Pantry Primer: Beans

As a kid, you may have made fun of beans, known on the playground as the "musical fruit." But once you consider all they have to offer nutritionally, you'll be singing a different tune.

Higher in protein than any other plant food, these versatile gems can transform a side dish into a main course in no time. They may also help protect against heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, thanks to their generous amounts of fiber, folate, potassium, and magnesium.

Here are six legumes that deserve space in your pantry.

Kidney Beans
What: Sold by color, kidney beans range from light pink to dark red. Their robust flavor and creamy texture make them essential in chili.

Why: Thanks to their colorful skins, red kidney beans have almost as much antioxidant power as wild blueberries.

How: Heat with tomatoes, onion, ground tempeh, and barbecue sauce; spoon onto toasted buns for a vegetarian version of the sloppy joe.

Navy Beans
What: The tender, potatolike quality of these small beans has won them friends in high places: They're a staple of the U.S. Navy (hence the name) and a long-standing fixture (for the past 100-plus years) on the menu at the U.S. Senate restaurant.

Why: A cup of navy beans provides 19 grams of fiber and offers a fair amount of bone-building calcium.

How: Cook with tomatoes, zucchini, kale, potatoes, and pasta for a hearty minestrone.

What: Though technically not beans, lentils share the best qualities of their bean cousins -- and cook faster, to boot. Available in a rainbow of colors, they have a pleasantly earthy, slightly peppery flavor. (The canned kind can be mushy, so go with dried.)

Why: An important source of iron, lentils make a great alternative to red meat. Despite their stellar fiber content, these legumes have a relatively low flatulence factor.

How: Try a warm salad with green lentils, walnuts, goat cheese, and vinaigrette.

What: Firm and nutty, chickpeas make frequent appearances in Middle Eastern dishes, including hummus and falafel. You might hear these legumes referred to as garbanzo beans, the Spanish name.

Why: Chickpeas offer a good dose of folate, which protects your heart and helps prevent some birth defects and Alzheimer's. The selenium in chickpeas may boost immunity and guard against certain cancers.

How: Saute with broccoli and garlic, toss with whole-wheat pasta, and add a dusting of Parmesan.

Black Beans
What: This smaller relative of the kidney bean has a rich, meaty flavor that pairs well with the fiery spices and citrus notes of Latin American cooking. Don't confuse it with the black soybean, a variety used (often fermented) in Asian cuisine.

Why: The deep, purplish black skins of these beans harbor antioxidants that can help stave off heart disease. Their magnesium content keeps both heart and bones healthy.

How: Add to cooked quinoa -- along with corn, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime -- for a hearty main-course salad.

Lima Beans
What: Loved by chefs, these starchy beans sometimes show up fresh at farmers' markets. Find them dried, frozen, and canned at the grocery store. Fordhook limas also go by the name "butter beans; baby limas are a separate variety.

Why: Limas offer the blood-pressure-lowering mineral potassium, along with the antioxidant selenium.

How: Frozen limas make a quick succotash with corn, scallions, and a little cream.

Text by Cheryl Redmond

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