The Benefits of Beans

From a health standpoint, beans are every bit as magical as the beans Jack of "Jack and the Beanstalk" fame exchanged for a cow -- and much less expensive. Packed with protein and fiber, beans are a cholesterol-free and virtually fat-free food. And you can prepare many hearty bean recipes for roughly the cost of a postage stamp per serving.

For that, you get a highly versatile food that keeps well, is easy to cook and, unlike meat or poultry, has no waste.

We're not talking about fresh green beans here, but dried beans or "legumes" as they're technically termed. Legumes, a class of vegetables that includes beans, peanuts, peas, lentils and red kidney beans, represents the greatest source of plant protein. Half a cup of kidney beans has about 7 to 8 grams of protein, without any fat or cholesterol. Legumes are also second only to wheat bran as a source of dietary fiber. They also are rich in complex carbohydrates, B vitamins, zinc, potassium, calcium, iron and phytochemicals, nutrients that may help prevent cancer.

Preparing dried beans for cooking could hardly be easier. You can either soak them overnight in cold water or boil them briefly and let them stand for an hour. A pressure cooker can expedite that process. Or if that seems like too much trouble, a convenient alternative would be to open up a can of kidney beans, chickpeas or other beans. Canned beans are nutritionally as good, but they'll have much more sodium. You can remove most of the sodium, however, by draining and rinsing them.

You can add beans to soups, casseroles and salads, or make dips or hummus with chickpeas or garbanzo beans. Consider making beans, not meat, the focal point of your next meal, and incorporating them as side dishes into others. Instead of beef or turkey, try using several types of beans in chili. Proteins from beans, fruits, vegetables and grains generally do not contain all essential amino acids a body needs to build proteins. They are called incomplete proteins. By combining sources of plant proteins, you get all essential amino acids in amounts your body needs, or complete protein. Bean-and-rice dishes, for example, provide complete protein. Soybeans are an exception, they contain all the amino acids needed to make a complete protein.

Low-Fat Black Bean Chili

1 pound black beans

2 cups chopped onions (about two large)

1 cup chopped sweet pepper (red, yellow or green)

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons cumin

2 teaspoons dried cilantro

1 28-ounce can tomatoes

Soak beans according to package directions. Rinse. Add all ingredients except tomatoes to three quarts water. Bring to boil, then reduce to low heat. Simmer for about two hours, until beans are soft and water is gone. Add tomatoes. Cook until tomatoes are heated. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with fat-free sour cream and chopped green onions. Serves 6.

Nutrition analysis (per serving): 290 calories, 18 grams of protein, less than 1 gram of fat, 15 grams of fiber.

Red Lentil Soup

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, chopped

1 red pepper, chopped

2 cloves garlic

1 cup lentils -- red, green or brown all end up about the same color

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/4 teaspoon powdered cloves

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 1/2 teaspoon cumin

In large pot, saute onion, pepper and garlic in oil. Add other ingredients and two quarts water. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 11/2 hours. Puree in blender if desired. Serves 6.

Nutrition analysis (per serving): 110 calories, 9 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat, 4 grams of fiber.

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