Sometimes, it’s the simple things in life that we take for granted– milk and cereal, peas and carrots, eggs and bacon, and rice and beans. Interestingly, rice and beans have been staple menu items in many cuisines for centuries, but is this by chance or by design? Did our ancestors realize the composition of these foods actually results in a complete protein? Both rice and beans are supplemental proteins (incomplete) in that each is abundant and deficient in an essential amino acid. The nutrient profiles of these foods allows them to work synergistically in producing a complete protein.
The human body produces twenty-two amino acids, however there are nine essential amino acids that must be gained through diet: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. In the case of rice and beans, lysine is abundant in beans, but deficient in grains. On the other hand, grains are high in methionine, and beans are not, so it’s a trade-off. The combination of certain supplemental foods will “complete” the essential amino acid formula, thus providing a complete protein. Other combinations of food are complete proteins–lentils and barley, peanut butter and whole grain bread, legumes with nuts/seeds and raw spinach with almonds. Plant based complete proteins include soy, quinoa, hemp seeds, buckwheat, and amaranth. Soy based foods that are complete proteins include tofu, tempeh, and seitan.
Legumes provide both soluble and insoluble fiber, neither which are digested or absorbed into the blood. Insoluble fiber moves quickly through the intestinal tract, balancing the pH levels and removing toxic waste. Soluble fiber forms a gel when combined with liquid and binds to fatty acids; this prolongs the process of emptying the stomach, thus, sugar is released and absorbed more slowly. Due to complex carbohydrates, legumes have a low glycemic index which results in the sugars taking longer to break down. Since it takes longer for the soluble fiber to break down, you feel full for a longer period of time.
Beans are naturally low-fat, contain no saturated or trans fats, and are cholesterol free. Additionally, they provide folate, magnesium, potassium, manganese, iron, copper, and phosphorous. They serve as a lean protein for maintaining muscle tone and provide complex carbohydrates for energy.
Grains complete the protein when combined with beans. A whole grain consists of a protective husk; the bran, a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals; the endosperm, a starchy source of complex carbohydrates; and the germ, the embryo of the grain, which contains a small amount of protein, vitamins and minerals. Whole grains are labeled as such with a gold “stamp” on the box that indicates whether it is a whole grain (100%) or not.
Some people prefer not to eat beans due to the side effects of the oligosaccharides–those pesky complex carbohydrates that can cause temporary digestive discomfort and gas. The best way to prevent this is to soak the beans in lightly salted water for at least two hours, or bring the beans to a rolling boil in lightly salted water for about 10 minutes. If the tap water is “soft”, it might be best to soak and cook the beans in bottled water. Soft water seems to cause the beans to turn to mush. There are also over-the-counter formulas, namely Beano®, that prepare the digestive system for the oligosaccharides and eliminate any gastric distress.
When to Salt
The most controversial issue regarding beans is when to add salt. Some say not till the end, others say at the beginning, and some say add salt in intervals. The science behind this has to do with calcium and magnesium ions in the bean skin. If the beans are soaked in lightly salted water, the salt seeps into the beans replacing some of the ions, and results in a softer bean. If beans are soaked and cooked in unsalted water, they swell too fast and burst. So, the salt acts not only as a seasoning agent, but as a protectant for the bean skin.
Soaking and Serving
There are many types of beans: black, cannellini, garbanzo, lima, navy, pinto, soy, and kidney. Black beans offer the most antioxidants, whereas pinto and kidney beans contain the mineral molybdenum, which helps the body in digesting sulfites. (Sulfites are sometimes added to wine and other condiments). Some legumes do not require soaking, such as lentils, adzuki, and yellow split peas. A common staple that accompanies many a bowl of rice and beans in the South is cornbread, which provides vitamins A, B6, B12, iron, potassium, and calcium.
Cost Efficient and Versatile
There are various ways to “dress up” a bowl of beans. For instance, pinto and kidney beans often include stewed tomatoes and green chiles, sausage, or jalapeños. Navy beans are often cooked in a seasoned broth with a ham hock or bits of ham added. Black beans go great with a spoonful of hot mint jelly mixed in and topped with cheese. The versatility of the bean is endless! Many grocers have beans and rice in bulk, so if you’re in between paychecks and craving comfort food, a big pot of rice and beans can sustain you till the next payday.
Rice and Beans (serves 8)
1 lb. dried red kidney or pinto beans
1 can stewed tomatoes (with or without green chiles)
3 cups brown rice
1 Tbsp garlic powder
1 Tbsp onion powder
1/2 Tbsp chile powder
4-6 cups water
Salt and pepper
Packaged cornbread optional
- Rinse beans
2a. * Soaking Method: Place rinsed beans in bowl; add 1 teaspoon salt; cover with water; let sit, covered, for a minimum of two hours
– OR –
2b. *Fast Boil Method: On high heat, add beans, salt, and 6 cups water (enough to cover beans); bring to rapid boil; boil for 10 minutes uncovered
- After either soaking method, keep beans in soaking water on cook on medium heat uncovered (you may have to add more water to the pot)
- Add garlic, onion and chili powder
- Cook beans for about 1 1/2 hours–check often to ensure there is enough liquid; add more if needed
- Prior to serving, taste to determine if more salt is needed
- Prepare rice; serve beans over rice
- Use either an organic, gluten-free packaged cornbread mix or a scratch recipe
- If you prefer a thicker liquid, mix a slurry of 1/2 cup warm water and 2 teaspoons of cornstarch; add to beans and stir
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