Pulses – get savvy, save dollars and feed your family well
First up, what are pulses? Pulses are the edible seeds of leguminous plants which include peas, beans and lentils (the leguminosae family is more commonly known as the pea family), but it is only the plants’ dry legumes which are referred to as pulses. There are hundreds of different varieties, and although the nutrient content of each pulse differs slightly, as a group they’re pretty impressive.
While they’re an excellent source of plant protein they don’t have quite the same protein content as meat, (apart from soya beans which contain all the essential amino acids which make up protein), but fortuitously, when pulses are combined in the same meal with a cereal around 30% more of the pulse protein is made available to the body. It’s easy enough to create the combination – just think hummus with pita bread, spicy dal with Indian breads or rice, soft wheat tortillas and refried beans … even baked beans on toast will do it!
Pulses are low in fat – apart from soya beans – high in complex carbs, have heaps of fibre, most of which is soluble fibre which helps to lower blood cholesterol, and they’re low on the GI index. And there’s more good news – pulses are inexpensive and there’s no shortage of ways to use them.
This year is the International Year of Pulses. The United Nations focuses on a different food source about every 4 years, along with many sustainable farming cooperatives and biodiversity ‘years’ as well. Utilising pulse-based proteins is the emphasis this year. 2013 was the Year of Quinoa, 2008 The Year of the Potato and 2004 the Year of Rice. Pulses are so fitting for us now as they are an inexpensive way to include protein and other nutrients in a weekly diet.
Read more about the importance of pulses here International Year of Pulses
Read more about International Years here http://www.un.org/en/sections/observances/international-years/
Then read below for background information and cooking tips for dried peans, beans and lentils.
Peas have been cultivated for thousands of years. They spread from western Asia through the Mediterranean to became a staple food for the poor, especially during the Middle Ages, filling stomachs cheaply and providing much needed protein. They were also easy to cultivate and, importantly, could be dried and stored for later use. And it’s this pea, a starchy and sturdy type of field pea, that is the real workhorse of the pea family, and the type that is included in the pulses category. The garden pea, what we refer to as the green pea, didn’t really gain attention in Europe until it was introduced to the French Court in the 16thC. The French took to them in a big way, preferring the peas small and immature, and called them petits pois, a name now instantly recognizable on international menus around the globe.
Whole peas, which one rarely sees these days, require soaking overnight in water before cooking but will still take several hours to cook because the seed coating does such a good job at preventing the absorption of water.
The method of steaming peas to loosen their skins so they could be peeled then split in half was developed in India. It makes the long soaking and cooking of dried peas a thing of the past. Split peas cook more quickly than whole dried peas, and can be cooked with salt or acids as there is no skin to toughen.
Some recipes still recommend soaking split peas before cooking them, especially when the peas are made into a purée rather than cooked in a lot of liquid as they are when made into a soup. It can save time and, of course, cooking fuel. Soak the washed split peas for 2 hours in tepid water, then drain and use. If you live in an area with hard water on tap, it is best to soak split peas in previously boiled water.
While peas and split peas have a higher protein percentage than beans and lentils, beans are no slouch nutritionally. Beans contain plenty of complex carbohydrates and fibre, particularly soluble fibre, and are low in fat. Most have iron, phosphorus and potassium, vitamins from the B group, and a range of other minerals, making them a valuable addition to the diet. They’re also low on the glycaemic index. Soya beans are an exception as they do contain fat, although it is mostly the unsaturated kind. I don’t think they perform as well as other pulses in absorbing flavours in vegetable stews or salads, but once they’re turned into products such as tofu they absorb flavour like a sponge.
Lentils are round and flattish in shape and vary in size and colour, and they can be sold whole or skinned and split. Many lentils go by their Indian names as various dals (alternative spelling: dhals). Like beans, they’re a valuable and inexpensive source of protein and contain good amounts of iron and B group vitamins, calcium and potassium. They’re low in fat, high in dietary fibre and the carbohydrates are easily digested. Vitamin C is produced if the lentils are sprouted. (Sprout them only until the growth is the same length as the seed.)
The first step with split peas and lentils is to check them and discard any discoloured or damaged peas. Tip the peas onto a clean bench and pick them over, checking for grit or small stones, then transfer to a sieve. They need a thorough rinse with cold water to remove dust, but don’t rinse until you are ready to cook them or they’ll stick together. Let the cold tap run over them for a few minutes while you agitate them with your hand and continue doing this until the water is no longer cloudy. Give them a good shake, then proceed with the recipe. Chickpeas, beans and larger dal are usually free of grit and only require a quick rinse before soaking.
Most pulses create a lot of foam at the beginning of cooking and are best cooked in a saucepan with the lid slightly raised so steam can escape preventing them from boiling over.
Beans – soaking and cooking
Generally the only pulses which don’t require soaking before cooking are lentils and split peas. Most other beans and peas are soaked before cooking to allow them to fully rehydrate, to shorten the cooking time and to make them more digestible. Buy beans from shops with a fast turnover – old wrinkled beans can take an age to cook. Soak in cold water overnight.
If you live in an area with hard water on tap, it is best to soak the pulses in previously boiled water. (Boiling the water drives off calcium carbonate in the steam. Pulses that absorb calcium carbonate take longer to cook.)
Using bicarbonate of soda to soften the water is generally outmoded because it destroys Vitamin B1, but see what I have to say here about cooking chickpeas .
If time is short, you can opt for a quicker preparation method. Pour boiling water over beans in a bowl, leave to soak for one hour (leave chickpeas for 2 hours), drain and bring to a fast boil in fresh water and boil hard for 5 minutes (but 10 minutes for chickpeas and only 2 for flageolet), then cook until tender.
Whichever method you use, add salt after cooking because it can hinder the beans from becoming tender.
Dried broad beans take the longest to soften when cooking, needing a long soak and long, slow cooking (they can take more than three hours to become tender).
Cannellini, flageolet, soya, pinto, black-eyed and kidney beans generally take around one hour to become tender, but they may take up to 1½ hours. Chickpeas can take 40 minutes to 2 hours, so they need regular checking. Check all beans after 40 minutes’ cooking time – they just may be ready – and ensure that there is always plenty of water in the pot; top up with boiling water as cold water halts the cooking. I cook beans at a gentle bubble covered with a lid, but I leave a small steam vent to stop the water fropm boiling over (a wooden spoon propped between the pot and the lid will prevent the lid from fallling down).
Kidney beans need special care. Most of the kidney bean family have a toxin in the skin which must be removed to make them safe to eat. Never cook them in the water they’ve soaked in. Drain them, cover with fresh water, bring to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes, drain again, return to the pot with fresh water, bring to the boil, reduce heat and cook gently until tender.
All beans must be cooked until tender or they will be difficult to digest, may cause stomach pains and cause flatulence. Once the beans are cooked, drain and drape loosely with paper towels to prevent them drying on the surface. If mixing with a dressing, do so while the beans are warm as they will absorb more of the flavours. Alternatively, let them cool in the cooking water.
There’s no denying that when it comes to lentils dishes like soup and dal can look a bit sludgey (brown!), but a sprinkle of chopped parsley or coriander can work wonders, as can a little diced tomato with baby mint leaves or a dollop of yoghurt and dusting of paprika or chilli powder. And as you develop a taste for them, the appearance becomes less of an issue.
Lentils do not need soaking but they should be rinsed thoroughly in a sieve under running cold water before use as described above. Don’t salt lentils until after cooking, because salt can toughen them and make it difficult for them to become tender. Acidic ingredients, such as lemon, tomatoes and wine can also slow down the cooking process.
To cook lentils, put them in a saucepan with plenty of water to cover, bring to the boil, then lower the heat and cook partially covered with a lid for 20-40 minutes, until just tender but still retaining shape. The only way to know if they are ready is to try one!
The small dark greeny-brown French lentil known as vertes du puy, is considered top of the range and is protected in the same way fine wines are by an ‘appellation d’origine’. They are highly sought after because they retain their shape after cooking and have a chewy texture and a nutty, earthy taste, but you’ll pay more for them than for regular lentils. They’re available from specialist food importers and some supermarkets.
The word dal is used to name a dish of cooked pulses. It can be made with whole unpeeled pulses, called gram, or ‘dal’ which are split skinned pulses. Alan Davidson points out in The Oxford Companion To Food, Oxford University Press, published 1999, that not all so-called lentils used in Indian cookery are from the family lens culinaris, but are from other species. Read more here Dal
We’ve been eating chickpeas an awful long time – evidence suggests as far back as 2000BC. Supposedly the famous Roman orator Cicero had an ancestor who had a wart on his face shaped like a chickpea and that is how they got their name cecir (now in Italian ceci). Whatever!
Chickpeas specifically contain folate, Vit E, potatsium, iron, copper and magnesium. They’re a valuable and relatively inexpensive source of protein and iron, making them a useful addition to a vegetarian diet.
Some chickpeas will take longer to cook than others. If the chickpeas have been heat-treated, they can take several hours to soften and Australian chickpeas, which are smaller and darker in colour, also take an age to cook. Larger creamy-coloured chickpeas coming from USA and Turkey, called garbanzos, are the best, especially organically-grown chickpeas.
In such a ramble of peas, beans and lentils, I feel I can’t leave out pease pudding! Pease pudding (porridge) is a dish of cooked dried peas and is the hero (or villan!) of the following nursery rhyme which originated in the Middle Ages. It offers an insight into the goings on in most peasant homes in England and Scotland at the time. Dried peas were cooked in a large kettle over an open fire with whatever other ingredients were to hand and made into a thick sludgey porridge. It was eaten hot in the evening then left to cool during the night as the heat of the fire died down. The next morning, it was eaten cold for breakfast. The fire was relit, the porridge heated up again, with any available extra ingredients, and served hot again in the evening. And on and on it went.
Pease porridge hot,
Pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot
Nine days old.
Pease pudding survived for hundreds of years, and it used to be a common cafeteria and school lunch dish when I first lived in London in the early 1970s. It was a dish of horrors! I’ll never forget the sight of a can-shaped log of it, washed-out beige in colour and congealed, squelching out of a can as my flatmate proceeded to initiate me into the joys of canned pease pudding. No thanks. Without the added flavourings, pease pudding is blah! But it can be good if freshly made with mashed cooked peas and as much butter as can be spared, with mint and salt and pepper to flavour. Parsley is often added, and sometimes eggs, and it is then steamed and served with boiled bacon or corned beef. I’ve gone all my life without trying it that way, and probably like you, I might get to the end of my days without ever having indulged!