The lovely legume

CUTLINE (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Loaded with protein, the bean is a vegetarian staple

It happens eventually. Vegetarians, shyly asking the waiter that the bacon be left off their salads, are outed in front of their meat-eating dinner companions, who, recoiling, swipe their greasy bibs over their mouths to hide their embarrassment.

After the meat-eaters have collected themselves and picked their rack of baby-back ribs off the floor, the first question we hear is, "What you do eat?"

(Answer: everything but meat and, yes, chicken counts as meat.)

The second question, usually accompanied by the carnivores' eyes scanning our bodies for signs of anemia, rickets, or kwashiorkor is, "What do you do for protein?" (Answer: peanut butter, tofu, nuts, and, of course, beans.)

All beans are not created equal: Although basically fat-free, beans' protein contents differ (see chart, this page), as do some of their vitamin contents. Lentils, in particular, are a good source of folic acid, which is important for pregnant or trying-to-be-pregnant women, as it can prevent spina bifida in the developing fetus.

Yet, I've never met a bean I didn't like, from the sweet azuki to the nutty chickpea (also known as pulses) to the musky black-eyed pea. Beans also look beautiful in the bowl. As you're running your hands through their smoothness to check for pebbles, admire the Appaloosa patterns, the speckled red eyes, and the black-and-white striations.

A hill of beans

Protein content is listed in grams per cup

Cooked soybeans, 22.23
Canned white beans, 19.02
Cooked lentils, 17.86
Cooked navy beans, 15.83
Cooked black beans, 15.24
Cooked Great Northern beans, 14.74
Cooked pinto beans, 14.04
Canned refried beans, 13.83
Canned kidney beans, 13.44
Canned baked beans, 12.17
Cooked lima beans (frozen not fresh), 11.97
Canned black-eyed peas (also known as cowpeas), 5.23
Cooked mung beans, 2.52
As a general rule, two cups of dried beans equal four or five cups cooked, although you should check the package or the label on the bulk bin for any exceptions. Canned beans work in a rush, but taste salty and processed - because they are. Go dried if you can: White beans work well in soups (hold that salt pork!), pintos can be refried, limas have an earthy taste that can be lightened with a wee bit of butter. Black-eyed peas and rice, also known as "Hoppin' John," are supposed to be good luck if eaten on New Year's Day; some Hoppin' John recipes call for hog jowls which, in case you're wondering, qualify as meat.

People often avoid beans because of the associated flatulence problem, although I have found that some of these people have no shame emanating a ripping belch from the bottom of their innards - or eating hog jowls. Use the commercially produced Beano or epazote, a Mexican herb, to help curb the gas. Take heart, after regular bean-eating, your body figures out how to digest them, and the problem subsides. If you're a beginning bean-eater, try these tips to rid your beans of the gas-producing enzymes: Soak them for five to eight hours before cooking. Change the soaking water several times. Boil them for 30 minutes and then change the water. Add salt and acidic ingredients such as tomatoes after cooking. Start with lentils, as they are easier to digest.

Speaking of lentils, here is a recipe for Chocolate Lentil Cake, courtesy of the U.S. Dry Bean and Pea Council, a national lobbying group for the industry. They'll put beans in almost anything to get people to eat them.

Meatless in steer city

1/2 c dry red lentils, rinsed
1 1/2 c water
3/4 c quick-cooking oatmeal
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c brown sugar, packed
3/4 c chopped walnuts
1 3/4 c all-purpose flour
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
2 T unsweetened cocoa
1 t salt
1 3.9-oz package instant chocolate pudding
2 eggs, well beaten
1/3 c vegetable oil
1 T almond extract
1 2/3 c boiling water

In a small saucepan, combine lentils and water and heat to boiling. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until lentils are falling apart, about 30 to 45 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 13 x 9-inch baking pan.

In a large bowl combine dry ingredients, mixing well.

In a medium bowl beat together eggs, oil, and almond extract. Stir in lentils. Add lentil mixture to dry ingredients and mix well. Add boiling water and mix thoroughly.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack before cutting into squares.

For a more chocolatey cake add a cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips. •

By Lisa Sorg