This recipe started life as a French-inspired cassoulet (bean, duck & pork stew) but has morphed with each iteration into a cheesy Italian-ish casserole, which is what I present here (with optional tweaks listed below).
Beans (and other legumes, like lentils and chickpeas) are a fine Mediterranean ingredient with countless (well, at least 13) benefits:
- Excellent Source of Fiber: Beans are rich in dietary fiber, both soluble and insoluble. This fiber content helps regulate digestion, promotes bowel regularity, and enhances feelings of fullness.
- Heart Health: Regular consumption of beans is associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. The high fiber content in beans helps lower cholesterol levels and maintain healthy blood pressure. Additionally, beans contain antioxidants, such as flavonoids, which have been shown to have heart-protective effects.
- Blood Sugar Regulation: Beans have a low glycemic load, meaning they have a minimal impact on blood sugar levels. The combination of fiber and complex carbohydrates in beans helps regulate blood sugar levels, making them a suitable food choice for individuals with diabetes or those at risk of developing it.
- Support Healthy Body Composition: Beans are a nutrient-dense food that provides satiety thanks to their high fiber and moderate protein content. These two factors can contribute to a feeling of fullness, helping with appetite regulation and reducing the urge to eat more than our hunger signals indicate we need.
- Plant-Based Protein: Beans are an excellent source of plant-based protein, making them a valuable addition to vegetarian and vegan diets. They provide most of the essential amino acids necessary for the body’s growth, repair, and maintenance of tissues (though, unlike animal protein, most plant foods don’t provide all essential amino acids).
- Nutrient Powerhouse: Beans are packed with various essential nutrients such as folate, potassium, magnesium, iron, and zinc. These nutrients play crucial roles in maintaining overall health, supporting immune function, promoting energy production, and aiding in the formation of red blood cells.
- Digestive Health: The high fiber content in beans promotes healthy digestion and can help prevent constipation. It acts as a prebiotic, nourishing beneficial gut bacteria and promoting a healthy gut microbiome, which is essential for proper digestion and overall well-being.
- Reduced Cancer Risk: Some studies suggest that regular consumption of beans may be associated with a reduced risk of certain types of cancer, including colorectal cancer. The high fiber content and presence of antioxidants in beans are believed to contribute to their potential protective effects against cancer.
- Inexpensive: Beans are generally more affordable than other protein sources like meat, poultry, or fish (though, as noted above, they also provide less-complete protein). They are often grown locally and are readily available in markets, making them a cost-effective option for individuals and families with limited financial resources. Indeed, according to a 2013 study, beans (along with potatoes — who knew?) provide the most “nutrients per penny.”
- Shelf-stable: Beans have a long shelf life and can be stored for extended periods without significant nutrient loss or spoilage. This characteristic is advantageous in areas with limited access to refrigeration or where food storage infrastructure may be lacking.
- Versatile and Adaptable: Beans can be used in a variety of dishes and cuisines. They can be cooked, boiled, mashed, or ground into flour, allowing for diverse culinary applications and adaptations to local food preferences and cooking traditions. (For instance, my Thai-ish curry recipe tastes delicious when you use beans, lentils, or tofu (bean curd) instead of shrimp or chicken.)
- Environmentally Friendly: Beans are often grown as a part of sustainable agricultural systems. They have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, enriching the soil and reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers. This makes beans an environmentally friendly crop that can be cultivated using traditional and organic farming practices.
- Provide Dietary Diversity: In regions where food diversity may be limited, beans can contribute to diversifying the diet and improving overall nutrition. Incorporating different varieties of beans can help address nutrient deficiencies and provide a more balanced and varied food intake.
Alas, not everyone tolerates beans. In people who have imbalanced gut bacteria (for instance, after a course of antibiotics or chemotherapy) they can cause severe bloating and gas. Some legumes are harder to digest than others; lima beans, navy beans, and soybeans, for example, can be particularly “gas-inducing,” whereas chickpeas (garbanzos) or lentils are often easier to digest.
Some of the unpleasant side effects of legumes can be mitigated by lengthy soaking (I usually soak mine for 24 hours), rinsing, cooking, and draining (followed by a final rinse). Adding probiotic bacteria may further help to reduce beans’ gassiness and increase their nutritional value, researchers have discovered; I often add 1-2 tbsp plain kefir or yogurt to the soaking water. Sprouting may help, too (I occasionally sprout lentils and chickpeas); it not only makes beans more digestible, but it also increases their nutritional value and speeds up cooking time.
People who don’t consume legumes regularly may want to ease into bean-eating gradually, starting with 1-2 tbsp (say, chickpeas tossed into a salad) and gradually increasing, to give their gut bacteria time to adjust to the increase in fiber. If you have any doubts about whether beans are right for you, talk with your doctor or a certified nutrition professional for personalized dietary advice.
Cheesy Beans with Chicken Sausage
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 lb Italian chicken sausage raw (I like Sprouts') or ready-cooked(I like Trader Joe's and Bilinski's)
- 4 cloves garlic finely minced
- ½ - 1 tsp red chili flakes
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 15 oz can finely diced tomatoes
- ½ cup chicken bone broth or vegetable broth
- 8 oz spinach fresh or frozen & defrosted
- ¾ tsp salt
- ½ tsp black pepper freshly ground
- 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
- 2 15-oz cans cannellini or Great Northern beans drained & rinsed (or the equivalent in home-soaked-&-cooked cannellini beans; Rancho Gordo's Marcella beans are my favorites -- they have tender skins and creamy flesh)
- 5 oz part-skim mozzarella coarsely grated
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- ½ cup fresh basil reserve a few leaves for garnish, coarsely chop the rest
- Preheat the oven to 450℉.
- In a large skillet or medium, shallow pot over medium heat, warm 1 tbsp of the olive oil until it shimmers. Add the chicken sausages and saute all around until browned; if using raw sausage this will take about 8 minutes, if using pre-cooked sausages it will take about half that time. Transfer the sausages to a plate and let them cool.
- Add the remaining oil to the pot and saute garlic & red chili flakes for 20 seconds, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon; do not let the garlic brown.
- Add the tomato paste and cook another 30 seconds, stirring constantly to prevent the paste & garlic from burning.
- Add the diced tomatoes, broth, salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning, and bring to a gentle boil. Add the drained & rinsed beans and simmer for 5 minutes.
- While the beans are cooking in the sauce, cut the cooled sausages into roughly 1/3-inch slices and add them to the bean-tomato mixture. Stir in the spinach and cook another 1-2 minutes until it has softened.
- Transfer the mixture to an oven-proof dish (opr4-5 small casserole dishes, as pictured above) and top with an even layer of grated cheese. Sprinkle with pine nuts.
- Slide into the hot oven and bake for 5 minutes or until the cheese is melted, golden, and bubbly. (You may need to hit it with a brief broil -- stand by if you do so, as the cheese can burn quickly.)
- Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil leaves and serve immediately, accompanied, if you like, with a green salad dressed in a lemony olive oil dressing.
- Stored in an airtight container this keeps 4-5 days in the fridge. Freezes well.