On Nutrition

It’s no big secret that the Mediterranean diet has a recurring role on top of “healthiest diet” lists. But this way of eating has garnered some criticism that it’s not affordable. That’s partly because quality olive oils can be expensive and some Mediterranean staples, such as fresh tomatoes and leafy greens, may be costly when they aren’t in season.

However, research confirms that the Mediterranean diet and other healthy diets don’t need to be expensive. In fact, Mediterranean-style diets — whether traditional in nature or modified to include foods more typical in North America — offer a framework for incorporating nutritious, low-cost foods. That’s because this way of eating has humble roots and is based on simple foods such as grains, pulses — beans, lentils, chickpeas and dry peas — and seasonable vegetables. The key to keeping the Mediterranean diet affordable is prioritizing lower cost foods such as pulses while being selective when purchasing higher cost foods.

It’s worth noting that pulses are an important part of some of the world’s best-researched, time-tested healthful diets, which includes but isn’t limited to the Mediterranean diet. Lentils, chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and fava beans are Old World pulses — in fact, they are three of the eight “founder crops” that were first domesticated by Neolithic farming communities. Domesticated chickpeas — the key ingredient in hummus — have been found at archaeological sites in Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean dating back more than 10,000 years, and they spread to the rest of the Mediterranean region more than 8,000 years ago. The oldest known remains of domesticated lentils go back 13,000 years in Greece.

These and other pulses are common ingredients in soups, stews and spreads — hello, hummus — contributing protein, fiber and nutrients. They are a significant source of the minerals iron, zinc and magnesium as well as folate and several other B vitamins. And despite those ancient Old World origins, pulses are surprisingly local — the Palouse region of Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and Northeast Oregon produces all four types of pulses.

Pulses, Mediterranean style

Pulses and vegetables are abundant in the Mediterranean diet, and a typical main dish at lunch or dinner consists of vegetables, legumes and olive oil. Not only is olive oil essential in defining the Mediterranean diet, but using it to cook or dress the otherwise low-fat pulses and vegetables not only makes them tastier, but it makes some of their nutrients more absorbable. In addition to olive oil, pulses are often cooked with lemon and aromatics — garlic in particular, but also onion, herbs, black pepper and red chiles.

  • In Greece and Italy, fava beans are often cooked with artichokes.
  • A soup of black and regular chickpeas, fava beans, lentils and farro is an important traditional dish in Puglia, Italy.
  • Chickpea flour is used to make a pancake or crêpe known as farinata or cecina in Italy or socca in the Côte d’Azur region of France.
  • Borlotti beans — which look like white beans that someone scribbled on with a red marker pen — are common in Italy, although other white or pale beans, such as navy, cannellini or Anasazi, are fine substitutes, writes Nancy Harmon Jenkins in “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”

How to cook and use pulses

Cooking dried beans or chickpeas produces a bean with more texture and flavor than canned, but canned beans are a handy pantry staple to keep on hand, such as for the substantial salad recipe below. When cooking your own beans or chickpeas the most common cooking method is soaking the beans overnight, discarding the water, adding fresh water, then simmering for 2-3 hours or until tender. (Lentils don’t need soaking, and take much less time to cook, 30 minutes or so depending on the variety.)

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Cook beans on the weekend when you have more time, cook them in a slow cooker while you are at work (usually 6-8 hours on low), or cook them in the evening for use the next day. If you are a pressure cooker aficionado, you know that they can dramatically slash bean-cooking time. Cook extra, because leftover beans freeze nicely.

Smoked Salmon and Crispy Chickpea Salad

Serves six

Salad

  • 15 ounces canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons avocado oil
  • 1 tablespoon za’atar (see note)
  • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 3 cups mixed baby greens
  • 1 cucumber, sliced
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes, sliced
  • 1 2 1/4-ounce can sliced black olives
  • 1/2 red onion, sliced
  • 1-2 pieces smoked salmon, broken off into large chunks
  • 1 avocado, sliced (optional)
  • 1/2 cup feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped

Dressing

  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon za’atar
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Add chickpeas to a baking tray and drizzle with avocado oil. Sprinkle with za’atar, sea salt and black pepper. Toss to coat.
  3. Bake chickpeas for 20-30 minutes, or until chickpeas are golden and crisp. Remove from oven and set aside.
  4. While chickpeas bake, make dressing: Add all ingredients to a small bowl, then whisk vigorously to combine.
  5. Add mixed greens to a large platter or salad bowl. Arrange sliced cucumber, cherry tomatoes, olives, red onion, smoked salmon and avocado (if using) on top. Add roasted chickpeas, parsley, feta and dressing on top. Enjoy!

Recipe and photo courtesy of USA Pulses.

Note: Za’atar is a spice blend that has varying recipes, but is generally a combination of dried oregano, thyme and/or marjoram, with sumac and toasted sesame seeds, and sometimes with salt. It’s generally available at any online or brick-and-mortar spice shop, as well as at grocers with robust bulk spice selections.