By Shannon Keirnan
Although summer seems to be making one last-ditch effort to stick around here in West Michigan, autumn (my favorite season!) is just around the corner!
Yes, I love dry leaves, corn mazes, big sweaters, and the fact that I can finally get pumpkin flavor in my coffee, but autumn is also the opportune time to take to the kitchen and prepare all those great, hearty meals that seemed inappropriate while the sun was boiling me away.
Roasts with root vegetables, rich stews, thick, spicy chili and split-pea soup... Yes, please!
Beans and legumes are one of my favorite autumn additions when it comes to recipes. I throw them into just about everything this time of year (especially gigantic, industrial-sized vats of chili). Not only are they delicious, and a great complement when mixed in with all those fall flavors (dessert pies excluded), they're also terrifically good for you, and can help keep you healthy as cold and flu season creeps in.
The health benefits of beans are manifold. Many of you probably know that they're high in protein, without the added cholesterol which comes with meat (and thus a perfect meal for vegetarians or vegans who need to be creative when adding protein to their diet). And, because the body digests legumes more slowly than other foods, they can help to regulate blood sugar levels, reduce cravings, and avoid that dreaded "hangry" moment.
They're also super high in fiber, which can lower cholesterol, aid in weight loss, and may even help lower your risk of cancer... though those who aren't used to digesting high levels of plant fiber may find the side-effects a tad unpleasant.
Legumes are also packed with nutrients vital to maintaining health. While everyone is coughing into their hands on the bus and passing along all kinds of pretty illnesses, legumes can help build your immune defenses with boosts of zinc, iron, magnesium, potassium, and other "shortfall" nutrients that The Dietary Guidelines for Americans says we aren't getting enough of in our meals.
But they're more than just tasty and nutritional - they're useful.
Legume "fix" nitrogen in the soil - converting nitrogen found in the ground to a form plants (and, by proxy, then animals) can ingest and utilize. In a world where nitrogen-rich fertilizer has corrupted much of our soil and water, legume crops play an important part in salvaging the land.
This ability to change nitrogen into useable protein also creates "a key opportunity to address the food security of the poor." In countries that cannot support livestock growth, this means that communities can still have access to inexpensive protein sources.
Legumes also present the idea solution for areas where crops struggle. Largely drought and pest resistant, they need less irrigation than cereal crops, protect the soil against erosion, and have a rapid maturity rate - making them accessible to farmers in food-poor locals where meals and income depend on the turnover rate of their harvest.
Can legumes save the world's soil and solve hunger? Maybe, if they weren't such a vastly overlooked resource. So, throw a few legumes into your next meal, and give these healthy workhorses a chance to thrive!