney beans or smaller round red beans are often used in Caribbean red beans and rice dishes, simmered with coconut milk, while little Adzuki beans (red with a white stripe) are sweet, nutty and often mashed with sugar for Asian sweet bean pastes and rice cakes.
Like most beans, black beans are native to south and central America, where they may be called turtle beans or frijoles negros. Black beans have an earthy, mushroomy flavour and are served in a range of dishes, including traditional Mexican black bean soup, salads and bean “caviar”.
Black-eyed peas, chickpeas and green or yellow split peas are legumes of a different sort. The former, actually a bean, originated in Africa and are often used in Indian and African dishes, and popular in the southern US, the basis for the classic New Year’s dish, Hoppin’ John. Field peas or cow peas are from the same family of beans. But chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzo beans or chana) are round and nutty legumes, popular in Spain, Italy, India and Middle Eastern countries, and delicious to roast as a snack, add to soups and stews and grind for flour or falafels. Split peas are literally peas that have been peeled, dried and split – they cook quickly and break down for pea soup or thickening stews and are essential in Indian dal.
WHITE BEAN SLATHER WITH GOAT CHEESE
This is one of my favourite appetizer recipes, a hearty purée of beans, fresh herbs and caramelized onions, to scoop up with pita chips or spread on crostini. You can make it in advance to reheat in the microwave to serve.
one 14-oz (398-mL) can white cannellini beans
1 tablespoon each: finely chopped fresh rosemary, basil and Italian parsley 2 cloves garlic, minced
1⁄4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1⁄2 teaspoons Asian chili paste 1⁄2 cup caramelized onions 1⁄2 cup goat cheese (or feta)
Rinse and drain beans.
In a food processor, combine the rosemary, basil, parsley, garlic, and olive oil. Whirl to purée. Add half the beans and process until smooth. Add the rest of the beans and the chili paste and pulse, leaving the purée a little chunky.
Heat the caramelized onions in a medium sauté pan and add the bean purée. Stir to heat through. Crumble the goat cheese into the pan and fold into the mixture. You want the cheese warm, but still intact in the mixture.
Pile into a serving dish and serve immediately with crostini, pita chips or crackers. Makes 2 cups (500 mL).
Cassoulet is a dish from the Languedoc region of southern France, and typically includes white beans, pork or lamb shoulder, pork sausage, duck confit and other meats. This version is not strictly authentic, but offers a similarly impressive dish, made with Canadian back bacon, whisky and a touch of maple syrup. I like to use fresh local pork sausage — either sweet Italian or spicy chorizo — and sometimes substitute boneless chicken thighs for the pork in this classic bean casserole. Serve with crusty sourdough and kale salad. For a traditional touch, top this hearty bean dish with confit duck legs from the butcher or supermarket.
1 1/2 cups dried Flageolet, navy or other small white beans
1⁄4 lb Canadian back bacon or smoky side bacon, chopped
4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves 2 sprigs thyme
1 pound boneless pork shoulder (or chicken thighs)
1 tablespoon olive oil ½ pound fresh garlic pork sausage
2 carrots, chopped fine 1 large onion, chopped fine
2 stalks celery, chopped fine 2 cloves garlic, minced
1⁄4 cup rye whisky 1 cup chicken stock 1 cup chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)
1 tablespoon maple syrup 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Soak beans overnight in cold water or bring beans and water to a full boil, cover, remove from heat and let them quick soak for an hour before cooking.
Drain the soaked beans and return to the pot. Cover with 6 cups of water. Add the bacon, garlic, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer until tender, about 1 to 1.5 hours (or pressure cook 20 minutes).
Meanwhile, cut the pork into 1-2-inch pieces, removing any visible fat. In a Dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and brown the pork pieces. Remove the pork and set aside. In the same pot, brown the sausages. Remove the sausages, slice, and set aside with the pork.
Add the carrots, onions, celery, and minced garlic to the pot and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Pour in the whisky to deglaze, stirring up any browned bits and reduce by half, then add the stock, tomatoes, maple syrup, and rosemary. Bring to a boil, return the browned pork and sausage to the pot, then cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for 1 hour or until the meat is tender.
Drain the beans, retaining the cooking liquid. Discard the herbs and bay leaves. Assemble the cassoulet in a deep earthenware casserole dish or heavy enameled roasting pan.
Layer the cooked beans and meat sauce, starting with 1/3 of the beans and 1⁄2 of the sauce, then repeat, ending with a layer of beans. Add enough of the reserved bean liquid to the dish so you can just begin to see it through the top layer of beans (if making ahead, the dish can be prepared to this point, covered, and refrigerated for up to 2 days).
To finish, combine the topping ingredients and sprinkle evenly over the cassoulet. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 1 hour until bubbly and nicely browned. Serves 6.
TIP: Any leftover cassoulet makes almost instant Pasta Fazool — just boil 1-2 cups of short pasta until tender, drain (reserve some of the salted cooking water), then stir in the beans and simmer with enough cooking water to make a sauce, and serve topped with shards of Parmesan.
SPICY GARBANZOS WITH GARLIC SHRIMP
This dish reminds me of traveling in Spain and the small, savoury dishes I enjoyed at the tapas bars of San Sebastian. I served this with roasted spaghetti squash and leeks for dinner, but crispy roasted potatoes or toasted baguette, brushed with olive oil, make a classic side, too.
You can substitute a can of white beans for the garbanzos (a.k.a. chickpeas) for equally delicious results.
300 g large shrimp, shelled and deveined
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 cloves garlic, crushed in a garlic press
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
½ teaspoon crushed dried chilies or Aleppo red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
1 fresh bay leaf
1 ½ cups chopped fresh or canned tomato
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 540-mL tin chickpeas (or white beans), rinsed and drained
½ cup chicken broth
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a bowl, combine the shrimp, olive oil, smoked paprika and garlic and set aside.
In a small oven-proof sauté pan, heat the oil over medium high heat and when it’s sizzling, add the garlic and chilies and cook for 30 seconds. Add bay leaf and tomatoes to the pan and cook until the tomatoes break down, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir until it starts to darken, then stir in the chickpeas. Add the broth, bring to a boil, and simmer until the liquid has reduced and the mixture is thickened (crush some of the beans slightly for a thicker sauce). Season with salt, pepper and more chilies, to taste.
Arrange the marinated shrimp in a single layer over the hot chickpeas. Place the pan under a preheated broiler and cook the shrimp for 3-4 minutes, until just pink.
Remove and sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Serves 4 as a starter, 2 as a main dish.
WARM GIGANTES BEAN SALAD
I discovered these giant white beans — as big as your thumb — while on a press trip to Greece. Look for them at Greek or Mediterranean grocers, or substitute large cannellini or lima beans. You can also substitute canned white cannellini beans in this Mediterranean salad, but they won’t have the lovely bite of beans cooked from scratch.
1 cup dry gigantes beans (or other large white beans)
2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1-2 roasted red bell peppers, chopped (jarred is fine)
1/3 cup air-cured black olives, seeded and chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil (preferably Greek)
Juice and zest of 1/2 a lemon (about 1 teaspoon of minced zest and 2 tablespoons juice)
2 tablespoons basil pesto
salt and freshly ground black pepper
sturdy mixed greens like romaine, kale and arugula, (optional)
Cook the beans. Start by soaking the beans overnight in plenty of cold water or use the quick soak method (cover with water, boil and then set aside for 1 hour). Drain the beans and place them in a saucepan or pressure cooker. Add cold water to cover them by 2-3 inches. Boil until tender (about 1 hour) or pressure cook at high pressure for 12-15 minutes, then allow the pressure to drop naturally (this helps to keep the beans intact). Drain beans well.
While the beans are cooking, combine the chopped tomatoes, roasted peppers, olives, olive oil, lemon zest and juice in a bowl. Stir in the warm beans and pesto. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve as a side dish alongside grilled meats or as a starter with mixed greens. Serves 6.
This food feature originally appeared in YAM magazine in 2022.