Beans shine on the side

From Bush Brothers.

With an eye to eating enjoyment as well as nutrition, noncommercial foodservice operators are menuing bean side dishes with special flair. The inspirations range from the cilantro and chipotles of the Mexican table to Mediterranean-style balsamic marinades to pure imagination—like a sandwich spread made from chickpeas and cocoa.

At the Burlington (Vt.) School District, beans appear virtually every day as side dish, helping to satisfy a diverse student population. "Rice and beans seem to cut across so many cultures," says Doug Davis, director of foodservice for the 11-school, 4,000-student district. "We have such a large demographic here—60 different languages are spoken."

One of the popular bean sides is Black Bean Sweet Potato Salad. Canned black beans are tossed with roasted sweet potato cubes and corn in a Southwestern-inspired dressing flavored with cilantro and chipotle peppers. "It's really colorful and it has a good kick," says Davis. "The kids really like it."

Also in favor are roasted garbanzo beans, a garnish on the salad bar. For this, canned garbanzos are rinsed, dried, seasoned and roasted for added flavor and firmer texture. "I wouldn't call them crispy like nuts, but they are firmer than garbanzos ordinarily are," said Davis. "Texture is really, really big for kids, which is why I think they are popular."

At Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, international bean dishes are popular among the many students who have lived abroad, points out Dean Wright, director of dining services for the 33,000-student university.

"Anyone who has lived for any time outside the United States has discovered the richness and value of beans," says Wright. "I think the perspective of the average student is that they are healthy and provide as much nutrition as more expensive animal proteins."

Bean applications at BYU include hummus, the Middle Eastern garbanzo bean spread, Hoppin' John, a dish of blackeye peas and rice from the American South and Mediterranean Great Northern Bean and Vegetable Salad, marinated with balsamic vinegar and other ingredients typical of the region.

For the latter, Great Northern beans are drained and rinsed and marinated overnight with artichoke hearts, oven-roasted golden tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, red and green bell peppers and grilled zucchini strips. The marinade is a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Before service, grated parmesan and fresh basil are added.

"With the fresh herbs and vegetables and the marinade, it's a lot jazzier than the traditional three-bean salad," says BYU Dining Services executive chef John McDonald.

At La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago, bean-based sides play an important role in a healthful diet initiative in a cafeteria which serves 80 to 100 meals to hospital staff and visitors daily. Options range from house-made baked beans for barbecue dishes to white bean and black bean chili to some truly creative bean-based items.

For an example of the latter, take Black Bean Brownies. "Essentially, the beans replace the flour in the brownies and keep in the moisture," says John Athamanah, RD, manager of foodservices at the 30-bed specialty hospital. "So you have changed something that might be considered a quote-unquote bad food into something with pretty high fiber content."

Another bean invention that is unusual as well as healthful is Chocolate Chick Pea Spread, made with chick peas, peanut butter, oil and cocoa powder. It is in development but not launched yet. "Internally, our staff really likes it," Athamanah says. "We're deciding whether to serve it in sandwiches or have it on the side for people to take."

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