Beans and Pulses: A Culinary Adventure
Nigel Slater, my favourite cookery writer, calls lentils and beans ‘the most upwardly mobile of foods’, largely thanks to the way that the most fashionable of chefs have embraced them, raising what were once the butt of vegetarian jokes to new heights of respectability. Lentils and beans are legumes, and grow in pods. Nutritionally, they pack quite a punch, being high in dietary fibre, protein and iron.
A lot of people are put off by the thought of having to soak beans and pulses for hours before cooking – but this isn’t altogether necessary. There are many lentils that don’t need soaking and that cook in around twenty minutes, while beans and chickpeas can be bought ready to use in a tin, without shame.
This is by no means the definitive list, but more an overview of the most popular and readily available varieties you can find.
Beans – not just for toast
A personal favourite, these small, green beans are hugely popular in France. When simmered gently with olive oil, parsley and garlic, they are a fantastic complement to lamb.
One of Britain’s best-loved foods, tinned baked beans, are – astonishingly – rather good for you. Personally I can live without all the sugar dumped in the mainstream brands, but here in France we’re lucky to get a greatly sugar-reduced variety, ideal for throwing into soups and stews. Better still are the tomato-free type, which simply need rinsing before being added to soups, stews or salads. A lovely idea is to whiz them up in a blender and add olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes and black olives, making them a delicious dip.
Where would chilli con carne be without the kidney bean? Largely associated with Mexican and Creole cooking, kidney beans are also popular in Northern India.
Becoming increasingly popular in the UK now, largely thanks to TV chefs such as Jamie Oliver, are Borlotti beans and Cannellini beans. Achingly trendy, but to my knowledge not freely available in tins. Yet.
Chickpeas (Garbanzos) – more to them than Hummus
Anyone who enjoys Middle Eastern food will, no doubt, already be hooked on the chickpea in its most popular form, hummus. But chickpeas are far more flexible than that. High in fibre, protein and iron, they are equally delicious served as a salad or side-dish, tossed with garlic, chilli and a robust dressing.
Lentils – not just for vegetarians
Lentils are a rich source of protein and iron, making them an invaluable component in the vegetarian or vegan diet. They’re also wonderfully varied and terrific at soaking up different flavours: Mediterranean, with tomatoes and basil, Middle Eastern, with garlic, cumin and coriander, and Indian, with ginger, cumin, chilli and garam masala . Lentils are also known for their affinity with pork, and pork products, such as sausages, and, when mixed with spinach and lemon juice, make a fantastic accompaniment to roast salmon.
The standard lentils and possibly least interesting in the bunch, they’re still tasty cooked with a bay leaf, drained and then stirred in with a tin of tomatoes and a chopped fried onion. In Middle Eastern cooking cumin and caramelised onions are added.
These blue-brown lentils are a favourite in France, and only take about twenty minutes to cook. They are terrific as a side-dish, with olive oil, lardons and sage stirred into them.
A thrilling discovery in my local supermarket, these are the same size as Puy lentils but are quite black. Like their Puy cousins, they cook in around twenty minutes, and have a similarly nutty flavour.
Wonderful made into Indian dal, these go delightfully mushy. Cook with a little ginger, then drain and add chopped garlic, chilli, garam masala and cumin seeds that you’ve fried quickly in a little oil. Dal goes surprisingly well with a pork chop, though I doubt most Indians would agree.
Split Peas – a great source of protein
I usually keep a pack of green split peas handy and then wonder what to do with them, apart from pea soup in the winter. Which is fine, but you know, it’s not the most exciting of soups. Yellow split peas are more interesting, particularly when used for Indian Dals, with lots of garlic and spices.
- My Top Five Favourite Cookery Writers
We all have them, dont we, the cookery writers whose books we can turn to time and again and they'll never let us down. The writers whose ingredients we tend to stock in our kitchens anyway, and whose...
- Winter Warming Soup
This soup is just a fabulous lunch dish for those cold, wintry days. I live off it, and have done so since I moved into an apartment with no central heating. Thermal underwear, a fleece and a cat can get...
- Rice and Grains: A Culinary Adventure
The world is in-love with rice. Grown all over, from Europe to the Americas, the Middle East to Japan and South-east Asia, rice is a staple of many a diet. In Italy its the medium-grained Avorio...
More by this Author
A brief travelogue of India, surely the most fascinating place on earth, with a selection of ten of the author's personal favourite places.