As much as I love Nigella Lawson, cast your eye over the recipes in her latest book, Nigella Express, and it becomes obvious that healthy eating and sustainable food shopping were not really at the front of her mind. Chocolate peanut butter sauce anybody? And just don’t get me started on the disposable oven trays and plastic bags. But anyway, enough of the griping, there are some great quick recipes in the book and I do think she has really hit on something with all of those tasty recipes using canned beans and pulses (chickpeas with rocket and sherry, cod and cannellini, and white bean mash to name just a few of them). Canned beans might just might be the perfect convenience food for the modern age; quick, comforting, healthy, agriculturally sustainable and nutritionally multi-tasking (counting as a “five a day” vegetable while also being a great veggie and vegan source of dietary protein).
A huge range of plant foods fit under that interchangeably used legumes/beans banner (lentils, peanuts, beans, chickpeas, soya beans to name a few). The ones I am talking about here are all those lovely types of beans that we dry or buy in cans to eat at our leisure later. Cannellini beans (white kidney), borlotti beans (cranberry), chickpeas (garbanzo), black beans, kidney beans and butter beans (lima), to name just a few.
Most vegetarians and vegans have known that beans are a good source of protein for years and the amino acid make-up of their proteins is a perfect complement to many of the other common plant protein sources. Fiddly protein combining for vegans and vegetarians we now know isn’t necessary, but it helps to eat from a wide variety of sources across the day, advice that applies just as much to us growing band of nearly-veggies. But the health benefits of beans go far beyond providing this basic nutritional cornerstone. Beans are a key part the much-researched Mediterranean diet, when eaten with lots of other tasty foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, fish, wholegrains and the odd glass of wine. Research in this area is still ongoing but at the moment there is very good evidence that this diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, with newer evidence emerging which suggests that this type of diet also reduces the risk of several major cancers, when compared with the diets people more typically follow in the UK and United States. Some of this goodness is likely to be down to the soluble fibre found in beans, the type that seems to lower cholesterol.
Enough about us now, what about the environment? Beans (or legumes) are an amazing crop. They have the ability to ‘fix’ nitrogen, co-existing with bacteria that are able to take nitrogen from the air and convert it into a usable form for the plant to grow. The upshot of this is that less artificial fertilizer is needed and even better, as the spent crop dies back at the end of the growing season it can return some of the fixed nitrogen to the earth. Organic and ecologically friendly farming methods have renewed interest in the age-old practice of crop rotation (you know, the one you learnt about at school), whereby farmers follow a crop of legumes with a cereal or vegetable crop that can then make good use of this added nitrogen.
Unlike many plant-based foods, beans are easily dried or canned to put away for the winter when fresh produce becomes less readily available, reducing reliance on expensively imported produce. Swedish research suggests that as a protein source beans are relatively energy efficient; cooked beans used between 5 and 20 MJ of energy per kg across their full lifecycle (from growing to serving), with even the least energy efficient category of beans (canned, imported beans) being positively saintly compared with 75 MJ per kg for beef and a shocking 220 MJ per kg for shelled shrimps (manufacturing practices will vary between countries and brands but this research still gives a useful indication)
More to eat
A few suggestions for quick meals based on a can of beans:
- Recipe to follow for my version of Nigella’s Tuna and Beans, a quick and easy store cupboard lunch recipe that takes 5 minutes to make.
- Make an instant houmous from mashed, warmed chickpeas with lemon juice, a little olive oil and paprika or chilli. Serve with pitta bread and sticks of carrot, pepper and celery.
- Add a can of beans to homemade or store bought soup to turn it into a more substantial meal.
- Fry up some onions, celery and garlic before adding canned tomatoes, beans and ground coriander, cumin and chilli to make spicy sauce to have with tortilla or rice (good with a dollop of natural yogurt on the top).
- Stew up a big batch of a quorn or soy mince chilli and keep individual portions in the freezer for when you can’t be bothered to cook.
- Mashed a can of white beans with créme fraiche, yogurt or olive oil and a spoonful of grain mustard as a quick alternative to mashed potato
- Beans on toast, of course!
More to read
- The greening of the green revolution: an introduction to why old-fashioned methods such as crop rotation can work as well as modern high-intensity agriculture (from Nature)
- How to cook dried beans, from Culinate (canned beans don’t really warrant such instructions!)
- Health benefits of pulses, nuts and seeds from the Food Standards Agency
- Evidence for the Mediterranean diet from Bandolier (Evidence based thinking about healthcare)