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Published March 04, 2012, 11:30 PM

Lentils, legumes offer meatless options for Lent

If you’re looking for an alternative to fish for meatless entrees during Lent – or for that matter, all year round – how about building some meals around beans?

If you’re looking for an alternative to fish for meatless entrees during Lent – or for that matter, all year round – how about building some meals around beans?

Crescent Dragonwagon has been evangelizing about bean cuisine for 40 years, dating back to “The Bean Book,” published in 1972, when she was just 18. Her new book, “Bean by Bean: A Cookbook” (Workman, $15.95 paperback) illustrates how the perception of beans has changed in the ensuing years, and how the number of readily available varieties has exploded.

“It went from a food of low social standing to being as it should be – a darling of people who love food,” Dragonwagon said in a phone interview from her home in Vermont.

Although she’s “The Passionate Vegetarian” (the title of another of her books, one that won her the James Beard Award), Dragonwagon isn’t a dogmatic vegetarian. Small icons at the beginning of each recipe in “Bean by Bean” indicate if they’re vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free – or “meatist,” denoting those recipes that actually include meat.

And one method she uses to develop recipes means that many carnivores won’t miss the meat, even when a dish contains none.

“One of the things I do as a food writer is to take a classic recipe made with meat, look at it a whole lot and tinker with it according to my taste,” Dragonwagon said.

As for her name, the former Ellen Zolotow gets asked about it almost constantly – so much so that one of the first things you see when you visit her website, dragonwagon.com, is an explanation. It began as an idealistic hippie-era protest against the Establishment. In the long run, however, she says that Dragonwagon was a great name for a children’s-book writer (yet another branch of her career).

Bean basics

Dragonwagon offered these tips for buying, cooking and enjoying beans.

Try to buy dried beans at a store that has good turnover.

“The older they get, the more difficulty there is in getting them creamy and tender,” she said. “If they’re too old, they never do get right and end up just breaking into shards.”

How do you determine how long the beans have been in the store?

“If it’s bulk, go ahead and ask when they poured the current round into the bin,” Dragonwagon said. “At the supermarket it’s a little more difficult because beans don’t have to be marked as to what year the crop is – but stay away from any packaging that looks deteriorating or dusty.”

There are many ways to minimize beans’ famous “magical” side effects. You know, their notorious “toot.”

“If you don’t treat them right, they’ll maintain too many oligosaccharides, which are indigestible sugars,” Dragonwagon said.

She noted that cooking beans with sugar intensifies the problem. Smaller beans and legumes, such as lentils, have few oligosaccharides.

In addition to over-the-counter solutions such as Beano, there are traditional folk remedies such as cooking with cumin, ginger, cilantro, summer savory or an herb called epazote, which is often found in Mexican markets.

Lemon and Ginger Spicy Beans

Yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh ginger

3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon mild vegetable oil, such as sunflower oil

1 large onion, thinly sliced

1 jalapeno or other fresh chile, seeded and finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon ground red (cayenne) pepper

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/3 cup chopped cilantro

3 (14- to 15-ounce) cans of beans, preferably three different types, drained and rinsed

Freshly ground black pepper

Salt, optional

1. Place ginger, garlic and ¼ cup cold water in a blender; process until smooth.

2. Heat oil in a medium or large pan over medium heat. Add onion and chile and cook gently for 5 minutes or until softened. Add cayenne, cumin, coriander and turmeric; stir-fry for 1 minute.

3. Stir in the paste from the blender and cook for another minute. Add lemon juice, cilantro and ¾ cup water. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cover the pan tightly and cook for 5 minutes.

4. Add beans, stir gently and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, until heated through. Season with pepper to taste. Season with salt to taste if using low-sodium or no-sodium-added beans.

Adapted from “The Vegetarian Kitchen,” edited by Linda Fraser (Hermes House, 1999)