Magic Beans

asst beansThis is not going to be a post about the magical beans for which Jack traded his family cow, although trading a cow (beef or any other meat for that matter) for beans in your diet once in a while is as good a trade as the one Jack made.  The beans to which I am referring are the beans you eat, and more specifically dried beans.  Dried beans are a valuable weapon in both the fight against hunger and the struggle to stretch food dollars.  Dried beans are cheaper than canned beans and can be stored for extended periods of time if kept in a cool, dark place.  Beans are such a good source of protein that the USDA classifies them in the Protein Food Group in the recommended dietary guidelines, making them an economical and healthy meat substitute. The USDA also classifies them as part of the Vegetable Group because they are high in fiber, which is good for lowing your risk for diabetes and heart disease.  Fiber also takes longer to digest, so foods high in fiber will help you feel fuller longer.  Finally beans are high in antioxidants, helping to protect your cells from free radicals, and are low in sugar, which means they help prevent insulin in the blood from spiking.  In spite of their health benefits and economical cost, most Americans do not incorporate beans into their diet, and when they do they often opt for canned beans over dried beans.

Some people may not know how to cook beans or may have a basic understanding of how to cook beans, but are under the misconception that it is difficult or requires a large amount of time.  I admit beans do take some time to cook and you can not come home from work and expect to put a meal using dried beans on the table in a short period of time without planning ahead.  The time required to cook dried beans, however, should not prevent you from incorporating them into your diet.  Most of the cooking time is unattended and can be done in advance, when you have time, like on the weekend or a day black-beansoff.  One just has to plan ahead to incorporate dried beans into your diet.  If you do it regularly, cooking beans will become almost effortless, whether you do it weekly or every couple of days.

In his book, Food Matters:  A Guide to Conscious Eating, Mark Bittman claims he is on “a mission to make sure every fridge or freezer in America is stocked with a container of home-cooked beans.”  Bittman’s philosophy is to regularly cook a quantity of beans to have on hand, storing them in the refrigerator, to use in recipes, toss in salads or just eat for a snack.  His recipe is simple.

  • Put some beans in a large pot and cover with cold water by a couple of inches.  Bring beans to a boil and let boil, uncovered, for about 2 minutes.  Turn off the heat and cover the pot, letting the bean soak for 1-2 hours.
  • After soaking, try a bean for doneness (they won’t be).  If it is at all tender, add a pinch of salt.  Make sure the beans are covered by about an inch of water, adding more if necessary.  If beans are still firm, do not add salt and make sure they are covered with 2 inches of water.
  • Bring pot back to a boil, then adjust heat so that the beans gently bubble.  Partially cover and cook, stirring occasionally and checking for doneness every 10-15 minutes.  Add water as necessary to keep the beans covered.  Small beans may take only 30 minutes extra cooking time and larger beans may take up to an hour more cooking time.  Add salt when the beans are just starting to become tender and stop cooking when they are the doneness you prefer.

Cooked beans can be used all at once in a recipe or saved in the refrigerator for several days to use as needed.  As a rule of thumb, 1 pound of dried beans equals 2 cups of dried beans equals 6 cups of cooked beans.  They can also be frozen and will keep for months.  If you do not need the liquid in which they were cooked it can be saved and used as a soup base.  It’s as easy as that.

chickpeaMark Bittman’s method requires little foreplanning, but does require you have a bit of extra time, as beans that have not been presoaked will take a longer to cook.  To shorten the cooking time by 1/2 or more presoak the beans in salted water (2 teaspoons salt per 1 quart of water) overnight or at least several hours.  When cooking beans always keep an inch or so of water over the beans and only salt the beans toward the end of cooking, within the last half hour.  If you are not going to mash your and you want to preserve their appearance, let the beans cool in their cooking liquid before draining so that the skins do not dry and crack.

Beans can be flavored as they cook or once the primary cooking has been completed.  Some flavorings that can be added to a pot of cooking beans include:  bay leaf, thyme sprigs, parsley, mirepoix (diced and sautéed onion, carrot and celery), garlic, smoked meats, like bacon or ham hocks and even leftover bones from pork, beef or chicken can be used.  The cooking liquid need not always be just water either.  Beer, wine, coffee or tea can be used alone or with water to flavor beans while cooking.  Flavoring can also be added to the beans once they have been cooked.  Make sure most of the cooking liquid has been drained from the beans before the final flavoring is added.  Some good flavorings to add to cooked beans include:  the herbs rosemary, sage, or thyme, cumin, garlic, hot sauce, cooked tomato sauces or salsa.   After adding the flavoring, continue to cook the beans for at least 10 minutes to allow the flavor to infuse the beans.

Fun Fact:  Beans cause gas because they contain indigestible carbohydrates which provide humans no nourishment, but do nourish the microbes in our gut.  When these microbes dine upon these carbohydrates they produce gas in our intestines.  When cooking dried beans you can reduce the indigestible carbohydrates by soaking them overnight or doing the quick soak detailed above.  Discard the soaking water and start with new water to cook the beans.  Just remember, removing indigestible carbohydrates removes color, flavor and nutrients as well.  Also, feeding the good microbes in our gut helps keep our gut microbiota in balance and recent research has suggested a link between unbalanced gut microbiota and a variety of negative health issues.

black and white beans

We offer dried pinto beans to clients at the food pantry and most of them take them, but every now and again someone declines.  To help those who are reluctant to try cooking dried beans, I am working on some recipes, using pintos as well as other beans.  I will share them once I have gathered them.  Have you ever tried mashed beans on toast for breakfast?  I learned about this from Jamie Oliver.  Evidently the Brits eat it all the time.  I’m sold!  As my family will tell you I have been known to eat strange things on toast.


Chicken in a Pot

As I mentioned in a previous post, my mother cooked dinner from scratch most nights.  I came from a family of modest means and I understood that my mother cooking was one of the ways we saved money.  I was taught that food was never to be wasted, so we ate leftovers.  I learned that if you knew how to cook it properly, a cheaper, lesser cut of meat tasted wonderful and wasn’t tough.  But cooking from scratch means more that just knowing how to prepare food.  It means knowing how to plan meals, budget your time, make a grocery list and go shopping.

grocery listOne of the best ways to get the most for your food dollar is to create a shopping list and stick to it.  To make a shopping list, you would first need to create a meal plan so that you will know the ingredients you will need.  When planning meals, it is important to consider what is on sale, what you already have on hand and what time you have available to cook during the week.  Once you have a detailed grocery list you are ready to head to the grocery store.

It is easy to look at a grocery store’s sale circular or clip coupons and purchase the cheapest processed foods.  You may feel you are getting the most food for your dollar and possibly you are getting more items, but at what cost?  Mark Bittman wrote a good op-ed article in The New York Times, entitled Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

In this essay he compares the cost of feeding a family of 4 at McDonald’s to the cost of feeding that same family a home cooked roasted chicken dinner.  The home cooked meal is cheaper, and could cost even less if the meal was not as heavily meat based.  Additionally, one must consider the hidden cost of eating heavily processed foods–obesity, diabetes and other diseases that accompany being overweight.  What you save today, may cost you down the road in doctor’s bills and poor health.

To demonstrate how cooking from scratch stretches food dollars I will use a whole chicken versus a bag of chicken nuggets.  The price of a whole chickencartoon chicken at my local grocery store was $1.29 per pound and the average chicken weighed 7 pounds, making the cost of the chicken roughly $9.00.  The most economical bag of chicken nuggets I could find was $4.49 for a 1 pound, 11 ounce bag.  You could by two bags for roughly the same $9.00.

One can assume the chicken will contain roughly 35% waste in the form of bones and excess fat deposits.  Using that assumption, a 7 pound chicken will yield 4.55 pounds of meat, compared to 3.38 pounds of chicken nuggets from the two bags combined.  Not only does the chicken produce over a pound more meat, but once the meat has been eaten off the bones they can be used to make a soup or chicken stock.  Finally, the chicken meat is only chicken meat.  The nuggets contain other ingredients than chicken, including added salt, sugar and fat.  To illustrate the unhealthy result of the extra ingredients in the nuggets just look at the percentage of fat in the calories for each service size.  For the brand of nuggets I used as my example, roughly 60% of the calories in the nuggets were fat calories, compared to roughly 40% for the roasted chicken with the skin.  The percentage would be even lower without the skin.

Meal planning, creating a shopping list and cooking from scratch may seem time consuming and more difficult that microwaving some chicken nuggets, but they get easier with practice.  The Environmental Working Group has aEWG pamphlet helpful pamphlet, entitled Good Food on a Tight Budget, free on their website

or with a contribution you can receive a copy.  The pamphlet provides numerous tips and tools for budgeting your food dollars, meal planning and shopping.  It also contains recipes.  Having a good all purpose cookbook is a must too.  These cookbooks provide instructions for the basics like hard boiling an egg to more complicated recipes.  They also contain information on meal planning, nutrition, shopping tips, cooking techniques and other helpful hints.  The Joy of Cooking and the Fannie Farmer Cookbook are two examples of classic, all purpose cookbooks.  How to Cook Everything is a more contemporary all purpose cookbook that includes numerous variations on recipes.

joy of cooking             fannie farmer              How to cook everything

To make your food dollars stretch takes time and commitment.  The key is to know your schedule.  Try to find a block of time each week to look at your schedule and plan meals, basing that meal plan on the time you actually have to cook the meals.  When you have a day or two where you are limited in meal preparation time,  try to prepare items for those days’ meals ahead on a day off or when you just have more time.

For those who are food insecure and may never have cooked this way, attempting to cook from scratch is probably a scary prospect.  What if something goes wrong in the cooking process and the food is ruined?  They do not have the funds to just try again.  In my final installment of this series I will present some ideas I would like to see offered through my local food pantries to help those needing assistance learn how to make the most of the food they receive from the food pantry.  I know many of these ideas are currently offered at larger food banks, so if anyone has any experience with these ideas, positive or negative, I welcome the input.