Let's learn a little botany
Legume (from the Latin word legere, "to gather") are plants that bear pods which contain several seeds. It is the third-largest plant family among the flowering plants, after orchids and daisies. Legumes are espcially rich in protein, because of a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobium bacteria that live in thier roots. These bacteria are nitrogen fixers; they take nitrogen from the surrounding air and incorporate it in the soil and into the legume plants. This is why legume crops have been rotated around fields by farmers and gardeners since ancient Roman times. They help replenish the soil with nitrogen, a valuable nutrient for optimal plant growth.
Legumes are ancient foods found all over the world. Lentils are commonly mentioned in the Bible (Jacob's porridge was made of lentils) and date back at least 8,000 years. Peas and garbanzo beans (i.e., chick peas) also originated in the Fertile Crescent. Soybeans, which have been cultivated since 1100 BC, adzuki beans, and mung beans are indigenous to Asia - China, Japan and India, respectively. Pinto, lima, and black beans, in addition to peanuts, originated in the Americas. Europe's native legume is the fava bean. Black-eyed peas originated in Africa. It seems every continent, except Antartica, has its own bean, and cultures all over the world have incorporated legumes as a dietary staple.
Nutrition in Beans
What makes them good for the heart?
Legumes are nutrient-dense, which means they don't have a lot of calories, but still have lots of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.Most legumes have very little fat, with the exception of soybeans and peanuts, both of which contain heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Beans are a good source of folate, which helps lower homocysteine, a product of metabolism that contributes to heart disease. They have plenty of fiber, helping you eat less and lowering your weight and your risk for many chronic diseases, including heart disease. Legumes are gluten free, and the carbohydrates they contain have a low glycemic response, making them a great food for diabetics.
Remember back in 9th grade biology class, you learned (or should have) that amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Our bodies cannot make nine of the 20 amino acids, therefore, they are essential and must be provided by our diets. The proteins found in legumes is incomplete; they lack Methionine. The protein in grains is also incomplete, e.g., corn doesn't have enough Lysine or Tryptophan. Putting beans and grains together gives us complementary proteins - rice and beans or peanut butter on whole wheat toast or pintos with cornbread.
Researchers have shown that soy protein lowers cholesterol, specifically the artery damaging LDL-cholesterol. The magic daily number for lowering cholesterol is 25 g soy protein, which is the same found in 1 cup of soybeans.
Legumes are rich in phytochemicals, biologically active chemicals found in plants. The phytochemical, genistein, found in soybeans, inhibits artery-clogging plaque. Catechin, a pwerful anitoxidant is found in lentils and black-eyed peas. Daidzen, in soybeans and chick peas, is one of several phytoestrogens in legumes. Phytoestrogens in foods can help relieve menopause symptoms and strengthen bones to protect against osteoporosis.
Types of legumes
3 of my favorite legume recipes
1. Pinto & Cheese Empanadas *adapted from Lean Bean CuisineCredit: Rachel Ham
Photo credit: stevendepolo on Flickr.
- 2 1/2 c. flour (blend of white and whole wheat flours)
- 1 Tbsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/4 c. cold butter
- 1/4 c. oil
- 3 eggs yolks
- 3/4 c. milk
Sift together the dry ingredients. Cut the butter in the flour mixture with a pastry blender or two knives, until it is pea-sized. Whisk together the liquid ingredients. Make a well in the middle of the dough and pour in the liquid. Mix until just blended. Knead gently. Set the dough aside to let the gluten relax, while you make the filling.
- 1/4 lb. of shredded cheddar cheese
- 1 1/2 c. cooked and seasoned pinto beans (Anasazi beans also work well in this dish)
- 1/2 t. smoked paprika
- 1/2 tsp. sea salt
- 1/4 tsp. hot pepper (Aleppo, Chimayo, or cayenne)
- 2 egg whites, beaten stiff
Drain the beans. Mix well with the seasoninsg and shredded cheese. Fold the egg whites into bean/cheese mixture.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. On a floured surface, roll out the pastry to 1/4" thick. Cut the dough into 10 squares. (I use a pizza cutter.) Be frugal, the empanadas can be triangular so you don't waste the dough. Put about 2 Tbsp. filling into the center of each empanada. Fold the dough over itself, making rectangular pouches. Press the edges with a fork to fully enclose the filling. If you have a triangular piece of pastry, fold the dough to make a pyramid shaped empanada. Bake the empanadas for 25 minutes. Serve with salsa or pico de gallo.
2. Lentils and Rice *adapted from Mediterranean Light
- 1 c. lentils
- 2 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
- 2 onions, one sliced thinly, the other chopped
- 1 Tbsp. cumin
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/2 c. brown rice
- salt and pepper to taste
Put the lentils in a saucepan and cover with water by 2 inches. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. In another larger saucepan, add 2 Tbsp. olive oil. Sauté the chopped onion until translucent. Add the cumin and cinnamon and fry for a minute to bring out the natural oils. Add the rice and stir to coat with the spice-scented oil. Add the lentils with their liquid and another 2 c. water. Cook another 35 minutes, until the rice is thoroughly cooked. Check every 5-10 minutes and add water if needed. The dish should be porridge-like, not soupy, but also not burned. Meanwhile, sauté the sliced onion in the remaining oil in a skillet over medium low heat. Season both the sautéed onions and the lentils with salt and pepper. The caramelized onions are a fabulous garnish at the table. Pickled jalapeños make another good garnish, for those who like a little heat.
3. Three Bean Chili (shown above)
- 1 1/2 c. dried black beans
- 1 c. dried pinto beans (or Anasazi)
- 1 c. northern beans
- medium onion, chopped
- 2 medium bell peppers, chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp dried red chili (not chili powder, just dried chili spicy goodness)
- 1 Tbsp. cumin
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp. smoked paprika
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 large can (28 oz.) crushed tomatoes
- 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- 2 c. water
Soak the beans overnight, drain, and add to a large slow cooker. Stir in everything else, and cook on LOW from 8 to 11 hours. Garnish with grated cheese (smoked cheddar is fabulous) and sour cream.