On Nutrition

Pulses — dry beans, chickpeas, lentils and dry peas — have been part of the human diet for more than 10,000 years. They have a long tradition as a staple food of some of the healthiest diets in the world, including the Mediterranean diet. You may be more familiar with the term “legume” when thinking of beans, but that technically refers to the whole plant, pods and all, while “pulse” refers just to the edible dried seed. The word “pulse” comes from the Latin word “puls,” meaning thick soup.

Many different pulses are an important part of the Mediterranean diet, but a few of the stars are chickpeas (garbanzo beans), lentils and fava beans. These and other pulses are common ingredients in soups, stews and spreads, contributing protein, fiber and nutrients. Interest in plant-based eating has been growing and pulses are a big part of that, offering both protein and fiber. They are also a significant source of the minerals iron, zinc and magnesium as well as folate and several other B vitamins.

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that sales of pulses went way up in 2020, in both dried and canned form. According to USA Pulses, 2.3 million new households purchased canned beans last year. Not only are pulses inexpensive and nutritious, but these nutrient-rich pantry staples are incredibly versatile. May is Mediterranean Diet Month, so why not have some fun with pulses (whether in a Mediterranean-style way, or not):

  • For a Med-style snack, roast cooked chickpeas and salt them like peanuts.
  • Whip up some hummus or other bean dips to serve with raw veggies or spread on a sandwich.
  • Add lentils, beans or a mixture of the two in delicious veggie patties and meatless meatballs. 
  • Puree cooked beans or lentils and stir into soups and stews to make them thicker, heartier and more nutrient- and fiber-rich.
  • Add beans instead of potatoes or pasta in soups or stews.
  • Make breakfast tacos with eggs, salsa, avocado and black or pinto beans.
  • Prep a pot of chili with more beans, less meat.

Pulses are also a sustainable choice. They have low water needs, which also makes them drought-resistant. They improve soil by “fixing” nitrogen — pulling it from the air into the soil — and leaving behind beneficial soil microbes. They also have a low carbon footprint because they don’t need the nitrogen fertilizer that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Pulses may be a Mediterranean staple, but they’re also local — the Palouse region near Pullman is the historical center of cool season pulse production in the U.S. Farmers in the Palouse started growing lentils in 1917, dry peas a few years later, and chickpeas in 1981.

One of the earliest known cultivated legumes, chickpeas are the key ingredient in hummus. Chickpea flour is used to make a pancake or crepe known as farinata or cecina in Italy or socca in the Cote d’Azur region of France. A soup of black and regular chickpeas, fava beans, lentils and whole wheat is an important traditional dish in Puglia, Italy. Chickpeas have more inherent texture and aroma than many beans, which means that they need fewer aromatics like onions or herbs when cooking in order to add flavor.

Generally speaking, cooking dried beans produces a bean with more texture and flavor than canned. The most common cooking method is to soak the beans overnight, swap the soaking water for fresh water, then simmer for two to three hours or until tender. Lentils take much less time to cook — 30 minutes or so depending on the variety. If time is tight on weeknights, you have several options:

  • Cook beans on the weekend when you have more time.
  • Cook them in a slow cooker while you are at work (usually six to eight hours on low).
  • Cook them in the evening for use the next day.
  • Cook them in a pressure cooker. This dramatically slashes cooking time.

Or, simply opt for canned beans canned beans and chickpeas — smart pantry staples to keep on hand — as suggested in this recipe, which would be a great option for a packable lunch or to take to a (safe) summer gathering.

Mediterranean bean salad

Yield: Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • ⅓ cup olive oil
  • ¼ cup red wine vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons mustard, Dijon
  • ½ teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon oregano, dried
  • ½ teaspoon pepper, black
  • 4 cups fresh green beans, ends trimmed and cut into 1½ inch pieces
  • One 15-ounce can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • One 15-ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 bell pepper, yellow
  • 1 bell pepper, red
  • ¼ onion, red, diced
  • 1 cucumber, diced
  • 1 cup tomatoes, cherry, halved
  • ½ cup basil, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup parsley, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup feta cheese

Steps:

  1. In a small bowl, whisk together dressing ingredients: olive oil, red wine vinegar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, sea salt, oregano and black pepper. Set aside.
  2. Bring a large, salted pot of water to a boil. Meanwhile, fill a medium bowl with ice water and set aside. Once water is boiling, add trimmed green beans and stir. Boil green beans until just tender, about 30-60 seconds. Drain green beans and immediately transfer to ice water. Let sit for 2 minutes, then drain.
  3. Add green beans, kidney beans, chickpea, bell peppers, onion, cucumber, tomatoes, basil and parsley to a large bowl. Drizzle with dressing and toss well to combine. Sprinkle with feta cheese and stir until just mixed.
  4. Serve immediately and enjoy!