Saturday, November 18, 2006


Beans are good food. When just sprouted you can eat the entire sprout raw. You may also eat the bean and its pod without cooking when it’s still green. Mature beans are allowed to dry, winnowed then stored. Like all naturally grown food, unless treated with radiation or some form of preservative, beans contain the seeds of their own destruction in the form of fungus spores and microscopic insect eggs. The eggs will eventually result in moths or some sort of beetle but the development of the larvae – the generic weevil – is slowed by cold weather, meaning you can usually count on beans to get you through the winter ... assuming the ones you store are from that fall’s crop.

Unfortunately, a dry bean is a virtually indigestible lump of starch. Grinding them into a coarse flour makes them a bit more digestible but the best way to prepare beans is to cook them and therein lies a tale. And the reason for this article.

Boiling a bean will soften it but it is still little more than a pill of starch and your guts will have a hell of a time getting any good from it.

To prepare beans for cooking you have to wake them up.

To wake up a bean, you soak it in water. The water activates the bean’s chemical engine. It thinks it just got planted and uses the water to begin converting its storehouse of starches into sugars and other good things.

Soak the beans long enough, they will sprout. If you’re showing symptoms of scurvy, eating the sprouts will help, although I think sprouted wheat has more Vitamin C. And you can forget all that ‘MDA’ bullshit. The Minimum Daily Requirement for Vitamin C varies wildly among individuals and even then, reflects only the amount of ascorbic acid needed to suppress the symptoms of scurvy. Suppression of symptoms is a different matter entirely from ensuring good health. If this point isn’t clear it may help if you compare the amount of water needed for survival to the amount needed by someone doing a hard day’s work in a warm climate. Lay quietly in the shade, you can survive on as little as a quart of water per day. But you’ll need at least a gallon a day to get by in the desert and up to five gallons per day if you’re doing heavy labor.

The MDA/RDA bullshit is similar to that quart-a-day figure. The MDA for ascorbic acid is based on a bell curve from data compiled in the late 1930's under one of those WPA make-work programs. By modern standards the test-population was not only too small it was seriously skewed. Bottom line: don’t put too much faith in it.

Sailors know about this stuff. The Chinese figured it out (and wrote it down) about 1100 BC. Native Americans (indeed, Native Anyone) also understood our curious failing – men and hamsters are the only creatures that can’t make their own Vitamin C -- and incorporated a number of antiscorbutics in their traditional ‘primitive’ diet. Western sailors finally figured it out in the late 1700's, largely from their contact with Eastern sailors. Ditto for miners, prospectors, trappers, explorers and so forth, from their contact with indigenous peoples.

But as I said, bean sprouts aren’t a very good source of vitamin C. Dried berries would be a better choice since the vitamin C doesn’t do any good unless people are willing to eat it. Dried cabbage flakes, onion flakes and even tomato flakes are good sources of vitamin C. Cheap, too. Unfortunately, dried vegetables don’t lend themselves to tasty dishes in the quantity needed to prevent scurvy. With dried berries you can feed them to the crew at every meal and be greeted with cheers.

But let’s get back to the bean.

Soaking a bean wakes it up. Waking it up triggers a chemical change. Among the several changes resulting from that on-going chemical alteration is a change in the way the bean tastes. The flavor of the bean varies according to how long it is soaked before cooking.

The older the bean, the longer it has to soak before the changes kick in. Once the chemical change begins, it proceeds at a slower pace in older beans.

Every variety of bean has it’s own signature flavor; Small Northern White beans taste uniquely different from Pinto beans and so forth. And as you might suspect, the range of flavor variation that results from soaking varies according to the type of bean. For some, the variation is subtle, for others it’s so extreme that people will insist you’ve doctored the pot with spices.

As foods go, beans are pretty smart. They’re versatile, nutritious, come in a shape that is easily packaged for transport and are simple to prepare. But preparation must take the bean’s unique characteristics into account. If you just throw them in a pressure cooker and nuke-til-soft you’re liable to have mutiny on your hands.

-Bob Hoover

No comments: