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Bittman, Beans and 7 Simple Tips for Expanding Your Culinary Horizons


Suppose you were planning a trip alone (with your family) in a remote Wi-Fi free yurt and you could only bring with you one lifeline to sanity, what would you choose?  This time I chose NY Times food writer Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian”.  Already smitten, this book swept me into a whole new level of appreciation for Bittman’s understated culinary genius.

I recall once watching Cybill Shephard’s stern TV reenactment of Martha Stewart cooking her way through Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, which at the time struck me as extreme, if not borderline insane.  Now years later, wading through Bittman’s 997 pages of hardbound goodness gave me a new perspective.

Of course the opening line in the chapter on beans almost made me cry; “I adore beans and have cooked with them regularly for my entire adult life” confesses Bittman.  “As I’ve traveled, as I’ve experimented, as I’ve discovered new varieties and the joys of fresh beans, I’ve grown to love them more and more”.  For me those words and the many that followed offered a fresh surge of inspiration to get back into the kitchen with renewed vigor.  I left that yurt with a plan in mind and a shopping list in hand, recharged and super excited to try on some interesting new dishes made with beans and grains I don’t typically use.

It’s rare to find a man who loves beans as much as I do.  And Bittman’s casual, use-what-you-have-on-hand cooking style is a perfect fit for busy people who enjoy healthy eating as much as he does.  If you can get past the looming structure of it, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian takes the mystery out of many foods mistakenly assumed complicated.  And in case you’re worried about how to adapt to all this new fiber, Bittman tackles that topic as well- beans don’t have to be associated with gas!

In typical plain-talk style he suggests maintaining a healthy level of fiber in your diet to promote digestive efficiency and free you from issues of gastric distress.  He bluntly concludes; “If you’re uncomfortable after eating legumes, see your doctor”.  While the extremity of this advice did make me chuckle, it’s out of context here and perhaps even in the original text.  Most Americans are so fiber-deficit that people do associate beans with gas, often as a point of concern.

So how does one build a healthy fiber intake without the, um, gastrointestinal issues?  The key is a slow transition; this will minimize any digestive issues as your body relearns how to process real food. Work your way up to a healthy fiber intake by making the switch from refined grains to whole ones and incorporating the recommended intake of at least four servings per week of beans into your diet.

This is a relatively quick process, a matter of weeks should suffice.  Embrace this opportunity to discover a whole new world of under-appreciated yet thoroughly delicious healthy, whole foods.

Here are 7 simple suggestions to help you expand your culinary horizons:

  1. Select one new whole grain you’d like to try:  faro, wheat berries, hulled barley and quinoa are all good choices for flavor and versatility.
  2. Choose one bean variety you’d like to try: cooking from scratch.  Garbanzo or cannellini beans are a great place to start since they’re readily available, much more delicious fresh than canned and very versatile.
  3. Schedule a time when you know you’ll be home for a couple of hours to do your cooking.
  4. The day prior, soak your beans in enough water to cover them by at least 4”
  5. Cook your beans and grains according to instructions
  6. Drain grains after cooking to store covered for up to 5 days in the fridge, or 2-3 months frozen.
  7. Store beans in their cooking water in the fridge for up to 5 days or 2-3 months frozen.

For perfectly cooked beans:  add 1 tsp. salt and 2 tbsps. lemon juice to beans after they begin to tenderize during cooking, about 45 minutes.

For easy weekly menu planning:    Cook enough beans and grains to serve for several meals during the week, then freeze the rest in family serving-sized containers.  I love glass jars for this, but be sure to leave the lid slightly askew during freezing to allow for expansion.

Whole foods are the gateway to good health so getting to know them better holds no shortage of reward.   And reading through a master work like Bittman’s HTCEV (or similar) can get even the most competent cook inspired.  So take a moment to pick up a great cookbook and really give it your attention.  Read the recipes, envision the process and embark on a brand new culinary adventure today!

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