Legumes, or beans, may just be nature's wonder food. Loaded with protein and fiber, they deliver a hefty dose of nutrition at a cheap price.

They're versatile—you can boil, stew, puree, roast, or pan-fry them—and for people who choose to or need to avoid animal products, they can be a great entrée alternative. They also store very well. Whether you get them from a can, from a bulk bag, or straight from your garden, don't overlook this dietary powerhouse. Here are some ways you can have fun with legumes:

Soups. Many different cultures feature beans in their soups. Mexicans traditionally have enjoyed black bean soup, while Italians cook pasta fagioli, which contains pasta, beans, and vegetables. In Greece, fassoulada—made with white beans—takes center stage. Experiment with different types of beans and soups. Try some soups with whole beans thrown in and others with pureed beans.

Salads. If you need an extra protein zing to go with your greens, look no further than the legume. A half-cup of kidney beans lends substance to a spinach salad, and chickpeas are a treat on top of any dinner salad. Try salted, roasted edamame (soy beans) as a crunchy lettuce topper.

Entrees. Beans work well in casseroles and with pasta. Cook up some red beans in a big pot of chili. Or mix them with cooked ground beef and layer over tortilla chips for homemade nachos.

Desserts. Yes, beans can be dessert. A little-known secret of healthy cooks is to substitute a can of pureed black beans for oil when making brownies. The black beans don't change the color or taste of the brownies and add loads of moisture without much fat. The Chinese also use sweet red bean paste in a number of desserts; check out your local Asian supermarket or restaurant for these treats.

Do you find that beans don't agree with you? There are ways to reduce the unpleasant intestinal gas that eating them sometimes causes.

Canned beans should cause less distress than packaged dry beans, as the canning process removes some of the sugars that cause flatulence. If you prefer to cook your own beans, be sure to change the water several times during the process as the cooking water absorbs some of the gas-producing sugars. And simmer the beans slowly until they are tender for easier digestion.