Bean Dreams and Vital Pulses
By John J. Kochevar
In the dead of winter the cheery sound of a cascade of dried beans pouring into a soup pot lifts the spirits. Pulses, the dried seeds of legumes, are not a sexy food, but they speak to the heart’s desire for warmth, security, nourishment. Beyond that, beans, peas, and lentils are as varied as the human race, resplendent in color and design, a small joy to the hungry poor.
Virtue resides in their humble origin and in their connection with generations past. On cold, dark days dried legumes meet an important need, and they deserve a little praise.
In the beginning there were favas, pale green broad beans, among our first cultivated vegetables. They were easily dried and stored, and could be quickly cooked. Then, as now, the Egyptians ate them for breakfast in a stew (called “fül,” a fun name), along with garlic, onions, and hearth-baked flat bread. Favas spread through the Mediterranean basin and eventually became part of the porridge which fueled the march of the Roman legions. Apparently some Egyptians believed the souls of the dead resided in fava beans, a thought that troubled Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician and mystic, who warned his followers not to walk in bean fields. He also posted an inscription over his temple gate, “Eat No Beans,” inviting the ridicule of at least one philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and one humorist, Roy Blount, who wrote:
“A fabis absinete,” Pythagoras said,
Meaning ‘Eat no beans.’
Where was his head?”
While beans are now routinely abused, showing up in expressions like “bean brain” or “he don’t amount to a hill of beans,” most of the ancients regarded them highly. What was Pythagoras thinking? Fava beans are now known to cause anemia (favism) among a small proportion of genetically susceptible people. Perhaps Pythagoras observed this and has been misunderstood all these years. If so, he deserves an apology from Bertrand Russell, and certainly favas deserve a little more respect.
Showing a Lentil More Respect
Lentils originated about the same time as favas, and there are many references to their flavor and their nourishing properties. In the book of Genesis, Esau gave up his inheritance for a “mess of pottage”—a lentil stew. What was he thinking? The general consensus is that he was cheated by Jacob. On reflection, however, if there were some onions fried in olive oil topping that pottage, a pinch or two of cumin, a cup of wine, who is to say what you or I would have done in his place? Beans have their fans. And those fans often have a reputation for independence and ornery self-sufficiency.
Henry David Thoreau, paragon of ornery self-sufficiency, cultivated a bean field near Walden Pond. In “The Bean-Field” he described hoeing the weeds around his beans. The field is weedy and half returned to the woods. His neighbors note “Little late for beans….” as they pass. Thoreau argued to himself then, and to us now, for an agriculture that is more symbiotic with the original environment. He meditated on his repetitive task and had a reverie: “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor that I hoed beans….” And so it goes—contrarian, observant, and mindful, but nonetheless unclear about whether he ate any of the objects of his contemplation. In Thoreau’s writings there are bean songs, bean dreams, but no recipes. Perhaps that’s because the beans of his heritage were mostly limited to Boston Baked, filling but uninspiring.
Traditional Tuscan Fare
Look elsewhere for culinary inspiration. In each region of Italy, bean cuisine defines who you are. Tuscans, in particular, are known as “bean eaters,” partially in jest and also, one suspects, in awe. During the November olive harvest, after spending long hours on ladders patiently stripping the trees, people stop by local markets, where cooks have prepared cauldrons of beans, usually one of garbanzos (chick peas) and another of cannellini (white kidney beans), slowly simmered with olive oil and garlic. Beans and their creamy juices are carried home in sturdy plastic bags. Shallow soup bowls are set; beans are poured directly from the bag over slices of dry, toasted bread rubbed with fresh garlic. A sprinkle of new oil. A grind of black pepper. Glasses of red wine. In a timeless reenactment, they eat—bent, tired, in silence. On the kitchen wall, shadows of forgotten ancestors.
In India, lentils are an everyday link with the earth and with extended family. They are one of a baby’s first solid foods and an offering in many funeral ceremonies. Dried, split pulses called “dal” are cooked into soups, stews, and breads of amazing variety. One of the most popular, channa dal, looks like a small split chick pea and has a sweet, nutty taste. Masoor dal is pink and cooks very quickly, marrying well with onions and spice. Whole-bean black urad looks like a small black pebble. Many people know it only as a rich, creamy dish from high-end Indian restaurants because it takes a long time to cook. “Dal, dal bacheray pal,” they say in Hindi, which means “Dal, the nurturer of children…” Comfort food at its very best.
Dals and beans are especially important for vegetarians. Lentils are approximately 25 percent protein, soy beans even more. Aside from soy, however, the protein in pulses is incomplete, and it is necessary to combine them with grain (or dairy products) to gain the full complement of essential amino acids. (Another saying: “Beans and rice, mighty nice…”) Pulses are also good sources of fiber, iron, B vitamins, potassium, and magnesium. A diet high in beans and lentils can reduce the risk of heart disease and colon cancer. Then, too, they could put a cloud over your social life. The term “full of beans” means to be “high-spirited and enthusiastic,” but also suggests the well-known side effect of the “beans, beans, the jolly good fruit”—because their long-chain carbohydrates lead to gas—“the more you eat, the more you toot.” If you are inclined to social responsibility, soak beans well and discard the soaking liquid, then cook them with ginger, turmeric, and asafetida.
If you do not yet dream of beans, search out a good Italian, Middle Eastern, or Indian market where beans and their cousins are stored in large, open bags, resplendent in their variety. Sniff the aroma of nearby spices and herbs. Generations of experience has taught us that pulses like bay leaf, thyme, garlic, and onion. Cumin, ginger, and chili make them appetizing. Rice, bulgur, and pasta lighten them and create textural contrasts. Cook a pot of beans. Celebrate. Beans are life.
Lentils are often eaten on New Year’s Day because they look like little coins and are thought to symbolize good fortune. They symbolize healthy eating as well. Cook carefully so they do not fall apart. Combine with spices, salt, and pepper and lighten with other vegetables to tease the appetite.
Green Lentils Connoisseurs believe green lentils are the most tasty, perhaps because they are the most expensive and French as well (“Lentilles du Puy”). They remain somewhat firm after cooking. The secret is to combine cooked, cooled green lentils with lots of chopped celery, green onions, and a mustard vinaigrette.
Red Lentils These lentils are more pink than red but turn yellow after cooking. Mild, soft, and delicate, they are best served in a soup cooked with lots of onion, tomato paste, a little pepper, fresh ginger and a complementary grain like rice or bulgur.
Brown Lentils They have a robust, earthy taste, but they can be bland and fall apart easily. The secret is to sauté them in olive oil with rice and chopped onion; cook with plenty of herbs and spices but just enough water so that both the rice and lentils are done but not mushy. The result is a very thick pilaf, which the Lebanese serve under a salad with lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber, lots of mint, and a lemon juice–olive oil vinaigrette.
Primal Bean Soup
The vegetarian bean soups of northern Italy build on a base of sautéed vegetables. Season with herbs—bay, rosemary, or sage—and add a chili for interest. Lighten with grains and greens. Finish with a pop of intense flavor—fried onions, Parmesan, or a dash of vinegar.
This recipe starts with borlotti beans, which can be found in Italian grocery stores or upscale supermarkets. Cranberry beans work equally well. Pintos are an earthier substitute. Italians often cook the beans together with farro, a wheat-like grain, or with pearled barley. For a lighter soup, add small macaroni such as tubette or elbows instead of the toasted bread. Chopped fresh spinach or chard can be added in the last five minutes.
1 cup dried borlotti beans, picked over and rinsed
1 medium onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary
1 dried chili pepper or more, to taste
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Garnish: toasted bread slices, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, chopped
rosemary, thinly sliced red onion. Feeds four with a big salad.
1. Spread beans on a plate and pick over for small stones or shriveled beans. Pour the beans into a large pot and cover with 8 cups of water. Soak overnight. For faster soaking, bring to a boil for five minutes, stir, cover, and turn off heat. Allow beans to soak for two hours. After soaking, drain the beans, discard the soaking water, and rinse.
2. While the beans are soaking, chop vegetables and garlic and sauté in olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot until they are fragrant and translucent. Add the soaked beans and 6 cups of water. Bring the ingredients to a simmer, add the bay, rosemary, chili pepper, and tomato paste. Cook the beans, covered, until they are tender but not mushy. Discard chili pepper and bay leaves. Remove about 1 cup of cooked beans and vegetables; puree and return to pot. This will give the soup a nice creamy texture. Add water if the soup is too thick. Salt and pepper to taste. The flavors of the soup will improve on standing.
3. Approximately 30 minutes before serving, reheat soup and pour into an oven-proof casserole dish. Turn on oven broiler. Thinly slice half a medium red onion. Cut a clove of garlic in half. Mince a teaspoon of rosemary. Toast enough slices of sturdy white or whole wheat bread to cover the top of the soup. Rub each piece of toast with cut garlic. Cut the toast so that each person will have 1 or 2 slices of bread in their bowl. Place the toast on top of the soup, scatter the sliced onions over the top, sprinkle with minced rosemary and 1 or 2 tablespoons of good olive oil. Place the casserole under the broiler until the onions begin to brown and the aromas kindle the appetite.
John J. Kochevar has contributed many articles on flavorful vegetarian cooking to Yoga International.