Beans are an exceptional way to reduce your food costs while providing a nutrient-dense and delicious meal. They are the original frugal meal. They are a great source of protein, but it must be noted this is not complete. Traditionally, beans are served with a whole grain, each complementing the other's amino acid low point. Beans, for example, contribute the amino acid lysine, which grains are low in, and grains contribute methionine and tryptophan. This is the idea of complementation, proposed by Frances Moore Lappe in her classic book Diet for A Small Planet back in the '70s and '80s - but she herself has gone on to debunk this idea. If you are a vegetarian, I think it's still a good idea to include beans and whole grains together, covering your bases so to speak.
The largest issue with beans is that they contain long chain sugars called oligosaccharides, which the human stomach is not able to break down. It is these that ferment in the stomach and cause gas. The whole preparation of beans, and cooking, is aimed at breaking down these long chain sugars. Beans must be pre-soaked for at least 12 hours in lots of water - even when it's hot, I soak them at room temperature. Strain off the soaking water and rinse - you're ready to cook them. Beware if you are buying canned beans (even organic) as they are often not soaked, but rather the pressure from canning is relied upon to soften the beans. Those oligosaccharides are still there. There is an American import brand (Eden Beans) that soaks them, cooks them with Kombu and uses a BPA-free can - this is my emergency bean.
You might remember my article from September 2011 farewelling the sea vegetable kombu - I used to add a small strip of this to my cooking beans as it helped to soften the bean and also make it easier to digest. Alas, as I no longer able to access this sea vegetable, options include adding the Indian herb asafoetida (hing), cumin, coriander or anise to help in this regard. You may also come across a product sold as Beano - this is an anti-oligosaccharide enzyme. Don't add salt - this will only help to toughen the bean, so leave that until they are cooked. You could also cook the beans in a bone stock - this will also help you digest them (not the oligosaccharides), but rather the overall picture of protein, fibre and carbohydrate. It will also ensure that you make more of the protein bio-available. But remember while beans are not meat, they are a hefty food to digest, and a small amount (1/2 cup cooked beans) is better more often, than a lot every now and then. Serving with yoghurt or sour cream will also add good bugs to help the digestive process.
Now, to buy organic or conventional beans? I'm mostly going for conventional these days. A large percentage of organic beans coming into Australia are from China and because they are organic, they can't be sprayed and so are heat treated instead. They don't cook. Ever. If your beans are not cooking in the suggested timeframes (generally 1½ hours) they are either exceptionally old, or heat treated. A bean is cooked when it yields its soft starchy centre to gentle pressure. But do go ahead and make use of technology - pressure cooker, slow cooker or a thermomix. Just take care if using a slow cooker, don't use a red kidney bean - these have toxins that need a high temperature (boiling) to break them down.
So, to our pot of beans. This simple meal served with a bowl of whole grain (I like brown rice) is exceptionally grounding as simple food often is. It nourished generations of hard working peoples in many incarnations across the world - black beans and quinoa in South America, with molasses and spent ham bones in the classic baked beans, or curried dahls and basmati in the Indias. It's truly food for the body and soul.
Jude Blereau is a wholefood cook and writer based on Perth. www.wholefoodcooking.com.au