We all become chemists in the kitchen, says Ana Ruth Bonilla, a professor in the Food Technology Department at the University of Costa Rica. This is especially true when we “add a little of this and little of that” to see what we come up with.
Food is a tremendously popular topic, judging from the number of food columns, magazines, TV shows and websites dedicated to it, and food technology has become an important field as people become more concerned with health and natural foods.
At the UCR’s National Food Science and Technology Center (CITA), one of the tasks is to find new ways of using locally grown products to enrich the lives of those who produce them, and to provide new food sources, Bonilla explains.
Founded in 1974 under an agreement with the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry to make Tico products competitive in the marketplace and to prepare technicians for the food field, CITA is housed in a labyrinth of classrooms, laboratories and offices behind the agronomy department. Here, graduate students in food technology have come up with flour and snacks from pejibaye or peach palm fruit, new uses for lactic products and tropical fruit juice, and gourmet vinegars from bananas and plantain. They are also looking into ways of using the fibrous leaves from an expanding pineapple industry to make twine, and of using the outer skins of coffee beans to make a natural food colorant.
A chemist by profession, Bonilla coordinates graduate school projects at CITA. After graduating from the University of Costa Rica, she did graduate work in the U.S. state of Rhode Island and lived for a time in Massachusetts, home of the baked bean. She always liked the idea of combining chemistry and food, she says. Combining frijoles or beans, omnipresent in Costa Rica, and research came naturally. If beans can be baked, why not make bakery from beans?
Bean bakery not only uses a homegrown product, it also adds a healthy source of protein, vitamins, fiber and iron to the diet.
“It’s a functional food in that it prevents illness, cardiac problems, obesity and cancer. Eating gallo pinto (Costa Rica’s typical rice-and-beans breakfast dish), for example, will satisfy hunger and keep you from eating and snacking more,” Bonilla says.
Her bean bakery project works with the Rural Women’s Network, a group of women who have started their own microenterprises around the country. Several groups are making bean cookies, starting with growing their own raw material, then processing it to add to cookie batter, making the cookies, and packaging and distributing them. Called “Pinticas,” the cookies are sold in corner stores in the Northern Zone and a few other areas. It’s still too early to see if the product will expand to the Central Valley. They come 14 to a package, look like chocolate and taste like ginger snaps.
While the cookie recipe is a secret, Bonilla shared her formula for bean buns, another delicious way of getting protein and iron. Although the recipe calls for fresh beans to be soaked overnight, then cooked and ground, our cook cheated by opening up a can. Bonilla points out, however, that canned beans have condiments that could affect the flavor.
This recipe makes 24 muffins:
1/4 cup cooking oil
2 1/2 cups flour
2 3/4 cups prepared beans (or 1 can of black beans molido)
1 cup milk
2 cups sugar
6 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla
Mix the batter in a blender or beat well. Spoon into greased muffin tins or cupcake papers and bake in a moderate oven for 18 minutes.
Because the recipe made so many muffins, they were shared with neighbors; all agreed they were delicious and tasted more like chocolate than beans.