They are easy to use in recipes and quick cooking - well, canned beans are at least. Because many cooks don't have time to stand over a simmering pot and stir beans all day, canned beans are more suitable for most cooks to prepare than dried beans. Dried beans are fine for no-tend slow-cooker preparation, but when it comes to quick cooking and recipe versatility, canned beans are the way to go.
Interestingly enough, canned beans have been the chosen method to feed the masses, or in the early days of canning, the armies, for nearly 200 years.
Human beings have been eating dried beans for about 10,000 years. According to archaeological finds, both the ancient Greeks and Egyptians ate bean dishes made from dried beans, and the Egyptians actually put dried beans in the tombs of the Pharaohs as food for the afterlife.
But it was a military leader, Napoleon Bonaparte, who offered a cash prize to whoever could develop a reliable method of food preservation for cheap, staple foods that could feed Bonaparte's far-ranging French army and navy in the late 18th century.
A food reference Web site, http://www.foodreference.com, says that Nicholas Appert conceived the idea of preserving food in bottles, like wine. After 15 years of experimentation, he realized if food is sufficiently heated and sealed in an airtight container, it will not spoil. In 1806, the French navy tested several canned meat, vegetable and fruit products, and was satisfied with the quality.
An Englishman, Peter Durand, took the canning process one step further and developed a method of sealing food into unbreakable tin containers. Canning facilities and factories were established in 1812 in New York City and in 1813 in England. As more and more of the world was explored, provisioning armies took on greater importance, populations moved from the countryside into cities, and the demand for inexpensive canned nutrient-dense foods grew.
Canned beans fit the profile.
Fast-forwarding to 2005, canned beans still bring those same nutrient-rich, good value advantages to consumer cooks. Now, too, we know far more about the nutritional profile of beans, namely that beans are low in total fat, contain no saturated fat or cholesterol, and provide important nutrients such as fiber, protein, calcium, iron, folic acid and potassium.
The health benefits from eating beans are cited in diet recommendations for fighting cancer and heart disease and managing diabetes and high blood pressure.
The 2005 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that Americans eat more than three times the amount of beans they currently consume. This means we should be eating about 3 cups of beans a week.
As I said in the opening sentence, don't be surprised if you see more, and I mean a lot more, bean-based dishes on menus in the next few months. We're bound to try incorporating beans into salads and spreads to increase consumption to the recommended amount.
After testing recipes using dried beans that I cooked all day and canned beans that I could open and use in minutes, I really couldn't see a great deal of difference in the taste between the cooked dried beans and the cooked canned beans.
The convenience factor of canned beans is indisputable. I use canned beans in my home cooking. I have found that rinsing the beans before adding them to a recipe can remove some of the excess sodium.
Regarding the problem of canned beans having a "tinny" taste, which was a common complaint in the past, I think today's canned beans must have improved the processing, the cans, recipes or something because I don't detect a metallic off-flavor in the canned beans I use in recipes.
If you need additional inspiration, do an Internet search for canned beans, or order a free recipe booklet www.bushbeans.com/recipebooklet.
Tommy C. Simmons is food editor of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.
Tuscan Bean and Sun-Dried Tomato Soup
1 cup medium pasta shells (e.g. cavatelli)
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil