"The Army gets the gravy but the Navy gets the beans, beans, beans, beans..." goes the song, and indeed, beans have gotten a bad rap over the years as a cheap protein substitute. Long have beans been the food of the poor, and during the two World Wars, beans were promoted as a meat substitute for meatless meals during times of rationing.
But a mere substitute? Beans deserve a better reputation than something to fill up the kiddies while the meat-eating men march off to war. According to SuperFoods Rx (see SuperFoods! Article 1), beans are a low-fat source of protein, are full of fiber, and contain a good dose of B vitamins, iron, folic acid, potassium, magnesium, and a variety of plant pigments collectively known as "phytonutrients." The fiber in beans has been shown to lower cholesterol in people with cholesterol problems, so not only do beans "substitute" for meat, they also help control some of the problems associated with eating high-fat protein foods. Beans have been found to help stabilize blood sugar, so they may be useful for people with type II diabetes. Beans may also help reduce some cancers, particularly colon cancer. Of course, some people have a problem with -- er -- the "inflatable effects" of beans. People who eat beans frequently tend to produce the enzymes necessary for digesting them, and have fewer problems. For those who just can't eat beans without the musical after-effects, it's Beano to the rescue! This product, in liquid or tablet form, contains the enzymes that will solve the problem.
The superfoods "beans" group encompasses most legumes, including dried beans, lima beans, lentils, green beans, fava beans, and garden peas. Think of the variety of flavors, colors, and cooking methods!
True beans are summer crops, usually planted late in May and ripening late in the summer. Because beans are legumes, they form associations with nitrogen-fixing bacteria that create nodules on the roots of the plants; hence beans and their bacterial friends put nitrogen into the soil, and beans don't require much in the way of fertilizers. In fact, too much fertilizer will make beans run all to leaves and produce too few flowers and pods.
Most beans will need a trellis to climb on. The good old "bean teepee" is easy to make from bamboo poles. Tie a half-dozen or so poles about six or more feet long together at one end, and sink the opposite ends in the ground. Run string around and around them as you would string lights around a Christmas tree, winding the string around the poles themselves to anchor it. You can also run twine between two sturdy stakes, running it across the top and about six inches from the bottom, then run twine up and down vertically between the two horizontal strings. Or run deer netting or bird netting between two tall stakes. Either of these will provide support for a row. Keep the beans watered well for full growth.
Beans can be picked when green to steam, stir-fry, use in soups, or freeze. To freeze beans, trim the ends and cut into pieces, blanch in boiling water for three or four minutes, and cool immediately in ice water before putting in freezer-safe containers.
Bean pods can also be left on the plant to dry if you want to grow dry beans. While dry pintos, navy beans, and garbanzos are cheap to buy in the stores (and can, incidentally, be used as cheap seed source), more exotic, flavorful heirloom beans must be home-grown. Want a full list of heirloom bean varieties? Try The Bean Bag. The more colorful the beans, the higher levels of substances called polyphenols. These phytonutrients are important antioxidants. Dry beans are super in soups, can be served cold on salads, or used for bean dips. Try a traditional French cassoulet for a warm winter meal.
Fall and spring are the time to plant two other important members of the bean group: Fava beans and peas. Favas are much better known in Europe than in the U.S. These broad beans have skins with a slightly bitter flavor that some people love and others detest. The immature beans can harvested when they're thumb-nail sized. They can be simmered until tender, sauted lightly in butter, then seasoned with salt, fresh thyme, and a good vinegar for a full, rich flavor. The vinegar helps alleviate some of the bitterness. Favas are also great in soups.
Favas for planting are huge, and should be soaked before planting. Late in the summer, plant them in rich soil where you've pulled out summer crops. They'll enrich your potato patch. They're also a good follow-up crop to corn. The plants will get a head start in the warm days of late summer, grow very slowly in the winter, and produce a crop in the spring. They can also be planted as early in the spring as the soil can be worked.
Peas are a familiar garden favorite, and another member of the bean group. Peas are most often served as fresh, immature peas, lightly simmered. Traditional peas are harvested for their seeds, but snow peas are eaten as immature pods, and sugar peas are eaten at a more mature stage, pod, seeds, and all. This gives the gardener a lot more food for the effort. Still, there's nothing that can beat the taste of fresh petite pois peas, barely simmered, and seasoned with butter and a touch of dill.
My grandmother always said to plant peas on Washington's birthday. That may be a little early for those north of zone 8, but the idea is to plant peas as early as the soil can be worked. Peas benefit from the use of pea innoculants, which add those nitrogen-fixing root-nodule-making bacteria to the cold soil. Soak the peas, toss them with a light coating of the innoculant, then plant immediately, sinking the peas about two inches into the soil. Early planting helps prevent pea enation, a fungal disease that strikes in early summer. Spring-planted peas are usually ready in June. Many parts of the country can get a second crop of fall-planted peas as well.
With the wide variety of beans available, it shouldn't be too hard to get the recommended four 1/2 cup servings per week.