Thursday, March 26, 2009
It is time to eat more beans.
Cheap, nutritious and, when properly prepared, delicious, beans have nonetheless gotten a bad rap in America, where they retain the stigma of a poor man’s horn section, and where consumers prefer to pass their methane moments to the animals they eat – feed them beans, and let them cut the cheese.
But what many Americans don’t know is that there are ways to stop the music. Beans, a staple of the milleniums, have a few secrets yet for the uninitiated. By simply adding certain ingredients to the beans while they cook, various cultures around the world have perfected time-tested tricks that can both tickle your taste buds, and take the toot right out of the fruit.
One such ingredient grows in forests along Monterey’s coastline, but isn’t found in many local kitchens. Kombu, known outside of culinary circles as kelp, is widely used in Japan as not only a base for stock (miso soup, most famously), but is also added to boiling beans as a way to both decrease cooking time and increase digestibility.
Aside from its flavor-imparting, bean-softening qualities, kombu, like all sea vegetables, is packed with vital nutrients, as seawater mirrors the human body in mineral composition. When one cooks beans with it, the beans absorb much of these nutrients, an added bonus that contributes to the storied longevity of the Japanese people.
To try for yourself, simply clip off a few inches of dried kombu (available at Hong’s Oriental Market in Marina and Whole Foods in Monterey), wipe the surface clean with a damp cloth, and chuck the slice into a pot of beans as they start to boil. The kombu will eventually float to the top, and can easily be removed when the beans are done.
In search of other bean-eating secrets, we cannot do better than South Asia, the dal-eating capital of the world and home to the resinous, odiferous spice called asafoetida (or more commonly, “hing,” its Asian name). Known for its unique taste (often described as garlicky and oniony), as well as its digestive properties, its reputation in the West is still preceded by its powerful smell – in French, it is referred to as merde du diable.
While it’s certainly important to keep a tight lid on it in the pantry, the aroma of hing becomes weaker and far more enticing when cooked in oil or ghee, and is prized for the complexity it adds to a variety of dishes. And while many South Asian spices have digestion-promoting properties, none are so touted as asafoetida, which, when used in (only) small amounts, massage the daily legumes wonderfully.
When cooking with hing (available at Seaside’s Indian Filipino Market), stay conservative. If you’re frying onions to put into your dal, throw a small pinch in with your other spices. “Pinch” is the key word – spooning will result in a surefire spoiler, as the taste can be dominant, and is best suited as a background player.
Our last stop brings us to Latin America, home of empanadas, enchiladas, and the leafy herb epazote. Long used in traditional cuisine as a way to stave off stinky siestas, epazote is also known for its wild, distinctive flavor that greatly compliments a variety of Latin American dishes (find it at Seasides Mi Tierra).
But like asafoetida, it should be used conservatively, a pinch to a teaspoon dried. If you can find it fresh, a tablespoon is adequate, and don’t be dissuaded by your nose – many find the smell of a raw epazote unappealing, but with some cooking it improves greatly. Add it to your simmering beans, and for the adventurous, try it with enchiladas or quesadillas.
While all of these herbs and spices are a great addition to beans, it must be noted that the single most important aspect of preparing gas-free fruits is making sure they are adequately cooked. In addition, every home chef should take these factors into account:
• Older beans take longer to cook Ideally, don’t keep them on the shelf for more than a year.
• Adding salt to the water increases cooking time Salt, by inhibiting the absorption of water into the beans, slows down the softening.
• Any tomato-based products stop the party Throwing the tomato elements into the beans before they are completely done prevents them from ever becoming fully cooked. (Read: Make sure your beans are done before you start the chili!)
• Take a chance, surprise yourself In the right hands, beans can become far more than just polite, they can become what some might even call – dare I say it – a delicacy.
Information about beansis widely available on the internet, but some good sources include: www.recipenet.org/health/articles/beans.htm and www.recipetips.com/kitchen-tips/t –818/all-about-beans.asp