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An Antidote for Ailing Diets, Budgets

Beans, the traditional Latin American staple, fends off illness and helps cure a bulging family food budget.

En español | We’ve made beans the butt of jokes, labeled them a poor man’s meal, and treated them like the ugly stepsisters of carne asada and fresh-made tortillas. But these days, as our economy sags and our waistlines grow, beans are getting the adoration and esteem they have long deserved.

See also: Make quick meals with what you have on your pantry.

It’s not only because they cost a fraction of meat, chicken, or fish. Beans also pack a powerful portion of protein, complex carbohydrates, and disease-fighting agents. Beans have become the perfect remedy for ailing household budget and diets. Whether they call the bean frijol, frejol, firsol, poroto, or habichuela, shoppers are giving them newfound respect. Nutritionists call them a “superfood.”

Prisila Castro, 64, a native of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, agrees. In the Paramount, California, home she shares with two sons, their wives, and her four grandchildren, she now makes more beans because of her family’s economic woes. Her son, a real estate agent and investor, has lost three homes to foreclosure. Another son works only two days a week now.

“The economy is really affecting us,” she says. “You can’t buy what you used to. Meat is really expensive.”

As they penny-pinch, the family cooks up bean enchiladas, bean stews, and bean pupusas.

“It’s time for all of us to think back to our grandmothers’ kitchens and cook the way our grandmothers did, using staples like beans that help us eat more economically and healthy,” says Sara Baer-Sinnott of The Latino Nutrition Coalition, run by Oldways, a Massachusetts-based food issues think tank.

Beans have been a part of Latin American culture for centuries. Archaeological remains in southern Mexico, Peru, and the United States show they were domesticated in the region 7,000 years ago. Latin America is still the most important bean-producing region; its 8 million hectares account for nearly half of all global output.

Prepared without lard, they are a simple route to good nutrition, says Jose Rodriguez, 75, who owns three Los Angeles-area Mexican restaurants. The restaurants serve pinto, black, and white beans cooked with olive oil or corn oil. They are often mixed with traditional Latin staples such as garlic and tomato and accompany meats, mahi mahi, and halibut, he says.

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“You can do so many things with beans," says Rodriguez. "You can serve them in many forms—with cilantro and onion, with pork, with hot chilies, mashed with cheese…the list is endless."

What his customers may not realize are beans’ ability to fight disease. Nutritionists point out that beans help metabolically control diabetes and high blood pressure, reduce the risk of colon cancer, decrease blood cholesterol, strengthen the heart and bones, prevent birth defects and anemia, and even make you feel fuller so you eat less and lose weight. A half-cup serving of dry beans provides at least 10 percent of the USDA Recommended Dietary Allowance for protein. Protein-rich servings of meat and chicken can’t compete: beans cost less than 20 cents per serving.

If you’re worried about gas, cook your beans slowly and change the water frequently during the process. This method helps reduce a sugar called oligosaccharide, which, because our bodies can’t break it down, causes gas.

As Rodriguez says, there are so many ways to use beans. Mash beans and mix them with ground beef for burgers and tacos. Make a bean salsa to top off chicken or beef. Use beans to make chili and serve with a generous portion of bread. Toss kidney beans and garbanzos in a salad. Make hummus from garbanzos as a dip for vegetables and pita bread. Prepare a bean dip for tortilla chips or baked tortillas you cook yourself. Serve main dishes with baked beans, black-eyed beans, or white beans.

Consider refried beans for Mexican entrees such as burritos, enchiladas, or tacos. Mix refried beans with cheese as you cook, or add the cheese later as a topping. Mix refried beans or cooked whole ones with sardines, then sauté in olive oil. Cook them with eggs and ham, or mix refried beans with mole sauce. 

If you can’t remember your grandmother’s favorite recipe, start a new tradition for your grandchildren with the three recipes we have to offer. Let your creativity take over.

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