Award-winning cookbook author Crescent Dragonwagon knows a lot about beans -- all kinds of beans, and how to use them to create everything from soups and salads to stews and curries and even cookies and ice cream.
Her latest cookbook, "Bean by Bean," contains 175 recipes for meat and vegetarian meals, as well as the basics about different beans and their origins, and selecting, preparing, cooking and storing them.
The 59-year-old author and former restaurant owner spoke to Reuters about her passion for beans, their appeal and healthy benefits -- and how to avoid an embarrassing side effect of eating them.
Q: Why did you write a cookbook about beans?
A: "First of all there are thousands of varieties of beans. Second of all you can eat them at every phase of their lifecycle. Third of all they are the only plant that actually enriches the soil by growing as opposed to depleting it. They put nitrogen back in the soil, so they enrich the soil ... In these straightened financial times beans are the food of the 99 percent and they would be the food of the one percent if they knew what was good for them. They are healthy. They are inexpensive and they are absolutely like the perfect canvas for any picture you want to paint with them from sweet to tart to creamy to smooth to texture to spicy."
Q: How did you learn so much about beans?
A: "I tend to be a person who when I get interested in something I get obsessed by it ... What happens to me is that I will fall in love with a particular ingredient, or a particular dish ... Once I make the decision that something has intrigued me enough to draw me in there is no end to it."
Q: Beans are a popular and staple food in many countries but not as popular in others, why is that?
A: "They may not be the first thing that comes to mind in America because we are so used to eating meat heavily but there is more and more interest in them from the health standpoint, from the cost standpoint, from the environmental footprint standpoint, and also because of the movement for the farmers' market and connecting with the food."
Q: Are you hoping to enlighten people about beans and elevate them to a higher culinary status?
A: "I didn't set out to do that. I just think there is so much inherent goodness (in beans) .... I am going to let the beans do it for themselves."
Q: Beans can cause unwanted effects in some people. How do you deal with that?
A: "It's pretty simple. There is a water soluble sugar that is in beans called oligosaccharides and they are indigestible by human beings. They ferment during the digestion process and hence you have gas. The more water you soak your beans in, the fewer oligosaccharides you have, and if you soak them in water a couple of times you can really mitigate it. That is not the only factor, some beans have more oligosaccharides than others."
Q: Are there any secrets to cooking with beans?
A: "First of all you want to do the soaking with almost all of the larger beans because that will take care of the gas and second of all ... they want to be seasoned and flavored."
Elsie's Cuban Black Bean Soup (serves 6 to 8)
2 cups of black beans, picked over, rinsed and soaked overnight
2 1/2 quarts (10 cups) of well-flavored vegetable stock or water
2 bay leaves
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and removed for mildness, or left in for heat, chopped
1/4 to 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil
3 large onions chopped
2 green peppers, stemmed, seeded, and coarsely chopped
4 to 6 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 cups cooked long-grain white rice, for serving
1 red onion, finely chopped, for serving
Drain and rinse the beans and place them in a large, heavy soup pot with the stock. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat to simmer and drop in the bay leaves and jalapeno. Cover tightly and cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
Toward the end of this period, heat the oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and saute, stirring, until they begin to become translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the green peppers and continue sauteing for another 3 minutes, then stir in the garlic and cook for another minute. Turn off the heat.
When the beans are tender, stir in the onion mixture, add salt to taste, and simmer, slowly, uncovered, to let the flavors meld, at least 20 minutes and longer if you like. Discard the bay leaves and jalapeno.
Place some rice and a good sprinkling of red onion into the center of each bowl and ladle the soup over the top.