What eolse is so cheap, chic and good for you? using THE ol' bean

January 30, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

You say, what with the ice and snow, the frigid temperatures, the kids underfoot, the flu that won't vanish, you're just not feeling full of beans these days?

Oh, but you should -- fill up on beans, that is. Dried beans -- a family that includes the familiar navy and kidney beans as well as lentils, split peas, black-eyed peas and chick peas -- are wonderful winter food. They're packed with iron and B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, copper and protein. They're loaded with fiber -- an important ingredient in a diet that helps prevent heart disease and cancer -- and jam-full of complex carbohydrates and potassium. And they're low in sodium and fat.

What's more, growers are getting an increasing variety of dried and freshly dried beans to market, so there are choices far beyond the traditional navy and kidney beans.

Everybody should be cooking with beans, says Sidney Moore, who writes a monthly newsletter for Sutton Place Gourmet, the Washington-based gourmet and wine shop.

"First of all, they're very cheap. Second of all, they're very good for you. And third of all, they're very chic," Ms. Moore says.

Beans are getting more popular, Ms. Moore says. "I think it has to do with a general resurgence of interest in starch. I think people have come to realize that all kinds of starch are good for them -- and they don't have to feel guilty about eating them any more."

Sutton Place has begun stocking bulk dry beans in exotic varieties from Gallina Canyon Ranch in New Mexico. "They really have a fresher flavor. It has a lot to do with [grower] Elizabeth Berry's not storing them for more than six months."

Ms. Berry grows beans and other vegetables for chefs -- she has 14 client chefs in Sante Fe, and others all over the country -- on 3 acres of her 360-acre ranch three hours outside Sante Fe.

Beans are a passion. "Every year I grow new ones," she says. "People send them to me from all over the world -- beans are seeds, you know. Then every year I have a tasting of my chefs here, and I grow the ones they like." Over the nine years Ms. Berry's been growing specialty produce, chefs have liked a lot of beans. "It just keeps building. I keep growing the ones the chefs like and adding on. Now I have 33 varieties."

Among varieties she supplies to Sutton Place Gourmet are borlotti, fava, flageolet, black ying-yang, painted pony, giant pinto and Christmas limas.

Ms. Berry plans her next chefs' tasting for Feb. 16, but this season she'll be growing more than 800 varieties of beans, which will be photographed for a culinary poster from noted chef Mark Miller of the Coyote Cafe in Sante Fe and Red Sage in Washington. Ms. Berry grew some of the chilies and some of the corn for previous posters in the series, and all the squash for a poster about to be released. The bean poster will also be all hers.

Besides the chefs and specialty stores, Ms. Berry's beans are also sold by mail order. The specialty bean business is driven by both supply -- what she believes people will like -- and by demand, as chefs ask for particular varieties. "I'm good at selling them because I so believe in them," she says. "They're just really so good for you."

Another reason for the rise in beans is the increasing role of ethnic foods in Americans' diet. From Italy come cannellini and borlotti, from the Middle East come lentils and garbanzo beans (chick peas), from Mexico pinquito and black beans.

Green Giant, a division of the Pillsbury Co., has just added black beans to its line of canned vegetables.

National surveys, Pillsbury's own studies of trends, "and especially Bake-off recipes" have indicated black beans are increasingly appearing on consumers' plates, says Lynda Kamps, publicity coordinator for Pillsbury. "We're seeing a lot of wonderful ethnic recipes come in using black beans, with a lot of Mexican, Spanish and Chinese recipes." They're also seeing recipes for African, Indian, and blended cuisines, such as Mexican and Chinese, using black beans, Ms. Kamps says.

"We're still looking at other types of beans," she says, as potential new products.

Beans have long played an important role in the Northern Italian and Mediterranean cuisine featured at Linwood's/Due restaurant in Owings Mills, says executive chef Mark Hofmann.

"Cranberry beans are well-known in Italy," Mr. Hofmann says. "We also use cannellini, lentils, borlotti, chickpeas. . . . Beans and grains are really 'in' because they're high in carbohydrates and low in fat. Everybody's just kind of getting educated about them."

And, he points out, beans are versatile and easy to fix. "All beans are pretty much the same. You soak 'em and boil 'em and then you can do anything you want with 'em. You can put them in casseroles or pasta, or in beef stew. You can use them like you would any other starch, like potatoes." Chefs in Europe have been doing just that for centuries, he says. "Now American chefs are beginning to work them into their cuisine."

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