Does it cost more to eat healthy meals? It certainly doesn’t have to, nutritionists at Wegmans Food Markets say. Think about all the studies over the past 20 years that have linked the traditional Mediterranean diet to longer life, healthier hearts, and lower rates of some cancers. One landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February offered the most rigorous scientific evidence yet that the Mediterranean diet can play a powerful role in lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Yet the basic building blocks of the Mediterranean diet are simple and kind to food budgets: You eat plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains in abundance, every day. You eat higher-cost, animal-based foods like meats and cheeses more sparingly. Eating this way seems to offer two advantages: It’s good for your health and it might also reduce your grocery bill.
Here’s a little secret to that winning Mediterranean combination of great taste, health benefits, and thrift: It’s the humble dried bean. In thousands of different recipes, beans are paired with other vegetables and seasonings to make delicious, hearty, protein-rich meals. In bean dishes, meat and cheese appear in small amounts for a little extra flavor, if they’re used at all. Some familiar examples: Hummus, made from garbanzo beans and served daily across Mediterranean lands, or Italian favorites such as greens and beans, or bean-rich soups like minestrone, topped off with a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Look beyond Mediterranean dishes to other cuisines across the world, and you’ll see that beans are a basic and beloved ingredient of flavor-rich, low-cost meals. In Central America, dinner nearly always includes some form of red beans and rice. Black beans are a staple in Caribbean cuisine, and in Indian cuisine, beans and lentils are as basic as curry seasoning.
The bean’s prominence in all of these cuisines is smart nutrition, says Wegmans Nutrition and Product Labeling Manager Jane Andrews MS, RD, because the legume family offers remarkable health benefits. “Beans and other legumes are exceptionally rich in fiber, especially soluble fiber. Everything we know about soluble fiber points to better metabolic health. This kind of fiber helps people maintain a normal weight, lowers the risk of diabetes, and protects the cardiovascular system. That means less high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, or memory loss. All this protection for about 25 cents a serving is an amazing bargain!”
Only a generation or two ago, dried beans and dried peas were often served in this country in soups such as split pea or navy bean, or in baked beans. Today, some people buy canned baked beans as a side dish, but most Americans don’t cook with dried legumes, probably because they can take several hours on the stove or in the oven to finish cooking.
Might more people in this country enjoy bean dishes if they could cut down cooking time by using canned beans, and if the dishes had fabulous flavors? The answer, Wegmans Food Markets believes, is a resounding “yes!”
“When we introduced a recipe for ‘greens and beans’ several years ago, we learned that people love cooking with canned beans if it helps them get dinner on the table quickly, and everybody in the family adores how it tastes,” Andrews says. “Our recipe for Escarole & Beans uses one can of cannellini beans and one package of cleaned-and-cut escarole. It’s hot and ready to serve in 15 minutes. When it first came out, most customers weren’t familiar with escarole or cannellini beans. After they tried the recipe, stores found it hard to keep those items in stock.”
This year, Wegmans has introduced four canned bean products under the Food You Feel Good About banner, each selling for 99 cents for a 15.5-ounce can – or about 25 cents per serving. The Tuscan Cannelini Beans can be enjoyed right out of the can as an appetizer or in a salad, or can be added as an ingredient to a wide range of hot Italian dishes. The Southwest Red Beans have a slightly smoky, Tex-Mex flavor – perfect for a salad, or in wraps like burritos. The Chana Masala Garbanzo Beans summon up the flavors of Indian and Pakistani dishes, and the Caribbean Black Beans taste like island cuisine.
“Bean-centered meals are fast, easy, and flavorful with products like these,” says Andrews. “And they’re thrifty and healthful besides.”
Meanwhile, the meal development team at Wegmans is at work on new recipes for these beans. One that’s already attracted rave reviews on wegmans.com is Tuscan Beans with Basil Pesto and Mushrooms also featured in the fall 2013 issue of Wegmans Menu Magazine. It’s “greens and beans” dressed up with a few extras that turn it into a dish you’d make for company – a touch of wine, baby portobella mushrooms, basil pesto, fresh baby spinach, and those flavorful Tuscan beans. It’s ready in 25 minutes.
“We’re thrilled with the reception this recipe has gotten,” Andrews says, “it’s probably just a matter of time before we’ll see more recipes that showcase these new canned beans. I can hardly wait!”