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R is for Red Beans

By Cheryl Forberg

Ancient Romans had so much respect for delectable legumes, their nobility derived their family names from them.
Image of Legume Assortment
Legumes are a culinary paradox. The least expensive group of foods, they have priceless anti-aging benefits. Hundreds of beans, peas, peanuts, and lentils belong to the legume family, offering a legion of benefits as diverse as their varieties. Edible seeds that grow in pods, legumes are an excellent source of fiber. They're also rich in folic acid, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc and antioxidants. And their high protein and complex carbohydrate profile provides steady energy that lasts well beyond mealtime.

Cooks around the world dish up familiar and comforting meals to start each day, from Mexican refried beans to Japanese miso soup. Many of their meals and menus are built on a base of versatile legumes.

Ancient Romans had so much respect for delectable legumes, their nobility derived their family names from them. The Fabius family moniker is a testament to their reverence for the fava bean. And in France, the fava, also known as the broad bean, is celebrated for an entire season. In the Middle Eastern diet, fresh, dried and canned fava beans are a mainstay of everyday fare. A native dish, foul muddamas or foul, is a fava bean stew and it's a standard at mealtime, from breakfast through dinner. Fava beans don't have mass appeal in the U.S. – yet. But once the anti-aging buzz is out on this legume, fava beans will take on a whole new appeal.

One of the bean families' prized claims is its unbeatable amount of soluble fiber. A daily serving of cooked beans may lower blood cholesterol by as much as 18%, thus decreasing risk of heart disease by more than 50%. In addition to high protein and fiber, the fava bean has a unique water-soluble protein that has shown remarkable ability to scavenge free radicals, acting as an antioxidant.

Red beans are creamy and bold. The deep color of their protective red coat is a tip-off that they're loaded with phytochemicals. Their abundance of flavonoids has antioxidant energy to protect us against chronic diseases and the effects of aging.

And if you're watching your weight, a hearty bowl of fiber-filled soup or stew is a great way to start a meal. You'll feel satisfied, before you have a chance to eat a lot more. Like most legumes, red beans have protease inhibitors, a compound which is thought to suppress cancer cells and slow tumor growth.

Scrumptious inexpensive red beans have subtle flavors adapt easily to a variety of seasonings and cuisines.

Many of us associate beans with occasional digestive problems, especially if we don't eat them regularly. As complex carbohydrates, beans contain a variety of complex sugars such as stachyose and raffinose. These sugars require special enzymes to break them down. If the enzymes are absent in the digestive tract, the sugars begin to ferment, creating gas and intestinal distress.

When preparing dried beans, it is helpful to soak the beans overnight. This initiates the process of dissolving the complex sugars and thus minimizes their uncomfortable side effects. Before cooking the beans, they should be drained, rinsed and covered with fresh water.

Supplemental enzymes that ease digestive problems are available on the market, and they can be taken just before eating your first bite of beans. Most of these enzymes cannot be added to the beans as they are cooking however, because the high heat inactivates them.

Many beans also contain resistant starch, a fermentable carbohydrate and a prebiotic. Along with the bean's fiber contingent, resistant starch travels to the large intestine, instead of digesting in the small intestine along with other carbohydrates. It then settles in the colon, where it's attacked by bacteria and fermented. This process produces a short-chain fatty acid called butyrate, which is thought to have anti-cancer activity by suppressing tumor cells. It's been theorized that increased butyrate in the large intestine is associated with a lower incidence of colon cancer.

This is hands down one of my favorite red bean recipes. Though you can easily substitute black, white (cannellini?) or any of your favorite beans with the same scrumptious (and nutritious!) result.
Image of Caribbean Red Bean Stew
Caribbean Red Bean Stew
Loaded with protein and fiber, this exotic-tasting bean dish is scrumptious and filling. It can be served as a main course or in ½ cup side dish portions with grilled chicken or shrimp.

Yield: 4 servings

2 teaspoons Grapeseed or Olive Oil
1 medium Onion, chopped
1 Tablespoon Chopped Garlic
½ teaspoon Ground Allspice
¾ teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1 teaspoon Curry Powder
1 cup Dry Red or White Quinoa, rinsed
2 cups Cooked Red Beans, divided
4 cups Fat-Free, Low-Sodium Chicken or Vegetable Broth
1 cup Light Coconut Milk
1 Tablespoon Cilantro, chopped
1 Tablespoon Scallions, chopped

In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 to 6 minutes, or until it’s soft and just starting to brown. Add the garlic, allspice, cinnamon, and curry powder, and cook for 2 minutes more, or until fragrant.

Add the quinoa to the saucepan and stir well. Add 1 cup of the red beans. Pour in the broth and the coconut milk. Bring the mixture to a boil; then cover the pot, reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook the soup until the quinoa is nearly tender, about 8 minutes longer.

Stir in the remaining beans and turn the heat to the lowest simmer. Allow the soup to sit, covered, for 15 minutes before serving (add extra broth if desired). Serve hot, sprinkled with cilantro and scallions.

Per serving:
Calories 381 (From Fat 76); Fat 9g (Saturated 3g); Cholesterol 0mg; Sodium 188mg; Carbohydrate 55g (Dietary Fiber 12g); Protein 23g.

Don’t let leftover coconut milk go to waste: Freeze it for later use in smoothies or desserts.
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