Growing up in East Texas a meal that brings back memories of home, comfort and satisfaction is pinto beans and cornbread. Add some collards or a salad and a glass of milk and you really have my mouth watering. A similar meal evokes the same response; Purple hull peas, cabbage, tomato relish and cornbread. And when I describe these meals to clients, they all nod in agreement and usually they relate some memory of home. Why does the thought of beans and cornbread strike such a universal chord? Perhaps part of the reason is that beans and peas of various types have been nourishing human populations on the planet since the dawn of civilization.

Archaeological evidence shows that lentils and garbanzo beans were being cultivated in the Middle East at least 10,000 years ago. About 8,000 years ago, ancient peoples in Peru began cultivating lima beans and peanuts. (Lima beans are named for the city of Lima, Peru, where Europeans first encountered them.) By 1100 B.C., the soybean was domesticated by farmers in northern China and over the next 1200 years it spread to many parts of Asia, including India and Japan. By around 500 B.C., the Greeks and Romans were cultivating peas and pea soup was being sold by street vendors in Athens. By the first century A.D., major civilizations had been built on almost every continent and beans or peas were part of the diets and commerce of every one.

Today legumes are staple foods all over the world and account for roughly one quarter of all agricultural production worldwide. They provide about a third of human dietary protein needs. Because of legumes’ unique ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, they don’t deplete the soil as other plants do, which is why farmers rotate crops. After a season or more of a nitrogen-depleting crop such as corn, farmers plant legumes, harvest the crop then plow the legumes back in allowing the nitrogen-rich plants to revitalize the soil.

Beans and peas nourish our bodies even more than the soil. These nutrition superfoods lower cholesterol, help regulate blood sugar and improve gut health which leads to many benefits of its own such as improved immunity. Beans and peas are good sources of plant proteins. While meat and dairy foods are good sources of protein, they also bring with them saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. That’s one reason to limit serving sizes of animal foods. When we get more of our protein from plant foods, we get less of these harmful elements and gain the natural benefits of the beans themselves. A one cup serving of beans (~160-200 calories) has less than half the calories of a 4-ounce serving of most meats or cheese (400 calories). If you find a diet that excludes this valuable food group, toss it and instead look for whole foods that provide fiber and nutrients in a low-calorie package. That’s legumes.

If beans and peas are so good for us, how can we get them into our diet more often? This became the basis of a recipe that my dear wife Kathy developed over the past year. Living with a dietitian/nutritionist, Kathy often defers cooking to the food person in the family. She has very good cooking skills of her own. But she often prefers a good meal that requires less prep time. She wanted a bean recipe that is tasty, nutritious, easy to make and keeps well in the fridge. This month’s recipe is what she developed. Once she had the basic ingredients, she then began developing variations. By altering a few ingredients, the recipe transforms from a southwest bean salad to a Mediterranean dish. The dish makes in minutes, captures the wealth of legumes and is delicious as a side or a main dish. Now that’s a super comfort food!

Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with years of experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He is a Nacogdoches resident and he helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable channel 2 in Nacogdoches.

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