Bold cooks are those who relish the most humble ingredients. Whether you soak dried and cook fresh or simply open a tin, pulses are among some of the best ingredients in the pantry. Ripe edible seeds of legume plants, harvested and dried, there are hundreds of different varieties grown around the world. Most recognisable on our shelves are dried beans, lentils and peas. Implicitly frugal, readily available, rich in protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, pulses are tremendously valuable in the kitchen. They are also one of the most sustainable methods of food production, with one of the lowest carbon footprints in agriculture; they require less water to farm and also release nitrates into the soil to act as a natural fertiliser. A necessary crop for now and certainly for the future, pulses can be cultivated in parts of the world where drought and soaring temperatures make farming such a challenge.
In India, Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa, South America and Europe, pulses have long been considered a key ingredient to store and use throughout the year. In Europe especially, the fava bean has been one of the most crucial, in use since the Bronze Age. Interesting, then, that nowadays broad beans, picked immature and eaten seasonally, have usurped the smaller dried fava as the bean of choice. Stigmatized as a food of the poor, dried pulses fell out of favour when meat and dairy gained in popularity as the more exclusive source of protein for the wealthy.
Unfortunately for pulses, their penurious reputation has proved an onerous one to shake off. Efficient to grow and brilliant to eat, we need to reclaim our pulse-eating mojo and make them a mainstay once more. Michael Pollan’s rallying call of ‘Eat food. Not too much. And mostly plants.’ is dazzling in its sentiment and succinctness. It is the catchphrase of our generation and, fingers crossed, its efficacy has been potent. Pulse production is on the increase. Certainly one of the world’s most proficient plants, there are now over 173 countries growing and exporting some 60 million tonnes of pulses a year (see www.pulses.org) and 2016 was the United Nations international year of the pulse, intended to raise the profile of pulses in the global diet.
When cooking with pulses, my approach is twofold. For quick, speedy cooking, tinned beans and chickpeas and dried lentils and split peas fall into the category of quick-cook pulses. Ready cooked and in the tin, beans and chickpeas, rinsed of their briny gloop, enjoy frequent use. Softer, more slippery in texture, tinned beans are terrific used whole in wet, soupy dishes or mashed down with more flavour: onions, garlic, herbs and spices. The rescue ingredient for many a lunch or supper, tinned beans and chickpeas, pudgy and fulsome and taking minutes to make good, are full of sustenance and flavour. Unashamedly in tins and always on my shelves are butter beans, cannellini beans, haricot beans, kidney beans and chickpeas.
As for lentils, they will always be my favourite. With no need to soak and a relatively short cooking time, I see no need for the tinned sort and would always cook fresh from dried. In Italy lentils indicate luck and prosperity. I like the thought that good luck is something to consume, easy to come by, convivial to share. For me, the unpretentious lentil represents the warp and weft of what it is to cook inspiring and delicious food – using ingredients, weaving them together to give form and colour to the fabric of a dish. There is a dizzying assortment of lentils available. From slate grey, to red, to green and brown to coral pink, some heirloom varieties fetch a weighty price. Size, colour and cost aside for me, the distinguishing feature of any lentil is how these tiny things cook in contact with liquid. Red lentils are widely available as a
split lentil and share a similar affinity with split yellow peas. Both varieties cook quickly, collapsing into any ingredients you prepare them with. In haleem, the red lentils and the split peas slump modestly among the brown rice and cracked wheat to give a mixed grain dhal with a sublime texture. Super-cheap and stocked almost everywhere, these are the indispensable handfuls to chuck into soups and purées and to cook into dhal dishes. Like porridge, not too soupy, not too starchy, these lentils respond well to assertive flavouring: turmeric to brighten, ginger to warm and spices to invigorate.
Brown lentils are widely available. Cooked considerately, these lentils taste great, will hold their shape and are easy to come by. Be warned, though, as brown lentils can cook to a mush very quickly if forgotten about. Best of all are green lentils; I like the way they hold their shape and have an earthy, peppery bite. Most supermarkets now also stock French green lentils. These lentils are a notch up from regular green and brown but not quite up there with the mottled beauty of Puy lentils, grown in the specialist Auvergne district in central France. Castelluccio lentils from Umbria in Italy, khaki in colour and tiny in size, are equally exquisite.
In winter time my use of lentils will rely on a tiny dice of onions, carrots and celery, some bay leaves too, cooked down until sticky and aromatic – patience – the lentils are added and simmered in water until soft but still holding their shape. This is a dish I could eat for ever. Make enough; serve with sausages or a fried egg for supper and serve again the next day, the day after, as sauce to some pasta. In summertime, green lentils respond brilliantly to being dressed while still warm, a salad of sorts, drunk on olive oil and good vinegar or citrus juice and given a showy burst of chopped herbs and olives.
Whatever the season and however I am cooking with lentils, I don’t think I could ever be friends with someone who said they didn’t like to eat them. Like tiny pebbles, dainty little things packed full of flavour, cooked lentils also age gracefully, tasting better for a day or two wallowing in a little of their own cooking liquid. Slow-cook pulses are dried beans and chickpeas, and both require soaking in water before use. Plump and glistening, only after soaking can any real cooking begin. Cooked fresh, these pulses have a superior texture to their tinned versions and are a brilliant substitute for grains, pasta or noodles and potatoes in everyday cooking. When you do cook with dried pulses, I think it’s absolutely worth cooking more than just the one meal’s worth and using them incrementally over a few days, throwing them into soups, stews, warm salads, on to toast, into frittatas or blitzing them into a purée. You know the drill: tahini, garlic, lemon juice, water and salt drowned in olive oil for hummus.
Better still, and because I’m a tiny bit bored of the beige stuff, white beans (cannellini preferably) freshly cooked and blended with some of the bean cooking liquor, some garlic and salt, barely warm and bathed in a fruity olive oil. On toast, with bread, this is a great dish, so very simple. And while the UK may have cut their culinary ties (give it time . . .) with dried fava as the common use for bean crops, you can still buy the dried beans from many Mediterranean grocery shops and online stockists. Prepare these fudgy beans like they do in Egypt, cooked down with onions, cumin and plenty of fresh herbs as ful medames. Commonly eaten at breakfast (and also to break the fast), it is stuffed in pita bread with chopped salad, hard-boiled egg and lemon wedges. Alternatively, buy split dried fava beans to soak and blitz raw for the falafel recipe (see page 66). With a crisp shell and a vivid green interior, these falafel are knockout. Any stodgy orbs masquerading as falafel will be put to shame.
As with most things left sitting on a shelf, time will eventually hamper quality. Although dried, it is best to check the production date on any packets of dried pulses you buy. Try to buy from the last season’s harvest if you can. These pulses will rehydrate more evenly and cook more quickly. The older the pulse, the drier the texture. Flavour will also deteriorate. Try to buy pulses from shops with a high turnover – this way you’ll know the pulses are likely to be fresher. May the pulse be with you.