Despite the abundant sunshine earlier this week, and relatively warm temperatures for the middle of December, we’re at the point of the year where the days are the shortest. There’s more darkness and nighttime than hours of light. We’ve reached the winter equinox in the northern hemisphere. Welcome to Winter, season for all things cozy, fuzzy and soft.
Some consider wintertime to be characterized by the blues, that feeling of lackluster and laziness, or even more extreme emotions of withdrawal and sadness. It makes sense - we’re supposed to be hibernating, staying inside to keep warm and conserve our energy. If you’re anything like me, I crave meals full of comfort foods, the type that is hearty and filling, without physically weighing me down. This can be a challenge - to find a balance in a recipe which is substantial and light at the same time. It sounds a bit oxymoronic, until you try today’s recipe.
I want to digress a moment and make mention of functional foods. This is a bit of a slippery-slope, as there is no widely-accepted definition of a functional food. However, most major medical establishments agree that a functional food is a food that has a potentially positive effect on health beyond basic nutrition. So why do I bring up this topic in today’s post? I believe that beans are a functional food. In terms of their basic nutrition, they are full of soluble fiber, as well as plant-based protein, potassium, and folate. But beyond their nutrition label lies the fascinating chemical properties of beans! They contain tryptophan, the amino acid which is the precursor of serotonin. We all know that serotonin is the chemical messenger which acts as a mood stabilizer within the body. The winter blues that so many people experience can be attributed to a lack of serotonin in the body; one easy way to boost serotonin levels naturally is to consume foods rich in tryptophan, including beans! Just to note, other foods which are good sources of tryptophan include eggs, cheese, pineapple, salmon, tofu, turkey, and nuts.
I want to be clear that eating tryptophan-rich foods is not a cure for depression. Depression is a serious disease, one which should be managed by a professional. However, eating tryptophan-rich foods, thus allowing the body to produce serotonin, is a great way to keep the basic blahs at bay. Other methods for increasing those feel-good vibes are getting outside into nature, breathing fresh air (regardless of how cold it is outside), and letting the sun touch your skin without being filtered by sunscreen. My nearly daily walk, even in the coldest of days, always puts me in a good mood because my body is moving, I’m breathing fresh air outside, and allowing the sun to warm my skin.
Are you wondering how my belly reacts to consuming beans so often? I have no ill-effects to eating properly-cooked beans, no discomfort or indigestion whatsoever. How is that possible, you may ask? The answer is two-fold: my body is accustomed to eating beans and I prepare them correctly. The bacteria in my gut is primed for digesting beans and quite possibly contributes to my craving for beans. I believe that when you don’t eat a particular food or group of foods for awhile, the body loses its ability to easily digest that food. For example, if you avoid eating any beans for several months, the bacteria in the GI tract loses its strength and zeal for digesting beans. When the avoided food (in this case beans) is reintroduced, it’s a shock to the system, causing discomfort (bloating, gas). However, if beans are part of a regular well-balanced diet, the bacteria is ready and waiting for them to appear. Another part of bean digestion is cooking them properly. Beans need to be soaked to soften their skins before cooking, which also helps to promote sprouting (or germination). Sprouting helps to “pre-digest” the beans, it breaks-down the starches and makes the nutrients more bioavailable. Soaking beans also shortens their cooking time, which is a plus when you’re trying to get a meal on the table in a hurry! If you have more questions about beans, please don’t hesitate to send me an email, I’ll do my best to provide you with my best answer.
If it isn’t obvious already, I really enjoy cooking and eating beans. There are so many different kinds of beans, all with different flavors and textures, I could eat them every day and never feel bored! Maybe my family would revolt, but since I’m the cook of the house, they’d have to concede. I belong to a bean club, a quarterly membership program from Rancho Gordo, the amazing purveyor of heirloom beans and products. Right now, I’ve got so many different kinds of dried beans in my pantry and a whole long list of recipes to make with them. Earlier this week, I decided to make a simple dish with Alubia Blanca, a basic white bean. I knew that I wanted to keep the ingredient list short and maximize the flavors of the beans, along with the herby mushrooms that I sautéed in my deep skillet. The result was delicious, the cozy comforting dish that I was craving on a cold dark evening. See my recipe below and add it to your menu this week!
One last thing, I want to share an article I wrote, “Much Ado About Mushrooms”, which has some wonderful recipes that I’ve created using a variety of different mushrooms. I really enjoy my time in the kitchen, working with lots of different ingredients and learning about different cuisines. I hope you find the article interesting and useful.
Creamy White Bean & Herby Mushroom Sauté
Ingredients: (note - use organic whenever possible)
1/2 pound dried white beans
1 dried bay leaf
4 T extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1/2 red onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 t Herbes de Provence (or dried thyme)
1 pound cremini mushrooms, stems removed, caps thinly sliced
2 t fresh thyme leaves
sea salt & freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
to serve: additional extra-virgin olive oil, chopped fresh thyme and/or parsley, if desired
Pour the dried white beans into a medium-sized bowl. Remove any rocks or debris, then cover with cool water. Soak, at room temperature, overnight. Rinse under cool water and drain. Place soaked beans and bay leaf in a medium saucepan and cover by 2 inches with fresh water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer, partially covered, until the beans are tender. Allow 35-50 minutes for the beans to cook, depending on their size. Once cooked, drain, rinse under cool water, and set aside.
While the beans are cooking, heat 2 T extra-virgin olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onions and sauté, stirring occasionally until softened and brown on the edges, approximately 8 minutes. Add the garlic and Herbes de Provence (or dried thyme) to the pan and continue to sauté for an additional 2 minutes. Remove the onion mixture from the pan.
Return the sauté pan to the heat, adding another 2 T extra-virgin olive oil. Gently add the sliced mushrooms to the hot oil and do not stir. Allow the mushrooms to cook, undisturbed, until they begin to release their liquid. Once the mushrooms have started to sizzle in their own juices, stir them occasionally. Add the fresh thyme leaves and continue to sauté until the mushrooms are soft, tender, and golden brown on the edges.
Lower the heat to medium-low and add the onion mixture back to the sauté pan with the mushrooms. Stir to combine. Pour the cooked beans into the sauté pan and toss gently to distribute the onions and mushrooms with with beans. Continue to cook until the mixture is warmed and fragrant. Season to taste with sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper.
To serve, place warmed bean and mushroom mixture in a serving bowl. If desired, drizzle additional extra-virgin olive oil on top and sprinkle with freshly chopped thyme and/or parsley leaves.
recipe yields 6 generous servings
beans can be cooked 1 day in advance; keep chilled in a covered container, then proceed with recipe
leftovers keep well, chilled in a covered container, for 2-3 days; reheat gently to serve
makes an excellent side dish for grilled or roasted poultry; for a meat-free meal, serve the warmed bean salad atop of mixed greens for a hearty main course meal