Dig In

La Cocina Povera/The Poor Kitchen – Homage to the Legume

By Patricia Bailey
Posted 1/16/24

This is the second feature in a series of cultural meals aimed to highlight history, nutrition and simplicity.

As I reflect on cultural meals that showcase the heart of a poor kitchen, the bean …

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Dig In

La Cocina Povera/The Poor Kitchen – Homage to the Legume


This is the second feature in a series of cultural meals aimed to highlight history, nutrition and simplicity.

As I reflect on cultural meals that showcase the heart of a poor kitchen, the bean is front and center of my mind for its significance in history.

Beans come from a long line of cousins originating from the plant family Legumes. These plants have been on our planet longer than humans and have a direct connection to our evolution. They’ve been a food staple for millennia and the oldest cultivated.  Legumes have survived and evolved everywhere on our planet except the high Arctic and Antarctica. The world gene banks currently hold about 40,000 bean varieties.

We’ve established quite a symbiotic relationship between its species and ours. No wonder they’re the basis of plant-based foods of yesterday and today.

Legumes often get a bad wrap when we weigh in on the gas they produce, but their melodic toots are actually a good sign for having a healthy gut. They are a rich source of protein, fiber, calcium and vitamins A and B.

As the saying goes – “The more you toot the better you feel.” Eat beans with every meal.

Legumes have graced the tables of every culture in the world, making their debut in extraordinary ways.  I invite you to name the legumes featured in these dishes - Succotash, Dahl, Tofu, Hoppin John, Cherokee Bean Bread, Soissons soup, Cassoulet, Hummus, Sweet Bao Buns, Peanut Butter, Soy Milk and Veggie Burgers.

In addition to being versatile, they are easy on the pocket.

A 12-ounce package of split green peas or lentils priced under $2 makes a delicious soup in less than 30 minutes and can serve six people. Simply add onion, garlic, olive oil, water and spices.

Two cups of black beans, a cup of rice, chopped onion, spices and water will happily serve four people, creating another nutritious dish under $2.  Add bacon or ham hocks for added flavor, bringing your meal to $5.

In my Italian kitchen, beans are always on hand, giving way to comfort foods, including Pasta e Fagioli or Pasta and Beans. A hearty vegetarian meal can use any kind of dry bean you have on hand, but I believe the cannellini beans are best.

A recipe for home

Soak beans overnight. The next day, drain and rinse and set aside. Sauté onion, celery, garlic and olive oil in a large soup pot until soft. Add beans, tomatoes, water/broth, herbs and crushed red pepper, and cook for an hour or so until the beans become the texture you like.

In a separate pot, cook small shaped pasta, like shells, elbows or orzo, as directed.  To serve, fill individual bowls with the bean soup and add a cup of the cooked pasta, and then sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper.

(Note: If you add the pasta into the bean pot, it will become mushy as the pasta absorbs all the broth. Some folks prefer it this way.)

You can also use the same recipe by replacing the pasta with greens. This humble soup of beans and greens packs a powerful punch of protein, calcium and iron.

Consider ribbons of swiss chard, dandelion, kale, spinach, beet greens and/or shungiku, aka spring chrysanthemum. I like to use mustard greens for their spicy flavor profile.

Serve with a bruschetta made of mashed cannellini beans, crushed garlic, chopped thyme and olive oil. A heavenly meal!

As you begin to enjoy more beans and greens, you may decide to grow them in your garden.

Legumes can grow along any crops, including their own family of beans and peas. They do not require crop rotation, they grow well with others, including greens. They’re great soil enhancers, as their roots add nitrogen to soil and when allowed to mature and die naturally, they can be returned to any soil as excellent compost.

What a glorious species! Praise to legumes!

Patricia Bailey is a horticulturist who retired the spade and picked up the pen.  She shares her love of gardening, food and storytelling.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.