These Plants Are the Pulse of Sustainable Farming and Healthy Eating
Happy International Year of Pulses! You may not be familiar with what they are, but there’s a good chance you eat them all the time. Pulses are part of the vast and vastly important legume family, which produces seeds sealed in pods. Well-known legumes include soy, alfalfa, clover, peanuts, mesquite, wisteria, lupines, and fresh peas, but “pulse” refers only to the dried seeds. Lentils, split peas, and dried beans such as pinto and navy are common examples of pulses.
Pulses, which are among the world’s most ancient cultivated plants, have nourished people for millennia. Lentils were there in the beginning, or rather, In the Beginning—Genesis 25:34, to be exact—as the tempting stew for which Esau relinquished his birthright. They also fortified the builders of the Egyptian pyramids and the Roman legions on their quest for empire.
All pulses are deeply sustaining—they’re rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, vitamins, and other nutrients, such as folate, potassium, iron, and protective phytochemicals. They’re low in fat, and they contain low-glycemic carbohydrates, which your body digests more slowly and without spikes in blood sugar. In short, they help you stay fuller longer.
They’re among the best sources of plant protein on the planet. This is a good thing for vegetarians, vegans, or folks who simply want to cut back on meat and/or seafood. But in truth, very few Americans have to worry about a protein deficiency or about combining plant foods to get enough “complete proteins,” an outmoded term that’s no longer used by the National Institutes for Health.
But the protein power of pulses and other legumes has life-or-death consequences in parts of the world where scratching a living out of the land is near impossible—the global drylands, say, where average rainfall is either extremely low (about 300 to 800 millimeters a year) or extremely erratic, with torrential rain followed by long dry spells.
For example, in the drylands of Africa, where cowpeas are widely grown, plant breeders and farmers are working to improve the drought-tolerance genes already in that legume. Later this month, the Pan-African Grain Legume & World Cowpea Conference is scheduled to begin in Livingstone, Zambia. Interest in Asia revolves around two legumes that predominate there, the chickpea and the pigeon pea.
“More than 60 countries have released improved cowpea varieties with support from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture [IITA],” notes CGIAR, a global consortium on international agricultural research. “Chickpea and pigeon pea varieties resulting from the work of ICRISAT [International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics] are having a major impact in India, Nepal, Pakistan and increasingly in China.”
Legumes are critical to sustainable farming systems in other ways too. Planted as a cover crop after row crops are harvested, they help prevent erosion. Also, because nodules on their roots capture, or fixate, nitrogen from the air and transfer it into a usable form in the soil, they’re typically planted as “green manure,” then plowed under while still growing to add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. Some leguminous plants do double-duty—alfalfa, vetch, and clover are grown to feed livestock as well as the soil. Think of alfalfa sprouts and clover honey as the icing on the cake.
Because legumes are so versatile, come in so many varieties, and are so delicious, working them into your diet is really very simple. Five of my favorites (it was so hard to choose!) are below.
Black beans, sometimes called turtle beans, have the highest antioxidant activity of all beans—the blacker the bean, the more anthocyanin it contains. The rich meatiness of black beans pairs well with Latin American flavors and is great in a vegetarian burger. The fermented black beans you see in Chinese markets are not the same thing, by the way. Those are black soybeans that have been steamed and then fermented with salt and spices.
This little black-dotted legume is indigenous to Africa. It’s most commonly eaten dried—one famous preparation is Hoppin’ John, a combination likely brought to America by slaves shipped from the rice plantations of the French West Indies to those in South Carolina. Black-eyed peas cook surprisingly quickly and have an earthy, almost mushroom-like flavor. They’re also creamier and less starchy than many other dried beans and have a great affinity for pickling.
Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, originated in the Middle East, and they’re a popular staple there, as well as in India, Italy, and beyond. You can whiz them up in the food processor for hummus, add them to salads or soups (one spectacular example is this Moroccan-style harira), or pair them with chard in a quick, satisfying Armenian-inspired stew. Chana dal (aka bengal gram beans) is a variety of dried small Indian chickpea that is always sold hulled and split. (They look more like yellow split peas than chickpeas.) It’s not necessary to soak them, but pick over them carefully and wash before cooking New Delhi–style, for instance.
Lentils are an ideal example of the versatility of legumes. They are as delicious in a salad as they are in a hot soup or stew and take on international flavors with aplomb. Lentils do not require soaking. A 15- to 30-minute simmer is all they need, so they fit easily into our modern time-challenged lives. Small, emerald-green lentilles de Puy, from Le Puy, France, are renowned for their delicate flavor and finesse. They also hold their shape better than other varieties do.
It’s difficult to imagine the cooking of Mexico or the American Southwest without these burgundy-splashed pinkish-brown beauties, but for me, they are most closely identified with the cooking of Appalachia, where they’re known as soup beans and served in their broth. Salt pork, the seasoning meat of choice, is hard to find in New York, so I prefer a meatless version enriched with olive oil.
Last, a word about dried versus canned beans. Dried legumes cost less, offer more variety, give you more control over the sodium content, and can be cooked up in a big batch and kept in the freezer for easy additions to meals. To ensure freshness and the creamiest texture, buy from a store with a high turnover—older legumes will take longer to cook and may be tough.
Canned beans are easier to use, but they can be high in sodium, so rinse well before using to lower the salt content (to about a third of the original amount). Can linings may also contain the controversial chemical bisphenol A, so look for brands that are BPA-free. All that said, canned beans can fast-track a quick, satisfying meal like nothing else, and I always have a few varieties in the pantry.