All about legumes, beans & pulses
OK, SO THEY’RE not the sexiest food on the planet but legumes are among the most nutritious, and deserve a far better reputation. Inexpensive, widely available and tasty (when cooked the right way) legumes can play a valuable daily role in what you eat.
All about legumes, beans & pulses
First, to explain the terminology. The word “legumes” describes a large family of plants (Leguminosae or Fabaceae) that includes pulses and beans. Pulses are also known as grain legumes, and the word “beans” is used to describe the larger-seeded types.
These types of legume are available mostly as the dried seeds of plants grown as field crops across the world. The plants produce pods with rows of seeds inside them. Some are sold fresh and both the pod and seeds can be eaten, as with snow peas and runner beans. Other legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils and peanuts, are sold without the pod, as only the seed inside is edible. These are usually packaged in plastic bags, but you can also buy legumes that have been pre-cooked and canned.
Legumes are high in protein and dietary fibre, as well as many vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, iron, calcium and zinc. However, the protein found in legumes and other plant foods is mostly not complete. This means they do not supply the full set of essential amino acids, which are the building blocks for protein that must be obtained from food, so they cannot be eaten as a sole protein source (read more about that on page 74).
Legumes also contain soluble dietary fibre which can help lower blood cholesterol levels. As legumes have a low Glycaemic Index (GI) they are more satisfying in the long run, and also useful in helping control blood glucose levels. Therefore they can help prevent or control diabetes.
Most legumes are low in fat, except for the soybean and peanut. Soybeans have
about 17 per cent fat, mainly polyunsaturated, and peanuts are almost 50 per cent fat (almost half of which is monounsaturated fat). Because peanuts are much
higher in energy than other types of legumes they should be eaten in moderation. Choose the unsalted, raw variety and limit yourself to a small handful as a nutrient-dense snack.
Most dried legumes need to be soaked overnight before cooking in order to improve the value of the protein, and also to destroy any toxins. After you’ve soaked them, drain the beans and place in a saucepan with plenty of fresh water. Bring to the boil then simmer for the required time − this will vary according to the size and hardness of the bean − until tender.
The exception is lentils and split peas, which can be cooked without soaking (although a 30-minute pre-soak will help stop split peas going mushy). To cook, simmer them in water for approximately 30 minutes, skimming the foam from the surface if needed.
Most types of legumes are available in the supermarket.
Try Asian or Indian specialty stores for less familiar varieties.
Aduki beans are a source of protein, iron and B vitamins.
Baked beans (also known as haricot or navy) in tomato sauce are a great source of protein, potassium, zinc and B vitamins. These beans can also be bought in dried form, but require soaking and cooking for 60–90 minutes.
Black beans feature in Caribbean, South American and Chinese food.
Broad beans can be bought fresh or dried. The dried ones need a long soaking and cooking period as the skin is quite tough.
Butter beans are popular in South American and Mexican cooking.
Cannellini beans are popular in Argentinian recipes.
Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) are a source of protein, dietary fibre and iron, and are low in fat. They are the base of hommous, and are used to make falafel in Lebanese cooking and besan flour in Indian cooking.
Kidney beans are usually red or brown in colour and are widely available canned.
Lentils are popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking and can be red, green or brown in colour. They do not require soaking and cook in about 30 minutes. They are the basis for Indian dhal and can be added to burgers, soups and stews.
Lima beans are a larger variety of the butter bean.
Mung beans are popular in Indian and Asian cooking. They do not need soaking. They can be ground into flour or sprouted.
Peas are available in dried, fresh, canned or frozen forms. Dried split green or yellow peas do not require soaking and cook more quickly than other legumes. Dried whole peas are higher in dietary fibre than the split variety. Snow peas can be eaten whole, either raw in a salad or lightly cooked.
Soybeans are high in (mainly) polyunsaturated fat and have been an Asian diet staple for centuries. They are used in whole bean form, and also to produce soya bean oil, soy milk, soy flour, soya bean curd, tofu, soy sauce, miso soup and soy paste (tempeh). Soybeans supply almost the full set of essential amino acids, which make them a more complete protein source.
• Legumes are ideal for using in soups, casseroles, stews, stir fires. curries, salads ans as a side dish.
• Use them to bulk out a meal such as meat casserole or as a protein base for a vegetarian casserole.
• Add legumes to lasagne or Mexican dishes such as tacos.
• Use canned beans as a salad base, with salad vegetables and low-fat dressing.
• Enjoy hommus (made from chickpeas) with vegetable sticks for a great snack.
• Use legumes to make a tasty vegetarian burger, or to bulk out a meat-based burger.
• Baked beans on wholegrain toast are a healthy snack.
May 2007, p83
Healthy Food Guide