Peasant food: Behold the lowly bean

Beans, beans, good for the heart...

Sometimes it's hard to get past the indelible impressions that childhood leaves on the psyche. For example, although I know that the bean is among the most impressive, healthy, and useful foods, I have a hard time getting past their reputation as, well, a prime source of natural gas.

For example, a little bit of research has taught me that beans are among the oldest cultivated plants in the world; the ancient Egyptians grew broad beans, and common beans have been farmed for over six thousand years in the Americas. They are, I was impressed to discover, a fruit, not a vegetable, and they are an outstanding source of iron, fiber, and protein. Without them, vegetarians could hardly survive. Even so, I have a hard time going beyond the musical fruit designation.

Having eaten a broad array of international foods, I am a fan of the smooth silkiness of tofu, the spicy kick of hummus, the sophisticated simplicity of edamame, and the tangy delight of baked beans. I have enjoyed tuscan bean soup, frijoles refritos, and even fava beans (sometimes with a nice Chianti). I have eaten black-eyed beans for good luck on New Year's day, munched down on traditional southern green beans and ham hocks, and have found the symbolic bean in a king cake on Mardi Gras (being broke, I contemplated swallowing it, but morality got the better of me. I ended up buying a case of beer instead of getting a haircut. Aah, college).

I have even, from time to time, laughed at the exploits of Mr. Bean and read the terrifying tales of the Sawney Bean family (I know that these cultural touchstones have little to do with the legumes under discussion, but I'm going for full disclosure here). I know that beans are a fantastic nutritional resource, have a minimal impact on one's glycemic index, and show up in almost every world cuisine. Best of all, they cost...well, beans. Still, I have a hard time getting over their flatulent reputation.

Luckily, there's Beano.

If you can see past the gas, you might want to try this recipe. It's for a standard three-bean salad, adapted from a recipe by Jane and Michael Stern, and it tastes fantastic. Best of all, it's cheap and good for you.

Three Bean Salad

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup light olive oil

Juice of one lemon

3 garlic cloves, run through a garlic press

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

2 teaspoons chili powder

1/4 cup diced red onion

1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced

1 can of dark kidney beans, drained and rinsed

1 can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

2 cups of fresh green beans, broken into bite-sized pieces, steamed and cooled. Should still be crunchy.

One finely diced carrot

One finely diced red bell pepper

One finely diced green bell pepper

In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt, cumin, chili powder, onion, sugar, and jalapeño pepper. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients. Pour the vinegar mix over the beans and mix. Cover and allow to sit for at least two hours at room temperature, mixing every so often to keep the dressing circulating over the beans. Serve.

This salad tastes even better the next day.

"Peasant food: Behold the lowly bean" is part of a series on nutritious, inexpensive foods. If you enjoyed it, you might want to check out "Peasant food: How potatoes saved the world," "Peasant cuisine: Using traditional tricks to cut your food budget," and "Cook in bulk and give the chef the night off!" Alternately, if you have any suggestions for future "Peasant food" topics, please contact the author at

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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