Monday, January 21, 2008

Not so much hot air - TUSCAN BEANS

From the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, 21 Jan 2008.

It’s half past January and New Year’s resolutions are breaking all over the city, but not mine. Many of those broken New Year’s resolutions probably pertain to food—no doubt on a principle of less, not more. Eat less fat. Cut junk food. Lower calories. One not two desserts. Fewer drives through the drive-thru and late-night raids on the fridge. Not me. My New Year’s resolution is all about more. Because, when it comes to food, more is so much easier to stomach. My resolution for 2008 is to eat more beans.

Beans are really healthy and I don’t believe we eat enough of them. They’re high in protein, fibre, calcium, minerals and vitamin B. A diet of beans has been linked to lower cholesterol, better blood pressure, diabetic control and reduction in some cancers. But I’m no health fanatic. I want to eat more beans because Saskatchewan is producing more beans. Agricultural pundits have predicted that more and more farmers will grow beans in the years to come. If they’re growing them, I’m eating them. In my quest for a local diet—consuming more foods produced close to home rather than far away—beans are a welcome addition.

The newest bright light on the bean radar is a pinto bean called White Mountain. It was produced by plant breeders at the University of Saskatchewan and was grown by farmers last year. As the name implies, this pinto bean is mostly shiny white and retains its colour longer than normal pinto beans, which grow dark with time. In cultures where beans are popular, such as Mexico and the American southwest, lighter pinto beans are considered to be of higher quality because they are fresher and cook more quickly. So, hopes are high for White Mountain in the export market. Unfortunately, consumers such as you and I can’t go out and buy a bag of it yet, as it’s not for sale locally. If we all clamour for more beans, perhaps that will change.

I picked up a 10-pound bag of the common dark pinto bean last spring at the Super Duper Flea Market at the Saskatoon exhibition grounds. Yes, there among the antiques and collectibles and junk, a local farmer was selling her pinto beans, chickpeas and other grains. Like all those other flea marketers, I’d found my “treasure” that day!

If we broaden the definition of beans, as Ken Albala did in his fascinating new book, “Beans: A History,” Saskatchewan has even more to offer. Albala defines beans as “edible seeds from plants that produce pods” which includes lentils, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) and split peas, which are now considered staple field crops in many parts of Saskatchewan.
Fortunately, these “beans” are easier to find in the grocery store. Buy any lentils or chickpeas that are packaged in Canada and chances are good they were grown in Saskatchewan.
And finally, as if we need another reason to eat beans, here it is: the more beans you eat the less you’ll suffer from the after effects of eating beans. (Here’s a tip: Soak or boil beans in water, tossing out the water, to neutralize the gassy effect before cooking.)

Tuscan Beans
I read that in Tuscany, this dish is called uccelletto which means “little birds” because it is made with the same ingredients that were traditionally used to cook small game birds.

1 cup dry beans
1 small carrot, quartered
1 small onion, quartered
1/4 cup olive (or canola) oil
1 chopped garlic clove
2-3 chopped sage leaves
6-8 canned or frozen tomatoes
salt and pepper

Soak the beans overnight. Cover with fresh water, add the carrot and onion, and bring to a boil. Simmer gently until the beans are tender, perhaps 2 hours. Drain, discarding the vegetables. Heat the oil until it shimmers. Sauté the garlic and sage. Add the beans and stir to coat. Add the tomatoes and their juice. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer over low heat 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes thicken into a nice sauce.

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