Pulses: dried beans, peas and lentils

Pulses: dried beans, peas and lentils

Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery

Dried beans, peas and lentils are classified as ‘pulses’, a word taken from the Latin puls or pottage. There are hundreds of varieties of pulses with differing flavours and textures. They are regarded as a good source of protein.

Pulses are readily available from supermarkets, health food stores and delicatessens. They can be stored for up to 1 year in airtight containers, but longer storage will harden them. Buy pulses that are clean and of uniform size and quality. Most are available ready-wrapped, but some can be purchased loose.

Pulses make delicious soups, salads or main course dishes. They are economical, easy to prepare and help stretch the menu.

Types of dried beans:

Haricot or white beans: Smooth, oval beans of which there is more than one variety. Each is virtually interchangeable with another in most recipes. Haricot beans are used in soups, baked bean dishes, stews, with meats and in salads. Varieties of haricot or white beans include:

Navy beans: Excellent in dishes such as Boston baked beans.

Flageolets: Used with lamb dishes in France.

Soissons: Often considered to be the finest haricot beans and used to great effect in the superb cassoulet dishes of France.

Cannellini: The Italian variety of haricot beans and slightly fatter than their French and English equivalents. Cannellini are delicious in soups as well as many dishes from Tuscany, including beans with tuna, served with a garlicky dressing.

Butter beans: Also known as lima beans, and can be large or small. Use the large beans in soups and purées, and the small butter beans in dishes instead of haricot beans or in their own right. Either large or small butter beans are delicious in salads.

Borlotti beans: Pinky-brown, black-speckled beans used in Italian soup-stews, and sometimes mixed with pasta.

Chickpeas: Also known as Spanish beans, garbanzo or ceci peas. They are not, strictly speaking, peas. Their nutty flavour and crisp texture are perfect in salads, soups, stews and in many other dishes such as Hummus bi Tahini, a delicious Middle Eastern spread.

Dried chickpeas may need soaking for up to 10 hours before cooking, and sometimes need 5–6 hours of gentle simmering to become completely tender. Chickpeas can also be purchased tinned, which will eliminate the soaking and long cooking processes. Simply drain, rinse and use as specified in your recipe.

Red kidney beans: Kidney-shaped, as their name suggests, and are probably most often associated with Chile Con Carne, or salads. They are also the major component in Frijoles Refritos (refried beans), one of the basic dishes of Mexico.

Broad beans or fava beans: These are strongly flavoured beans that form the basis of the Middle Eastern dish Falafel, little bean patties flavoured with herbs, garlic and onion.

Mung beans: These can be cooked as for other dried beans, but are probably best used after sprouting, in salads and Chinese dishes (see Bean Sprouts).

Black-eyed peas or beans: Creamy white beans which derive their name from the little black eye, or spot, in the centre. Often served in southern USA with pork and cornbread. Black-eyed peas are the essential ingredient in Hopping John – a mixture of beans, brown rice, bacon and oil.

Soybeans: Highly nutritious, containing complete protein, and used extensively as food and oil, particularly in countries where other sources of complete protein are scarce. Soybean curds, or tofu, are used in Asian dishes as a meat substitute. Tofu is a rather bland substance that readily takes on flavours from other ingredients in the dish. Soy sauce is made from fermented soybeans. The distinctive flavour of soybeans blends well when used with other beans in recipes.

Basic preparation: When buying in bulk discard any broken or defective beans. Rinse well, until the water runs clear. Packaged beans usually need rinsing only. Most beans need soaking to restore the water lost during drying. The soaking water may be used in most recipes. Soak beans by one of the two methods below:

Quick soaking: Put beans in a large saucepan, add cold water to cover and bring to the boil. Cover pan and cook for 2 minutes; remove from heat. Let stand for 1 hour, then cook according to recipe.

Overnight soaking: Put beans in a large bowl, cover with water and soak for 6–8 hours but no longer or they may ferment.

To cook: Cook beans in the soaking water or fresh water to cover. Cover the saucepan, bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for the time stated in the recipe or for 1½–2 hours (except chickpeas, which take longer – up to 5–6 hours). Red kidney beans should boil rapidly for the first 10 minutes of cooking to ensure harmful toxins are destroyed. Stir occasionally, being careful not to break the beans. When ready, they should be tender and hold their shape. Sugar, salt or acids (this includes tomatoes) added to the beans during simmering will toughen them, so add after beans are tender.

If beans are to be used for soups or in baked dishes, they should be cooked until they are just barely tender. Add flavourings such as onion, carrot, celery, bouquet garni, bay leaf, garlic or bacon bones according to the dish.

Most dried beans are also available pre-cooked in cans, which precludes the soaking and long slow cooking. Drain, rinse and use according to recipe.

Types of dried peas:

Split peas: Usually sold packaged, skinned and split; they may be bright green or golden-yellow, and are often used in soups. Rinse thoroughly and soak in cold water overnight unless otherwise specified on the package or in the recipe.

Types of lentils:

Red, brown and green lentils: These need less cooking and preparation than dried peas and beans. The small red lentil needs no presoaking and becomes tender after 20 minutes’ cooking. The brown and green lentils take a little longer to cook. Lentils are excellent in purées and soups.

In Germany, brown lentils accompany roast duck, and in France, when cooked with garlic and flavoured with lemon juice, the purée is eaten with pickled (salt) pork. Some lentils can be used in salads.

Dhal: This is the Hindi word for pulses, and most packages labelled ‘dhal’ contain a mixture of lentils with some dried beans and peas. Dhal is most commonly known as a delicious spiced purée served with Indian curries, and most dhal recipes will take about 45 minutes to cook.


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