Bean there, done that

I often report on the important role of legumes (beans) in the diet.

Legumes are highly nutritious foods that also benefit the environment. Bacteria that grow on the legumes’ root nodules fix nitrogen from the soil. The bacteria “feed” the nitrogen to the legumes. This extra nitrogen means that legumes have more amino acids, protein and nucleic acids.

Legumes are also typically rich in plant alkaloids, which are potent sources of herbal remedies with medicinal properties.

Indeed, in the June 2016 issue of my Insiders’ Cures newsletter, I wrote about a unique anti-aging compound found in lima beans, a type of legume. Subscribers to my newsletter can read this issue by logging onto my website,, with their username and password. If you’re not yet a subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.

The ancient Chinese considered soybeans, a type of legume, to be one of the “four sacred grains.” Although the raw plant is virtually indigestible, its roots return nitrogen to the soil to replenish it after intensive cultivation of grains. Eventually, the Chinese found how to convert soy into a usable protein — through the processing and fermentation of food products like tofu, tempeh and soy sauce. Of course, almost all of the soy crops grown in the U.S. are genetically modified, so if you choose to eat soy, look for organic varieties.

A truly sustainable food

Pulses such as dried beans, lentils and peas also belong to the legume family.

Packed with antioxidants, essential minerals, fiber, amino acids, and proteins, pulses are relatively easy and sustainable crops. They require less water and little or no fertilizer, since the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the roots allow legumes to essentially fertilize themselves. For this reason, perhaps, the United Nations declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses.

Dried beans, lentils and peas also store easily and retain nutrient content for at least one year. Dried beans require meal planning, however, since you must soak them for hours to rehydrate them prior to cooking. (By contrast, canned beans keep the moisture content and can be ready in minutes. Make sure the cans don’t contain BPA in the lining.)

Beans and peas make for popular side dishes. But you can also add them to any fresh salad, soup, stew, chili, or pasta.

Skip the processed snacks and opt for the real thing

I see many snack foods on store shelves nowadays made with beans. But you’re better off crunching on some nuts or vegetables instead of these processed snacks.

You can also find bean flours made from fava, garbanzo, and white beans, as well as black-bean, green-pea, and pulse-flour blends. They even make pulse pastas with a blend of grains and pulses.

In fact, I recently saw a prominent display of a new, gluten-free chickpea pasta called Banza at Whole Foods.

But I personally say basta to Banza and other pulse pastas.

Instead, do what the Italians do by boosting and balancing nutritional content when you combine beans or pulses with pasta.

For example, in Spaghetti ala Carbonara, Italian cooks traditionally add peas (piselli) with porcetta and grated cheese in a rich cream sauce for pasta. This dish was literally a “coalminers’ pasta,” providing abundant calories and nutrients for hard working miners.

Italian cooks also commonly add peas or piselli into red tomato sauce for pasta. In traditional minestrone or pasta e fagioli (the “pastafazool” of Southern Italian dialect) soup, the pasta and beans (fagioli) combine with vegetables as the primary ingredients.

My general advice is to keep carbs to a minimum. But when you do eat pasta, as I do on occasion (I’m part Italian after all), add some meat, beans and pulses for some added texture and protein.