Beans are a favourite in Britain too, though our national bean dish is not one to boast about. It never graces the tables of top restaurants, for we like our beans in cans in a syrupy tomato sauce. Well, they are tasty, nutritious, convenient and cheap. But surely there are more grown-up ways of eating beans? Dried beans and pulses can absorb much more exciting and sophisticated flavours.
There are signs that we are beginning to reach out. The spicy hot chilli on pub menus is a start. And the haricot bean, and Italian look-alikes, are slipping into our kitchen repertoire in soups and salads, along with other popular Mediterranean staples, pasta and rice.
We are also beginning to embrace more subtle uses of the dried pulse. Hummus is a delicious example, dried chickpeas cooked to a puree, flavoured with tahina paste (ground sesame seed), thinned with olive oil, sharpened with lemon juice, seasoned with garlic and parsley. It's only a small step to those crispy Middle Eastern snacks falafel, balls of deep- fried minced chickpeas; and, via Indian restaurants, to dal, the staple dried lentil of India, which becomes exotic once seasoned with freshly ground, tempered curry spices.
The growing popularity of beans and pulses is on taste grounds. But they also get hearty support for health reasons. Beans and pulses contain 10 to 20 per cent of body-building proteins; they are also full of complex carbohydrates, the unrefined starch we should eat more of, as opposed to the refined carbohydrates with no food value, such as sugar.
Eating beans is by no means simply a vegetarian choice. Many of the great dishes of the world use beans as the basis of rich stews, making meat go further, the flavours of the one enriching the other. These dishes also exemplify the nutritional ideal of balanced eating.
This year the Dunn Nutritional Unit in Cambridge introduced a Healthy Eating Pyramid as an illustrative aid to balanced eating. Foodstuffs are stacked into a three-dimensional pyramid shape to indicate graphically which foods you should eat lots of, and which sparingly. In the large, roomy base are the carbohydrates: bread, pasta, potatoes, the starchy foods. Above it, fresh fruit and vegetables. On a higher level, occupying rather less space, are meat, fish and dairy proteins. The foodstuffs to be consumed in the smallest proportions are tucked into the attic: sugars, fats and oils.
The pyramid was pioneered in the USA, where it successfully replaced negative messages ordering what not to eat. Details of the British version are available to teachers and health professionals from the Flour Advisory Bureau (write with sae to 21 Arlington Street, London SW1, tel: 071-493 6781).
A GUIDE TO BEANS AND PULSES
ADZUKI BEANS are like miniature red kidney beans. They are very pretty, prized in both China and Japan for their sweetness and delicacy, and often used in sweet dishes, made into a paste like chestnut puree. Boil the beans for 10 minutes, drain, and soak overnight. Cook for
1-1 1/2 hours.
BLACK BEANS (turtle beans or frijoles negros). Spectacularly beautiful, shiny, sleek beans prized in the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil. Eaten with rice, making a stark visual contrast; there's a dish known as 'Moors and Christians'. In Cuba they bathe the cooked beans in cider vinegar, chopped onions and red peppers, flavoured with cumin and oregano, and pour a hot tomato sauce on top. In Brazil they are the essential ingredient of the national dish, feijoada. Boil the beans for 10 minutes, and drain, before soaking overnight. Simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
BLACK-EYED BEANS (actually, they are peas). Much used in the South of the United States where theywere formerly a staple on the slave plantations. Earthy and chewy, they combine well with the metallic taste of spinach. They need no pre-soaking. Cook for 20-30 minutes. Don't overcook as they go mushy.
BORLOTTI BEANS Pretty brown beans, speckled like thrush's eggs, prized in Italy for vegetable soups, as they cook to a creamy delicacy. Often used in minestrone, or cooked with ham bones to provide a savoury backdrop. Parmesan cheese is a natural partner. Soak overnight. Boil for 1 hour or until tender.
BROAD BEANS (fava beans) can be white or brown. The skins are very tough and need to be removed after cooking, but it's possible to buy them already skinned. In Turkey they are boiled and served whole with an oil and vinegar dressing, or cooked and pureed with oil, lemon and herbs to make an appetiser or dip. In Egypt, soaked, uncooked beans are pureed in a blender with herbs and spices to make a falafel mixture, which is shaped into small cakes or patties and quickly fried. Boil for 10 minutes, drain, discard the liquid and soak overnight. Boil for 1 1/2 hours approximately.
BUTTER BEANS (also known as lima beans). Lovely, large, floury white beans with plenty of texture, and a nutty, mild flavour. In Jewish cooking they are combined with brisket of beef to make a delicious stew. They are served with fatty meats such as pork and goose, but also absorb tomato sauces effectively.
CANNELLINI (also known as fasolia in Greece). Small white kidney beans with a tender, delicate flavour, used in salads and soup (fasolada). Soak overnight, boil for 1 1/2 hours approximately.
CHICKPEAS (garbanzos in Spain, ceci in Italy, channa in India) are nutty, sweet and crunchy. An exciting ingredient in the best soups and stews of Spain, Italy and North Africa, not to mention the Middle East where chickpeas are the essential component of both hummus dips, and the tasty fried snacks falafel, especially in Israel. In India, chickpeas are prized as a vegetable dish in their own right. They need longer soaking and longer boiling than most pulses - some chefs soak them for no less than 48 hours. Allow 4 hours' simmering time (but some chickpeas actually take 6 hours).
FLAGEOLETS A tender, pale green (occa- sionally white) bean of the haricot family, more delicate in both flavour and texture, and pleasantly gooey. The French serve them traditionally with lamb dishes. They are very pretty combined with red kidney beans and white haricot beans as a three-bean salad, with an oily, well-seasoned, mustardy vinaigrette dressing.
HARICOT BEANS Also known as Boston navy beans and, as such, the principal ingredient in Boston baked beans, the forerunner of modern canned baked beans. The main difference is that the original was richly flavoured with pork and black molasses (treacle). The French make their rich cassoulet bean stew with haricot beans, lamb, pork, sausage and preserved goose. The Spanish use them in their famous fabada asturiana, the Basque stew of pork and chorizo sausage. The Italians, who call them fagioli, put them in minestrone, or serve them as a salad with tuna and herby dressing.
LENTILS Lentils are enjoying an important revival in fashionable restaurants. The most fashionable are the stony, grey-green lentilles de puy, which keep their lens-like shape when cooked. They lend themselves to spicy, olive oil-based dressings and dishes where they soak up meat juices. The lens (of the eye) was named after the prized Roman pulse, not the other way round. Lentils have a meaty, savoury flavour and give body and substance to soups and stews. Along with rice, they form the staple food of the Indian subcontinent, where they are known as dal. They come in every colour of the spectrum - red, orange, yellow, green, brown, blue, mauve, beige and pink. They vary in size and texture. Although they lack positive flavour, they combine well with spices.
SPLIT LENTILS can be yellow, orange or red. These are pulses with the skin removed and cook quickly. Makethem into a puree, after simmering with onion and garlic. Lentils need no prior soaking. Whole lentils cook in 30-40 minutes, split lentils in 20-30 minutes.
MUNG (OR MOONG) BEANS (also called green gram). This isthe bean used to make bean sprouts, the Chinese vegetable. All seeds and beans can be sprouted, but the mung bean gives the most succulent, juicy result for mixing into a stir-fry. Apart from giving added texture, the bean sprout is nature's power pack, delivering vitamins and minerals to the consumer in an edible raw form.
PEANUTS These are not in fact nuts at all, but pulses. The seeds grow in pods under the soil (hence their other name, groundnuts). High in oil content, a staple ingredient of African stews, contributing in South-east Asia to delicious sweet and savoury dressings for salads and sauces for satay sticks (skewered pieces of marinated beef, pork and chicken).
PEAS (split green peas and split yellow peas). The Swedish make a traditional yellow-split pea soup with salt bacon, onions, cloves and ginger. They are also part of an old English tradition; at one time pease pudding was daily cottage fare. The peas are cooked with a ham bone or salty bacon, onion and herbs for several hours. Eat with pork, bacon or ham, as a lump, or thinned into a puree, or make it into a thick soup.
PIGEON PEAS (gunga beans in the South of the United States, yellow dal in India). In the Caribbean, the traditional dish of 'rice and peas' uses pigeon peas, either fresh or dried. Rather an assertive, strong flavour.
PINTO BEANS Pinto means speckled; these beans are like the pretty borlotti beans and should be used in the same way. Common in the United States.
RED KIDNEY BEANS Probably the best-looking bean of all, with a shiny, mahogany-brown sculptural form. The essential bean in Mexican cooking and the heart-beat of a chilli con carne. This is the bean of refritos, the cooked beans being crushed and fried with oil and slices of sausage, and sometimes served with grated, sharp cheese. In Spain they are served with tomato sauce and rice as a main course, in Italy, in soups. Boil for 10 minutes, discard water, and soak overnight.
Cook for 1 1/2 hours.
ROSECOCO A pretty pink bean enjoyed in the Caribbean and Latin America.
SOYA BEANS The world's most versatile bean, providing an excellent oil (soya oil ishighly prized in the food industry). A flour is milled from the bean and mixed with water to make a protein-rich milk, from which is made bean curd, also a protein food. The curd in turn can be salted and fermented to make tempeh. The soya bean is also fermented and salted to make yellow bean sauce (used in Chinese cooking) and black beans (a salty savoury accompaniment to stir-fry dishes). The mashed, fermented, matured beans make soy sauce.
The soya bean was also the guinea-pig in the making of meat analogues and in St Louis, Georgia, heart of the United States bean belt, scientists developed TVP (textured vegetable protein), turning the processed bean into extrudable material which was woven in muscle patterns of beef, lamb, pork and chicken.
Soya beans are smaller than haricot beans, but lend themselves to similar treatments, and are excellent baked with a sauce. Soak overnight, then simmer for about 1 1/2 hours, drain, mix with a spicy tomato or meaty sauce and bake in a moderate oven for 30-40 minutes.
THICK PEA SOUP
Tasty, nourishingand inexpensive, a north of England classic. Although it's called pea soup it's actually made with yellow lentils.
450g / 1lb bacon bones (from the rib)
110g /4oz yellow lentils
2 small carrots, diced
860ml / 1 1/2 pints water
If the bacon bones are very salty (usually red in colour), leave them to soak for an hour to reduce the salt content. Put the carrots and onions in a pan with the bones and water, and simmer with the lid on for 1 hour. Remove the bones, add the lentils, and check the seasoning.
Cook on a low heat till the lentils are soft (30-40 minutes).
THREE BEAN SALAD
This is a colourful and appetising combination of red and white dried beans and fresh green beans which makes a delicious, easy, summer lunch, very popular in the US. It improves with keeping in the fridge for a second day when the flavours of the dressing soak in. It is an economical and practical dish, especially when you have a surplus of beans from other meals.
225g / 1/2 lb cooked red kidney beans (or a can)
225g / 1/2 lb cooked haricot or borlotti beans (or a can)
225g / 1/2 lb French beans (or runner beans)
225g / 1/2 lb pasta shells (or bows)
2 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine, vinegar (or lemon juice)
parsley or green coriander leaves
10 spring onions, chopped finely
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
Boil the pasta in plenty of salted water till al dente (just slightly chewy), drain and rinse.
Cook the green beans in a little fast-boiling water, till slightly underdone. Drain, and refresh in cold water.
Make a d ressing with the oil, vinegar (or lemon juice), garlic, mustard, salt and pepper. Mix the pasta with the drained cooked or canned beans, the green beans and the spring onions. Sprinkle with the herbs and chill for an hour or two.
This has become one of the most popular summer dips in Britain. It's not necessary to buy it in supermarkets when you can make it to your own taste using a tin of chickpeas and thinning them, adding oil, lemon, garlic and parsley to taste - and of course tahina, the paste of crushed, toasted sesame seeds which can be bought in jars in Cypriot shops and health food stores. It's satisfying to make your own from dry chickpeas and, of course, cheaper. Buy chickpeas from a store with a rapid turnover, such as Asian shops (Indians use channi - chickpeas - in their cooking all the time). If cooking with chickpeas, think ahead to allow the longest possible soaking, at least overnight.
225g / 1/2lb chickpeas
2 tablespoons tahina paste (sesame meal)
juice of 2 lemons
2-3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
salt and pepper
parsley cayenne pepper or paprika
Put the chickpeas to soak in cold water overnight or longer. Drain and boil them in fresh water for about 3 hours. Drain but keep the cooking liquid and reserve a few chickpeas.
Put the chickpeas into a blender with enough cooking liquid to make a thick cream. Add the tahina paste, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Beat till smooth.
Serve garnished with the parsley, cayenne pepper or paprika, black olives and some whole chickpeas.
SPICY MIXED DAL
The Indians live off dal (assorted lentils), rice and vegetables, and have infinite ways of spicing them to introduce variety. The tiny beans are brown, green, yellow, orange, bluey-grey and creamy-white, and each has a slightly different quality in the cooking. Some remain firm, others break up into a pulp. In this recipe five varieties are cooked together, giving the
benefit of the qualities of each. In Asian stores you should find yellow lentils (toovar or arhar dal), pink (masar dal), green (mung dal), black and white (urad dal with and without skins) and yellow split peas (channa dal). You can blend as many of these kinds as you wish.
Serves 4 (with boiled rice)
285g / 10oz mixed lentils
1.75 litres / 1 1/2 pints water
1 onion, chopped
1 green chilli, finely chopped
1 inch fresh ginger, grated
1 tablespoon garam masala
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
2 teaspoons cumin seeds coriander, mint or parsley garnish
Spread the lentils on a plate and pick out any stones. Rinse well. Cover with water, adding the onion and turmeric, and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 35-45 minutes to a soft, soupy puree, stirring so it doesn't stick. When nearly done, add the ginger, chilli and garam masala.
To serve, put the dal into a serving dish and pour sizzling, garlic-seasoned oil on top (heat oil in a pan to brown the garlic with the cumin). Serve with rice or as a side dish with a curry.
BLACK-EYED BEANS AND SPINACH
Black-eyed beans are actually peas. They have a dull taste and a dry, chewy, texture, but this partnership with juicy, slippery spinach is a brilliant success, more than the sum of its parts. The leaves of Swiss chard can be used instead of spinach, but cut away the bitter stems (which can be cooked till tender on their own in a cheese sauce, as a quiche or tart filling.)
Serves 4 as a side dish
or 2 as a main course
170g / 6oz black-eyed beans
450g / 1lb fresh spinach
(or 225g / 1/2 lb frozen leaf spinach, finely chopped)
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
salt and pepper
You do not need to soak black-eyed beans. Cover with water and boil for 20-30 minutes, checking for softness. Don't let them cook to a pulp. Add salt at end of cooking.
Boil the spinach in very little salted water for 5 minutes. Drain in a sieve, pressing out surplus moisture.
Fry the onion in hot oil till soft but not brown. Stir in the spinach, to heat through, and add the black-eyed beans. Season to taste, and serve dressed with more oil.
Eat with bread and perhaps a poached egg, or as a side dish. Can also be served cold.
'Round the World in Recipes' by Michael Bateman (Headway/Hodder and Stoughton pounds 6.99). Next week: Flours and Breads