Beans star in the center of the plate

From Bush Brothers.

Taking cues from cultures that hold legumes in high regard, noncommercial operators are choosing bean dishes as key planks in lighter, healthier meal platforms that appeal to the taste buds.

On Lean and Green Monday at Oceanside Unified School District in Oceanside, Calif., beans, whole grains and fresh produce take the spotlight from meat dishes for a day. It is one of the ways Nutrition Services Director Vino Mitra introduces low-calorie, low-fat fare to the K-12 students in his 23-school district.

Given the ample protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber and vitamins that beans provide, constructing nutritious meals with them is a simple matter. Take a typical school lunch of vegetable tamale with refried beans, steamed carrots and a serving from the salad bar.

"The first component is the veggie tamale, which gives you protein and carbohydrates, the refried beans also give you protein, carrots and salad give you fresh fruit and vegetable components and milk or soy milk gives you the milk component," said Mitra.

Oceanside's Lighthouse Salad Bar is a daily fixture in the school cafeterias. It offers a tasty mix of iceberg lettuce and spinach leaves plus eight fresh fruit and vegetable items, including the Bean of the Day. For the latter, garbanzo beans, black beans, kidney beans and great northern beans are among the choices that rotate daily.

For practicality and labor savings, canned beans, rinsed to reduce sodium, are a staple. "If you have 500 or 600 meals to serve in a school and only two or three people working, your labor is pretty limited," Mitra said.

Mitra said his aim is to gradually expose students to healthier foods and influence their habits over time. "We are making a little dent, I guess," he said.

By the time young people reach college, many are practicing—or just discovering—healthier eating. That's when light and flavorful bean dishes fill a need.

"Students tend to push themselves harder these days, so it is important for us to give them lots of healthy options," said Pierre St-Germain, executive chef and associate director of dining and catering services at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I.

Beans add nutrition and flavor to dishes that appeal to the significant number of students who choose plant-based meals on occasion as well as the committed vegetarians among the 1,350 meal-plan participants on campus.

Popular choices include orange, white bean and wheat berry salad, made with nutty-tasting toasted wheat berries tossed with white beans, orange juice, cider vinegar, jicama, peppers and fresh oranges, organic black bean and sundried tomato tacos and channa masala, a spicy curry dish made with chick peas that is part of a sampler with other traditional Indian dishes.

"If one of my chefs suggests a grain or bean dish, we work to introduce it to our students," said St-Germain. "Whether it is traditional or something kind of funky, we want them to be exposed to it."

An example is lentil loaf, made with cooked lentils folded together with onion, spinach and eggs and baked "like a lentil soufflé," St-Germain said. It can be sliced, pan fried and served with mushroom gravy or chilled, sliced and served as lentil pate.

Also popular is fresh tomato and lentil salad, featuring lentils are cooked until tender but not mushy, mixed with chopped fresh tomatoes, parsley, extra virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.

"That is a great accompaniment for a protein, but it can also be served alone as a vegetarian dish," said St.-Germain.