Beans & Seaweed
Two ingredients that should be used together more often.
I have been thinking a lot about beans and seaweed lately. They are two of the healthiest, most sustainable ingredients found on earth and both are common in blue zone diets. Yet, we don’t often pair them together. I don’t know why we shy away from it.
Regardless, the idea is starting to gain some traction. Many claim that by adding a bit of seaweed such as kombu to a pot of beans is an easy way to reduce the gas that can be caused from them. Seaweeds like kombu contain kelp alpha-galactosidase that helps break down the raffinose sugars found in beans, which are what usually causes digestion problems (Note: the herb epazote is also known to do this).
Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan recommends adding kelp while cooking beans in his excellent cookbook Cool Beans, and many other recipe writers are suggesting it as well. In a series of tests at Cook’s Illustrated, they discovered that adding kombu to a pot of beans can even eliminate the need for an overnight soak.
Personally, I’ve never had much of an issue digesting beans. When dry beans are soaked overnight, which is a simple technique used since the dawn of beans in the Americas, most of the sugars are leached out anyway. [It’s our preferred method in The Latin American Cookbook]. I think it’s when all of the shortcuts are taken – when beans aren’t soaked or different methods are used to speed up the cooking time – that digestion becomes an issue.
I asked Steve Sando, America’s bean guru from Rancho Gordo in Napa, California, his thoughts about it. Here’s what he said:
"I think beans are interesting in that they are hard rocks and it's a miracle that you turn them into creamy delicious orbs. Most people have had a bad experience once or twice so everybody's looking for funny little shortcuts and tricks. It's not that they're not valid, but the more you cook beans, I think you want to go as simple as possible and you realize it's time and water that do the work."
My primary interest in the combination of beans and seaweed is less about digestion and cooking times, but in regards to flavor. These two ingredients go together beautifully. Recipes combining the two aren’t unheard of in the Americas either. Both are harvested, grown and consumed along much of the Pacific coastal areas of the Americas, so naturally they have appeared in recipes together. While seaweed consumption has fallen drastically and many recipes have been lost, there’s still a considerable amount of history to be found.
In Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs would eat dried cakes of spirulina, a blue-green algae that grows in lakes and rivers (note: spirulina is not from the sea, but still), with beans, as well as corn and tortillas. In Chile, cochayuyo (Durvillaea antarctica) and cranberry beans often find their way in stews together, such in the recipe below (which is by no means a traditional version). From Baja California to Guanacaste and beyond, if you dig around in old recipe books or speak with traditional cooks, beans and seaweeds can often be found together.
The briny flavor of seaweeds and the earthiness of beans subtly play off each other. Not only does the seaweed bring out more of the flavors of the beans, but the beans help balance the flavors of the seaweeds. I’ve found that the more layers of seaweed you add - and from my experimentation you can never add too many - the more interesting the flavors become.
RECIPE: Porotos con Cochayuyo & Luche
Cranberry Beans with Kelp and Sea Lettuce
2 cups cranberry beans
2 pieces dried kombu
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon minced ginger
½ onion, chopped
1 cup cochayuyo/kelp (pre-soaked if dried), chopped
350 ml of dashi
1 cup fresh or fermented luche/sea lettuce (or 1 additional cup of pre-soaked cochayuyo/kelp)
After soaking 2 cups of beans overnight, followed by straining and rinsing them, place them in a pot with a strip of dried wild kelp like cochayuyo, which has a stronger flavor than farmed kelp, and a tablespoon of salt and cover with 4 quarts of water and cook on high for about one hour, or until tender. Drain.
In a frying pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil and sauté some minced garlic and ginger, plus some chopped onions. Cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent, then add to the beans with a cup chopped farmed kelp (already re-hydrated) and the dashi. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes.
When plating, add some of the broth to the bowl, followed by a spoon or two of fresh or fermented luche/sea lettuce (alternatively use fresh kelp that has been blanched and puréed in a food processor). Finally, cover with the cooked beans and kelp.
Some other ideas for pairing Beans & Seaweeds:
Bean & Seaweed Salad: A cold salad of cooked beans with cooked and chopped seaweed (small slices of cochayuyo works perfect for this) tossed in some sort of vinaigrette with raw onions and herbs.
Picante de Frijoles y Cochayuyo: A typical clay pot recipe from Peru for spicy beans and kelp that has mostly been forgotten, though still might appear on a random YouTube video on occasion.
Bean Chilli with Crunchy Seaweed: Add crispy bits from the smaller, dried strands of cochayuyo or any other dried seaweed snacks to a bowl of beans to give it a crunchy texture.
Piuran Ceviches: In the ceviches of the north coast of Peru, especially around Piura’s beaches, frejol Zarandaja, a common white bean also known as hyacinth beans, is one of the standard ceviche garnishes, alongside a seaweed called yuyo (Chondracanthus chamissoi).
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