We all know the song, but our dear friend Harold McGee puts it slightly more tactfully: “Several chemical constituents of beans are responsible for an uncomfortable, sometimes embarrassing consequence of eating legumes: the generation of gas in the digestive system” (On Food and Cooking, 486). Why do beans have this effect, and what can we do to prevent it?
The important thing to understand here is that gas production is normal. All of us rely on bacteria lining our intestines to help us digest food and break down things that we can’t use ourselves. They’re a good thing, I promise–have you seen those yogurts that tell you that you should eat them to restore the bacteria in your gut? That’s what we’re talking about. Even on a normal, bean-free day, these little guys produce about a quart of gas just going about their business. So for them, gas is normal and is a sign that they’re there and alive, but it’s when they go into overdrive that it starts to become a problem.
The relevant bacteria in this case are in the lower part of the intestine, so they’re kind of a clean-up crew for whatever the enzyme juices of the upper intestine didn’t get. For beans, that’s a lot more than usual: beans contain a lot of carbohydrates (like starch and sugar, but more complicated) that we can’t digest on our own. These molecules make it through the human digestion unscathed, but they’re just the thing for the bacteria in the lower intestine. Presented with such a splendid feast, the bacteria go to town–and for them, breaking down the molecules means that they produce gas. In other words, it’s not the fact of gas production that’s unusual but the scale. And when we have more gas than usual in our intestines…well, I think we can all figure out the rest.
The good news is that eating beans doesn’t automatically mean an uncomfortable night ahead. The carbohydrates that we can’t digest come from two places: oligosaccharides (three-, four-, or five-sugar molecules with an unusual linkage) and the cement holding the cell walls together. The oligosaccharides dissolve in water, so doing a quick pre-cook or soak and then changing the water can help reduce the problem. Unfortunately, you throw out a lot of really good things in that water as well: vitamins, minerals, simple sugars, and antioxidants. No good. Instead, cooking the beans for longer breaks down the big, indigestible molecules into single-unit sugars, which our body can process.
If you’ve ever cooked with dried beans, you know that this can pose a very real problem. Beans never seem to be done on schedule, and I know I’ve eaten slightly (or very) crunchy beans on numerous occasions when the cook just ran out of time. It’s not an insurmountable problem, though–I’ve also had many delightful (and blissfully gas-free) beany meals from dried beans. You really just have to boil them until you think they’re done, then let them go for another half hour at least to be sure. This seems to me like a perfect way to use a crock-pot, but I have not actually tested that yet as the search for the perfect crock-pot is still ongoing. In any case, the moral of the story is: cook your beans all the way through, when your bacteria are happy, so are you.
I’d been seeing piles of gorgeous peppers at the farmers market and immediately wanted to stuff them with things, of course. My first thought was the traditional rice-based filling, but then I started thinking about potatoes. I’m not sure I’ve been clear about this yet: I love potatoes. Like a lot. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, it was a done deal. The idea here is kind of a combination of twice-baked potatoes (except that they’re actually boiled-and-baked potatoes, but you know what I mean) and stuffed peppers, and I was very pleased with the result.
7 small potatoes, cubed
4 cloves garlic
1 T. olive oil
2 cups black beans (if dried, cook them for a long time–see above)
1 package chorizo-style seitan (I’m a fan of Upton’s Naturals, personally)
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1 t. cumin
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
Boil the potatoes until they are soft, then drain. Smash them a bit. You could add butter and/or milk here if you so desire, but it’s up to you. Meanwhile, chop the onion, garlic, and jalapenos. Brown the onion in olive oil, then add the garlic and peppers. Add the seitan when everything else is almost done–it just needs to be warmed up. Mix the sauteed vegetables and “sausage” into the potatoes, then add the cheese and spices.
6 bell peppers, hopefully stable enough to stand up
Cut the tops off of the peppers and remove the seeds. As you can see, most of my peppers fell over. You could avoid this by trimming the bottoms so that they are even, or you accept that they are beautiful even when lying down. Your choice.
Stuff the potato mixture into the peppers and top with more cheese. Bake at 350 degrees F for about 15 minutes or until the peppers are starting to brown.