Updated February 2019
What are pulses?
Pulses are seeds that are harvested and dried from the “pea family” of plants (a subgroup of legumes). Commonly known pulses include beans (e.g., fava, black beans, kidney beans), chickpeas, dried peas, and lentils.
It’s not just about baked beans! Pulses can be found in any part of a meal – from chickpea hummus as a snack to lentil salad as a side to curries as a hearty main to red bean buns (from adzuki beans) for desert. Many pulses are also used as flours, such as chickpea flour.
I like to start with a recipe if I’m feeling uninspired. French, Latin American, South Asian, African, Italian and Middle Eastern foods all feature pulses in rich, flavourful and colourful dishes. Pulses help me explore cuisines from around the world.
Good for People: Pulses are really affordable sources of high quality vegetable protein, making them great options for a meatless meal or snack. They are high in fibre, low fat, rich in minerals (including iron), and have no cholesterol.
Good for the Planet: As a member of the legume family, pulses take nitrogen from the air and return it to the soil, creating a healthy foundation for other crops. This also reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, which makes pulses a climate friendly protein. Overall, reducing our meat consumption and choosing vegetable proteins, like pulses, can also help our climate.
Need motivation? Here are some ways to make pulses part of your next meal.
There are many, many, many varieties of pulses. Pick a new-to-you pulse and experiment. I recently discovered cranberry beans, which have a creamy texture and are a beautiful, variegated red-white colour; these beans were perfect mild for a simple bean salad. Sometimes it’s hard to find the less common varieties, especially if you stick to cans. Look for more varieties of dried pulses in the store or check you’re your farmers’ market, bulk food stores and stores specializing in foods from around the world. Of course, you can also grow your own!
Let’s face it, many people find pulses hard to digest, but not all pulses are same. Some varieties are easier on the system, such as pinto, adzuki, mung and black beans, as well as chickpeas and any split lentils, beans, or peas (often found in South Asian grocers as “dal” or “dahl”). Adding certain herbs when cooking can also help, such as bay leaves, fennel or cumin, and asafoetida (Also commonly found in South Asian grocers; it has an unpleasant odour when uncooked, but you won’t taste or smell it in your final dish. Just add a pinch).
Pulses take a while to cook, which makes it hard to have spontaneous meals. Over the years, I’ve developed a few strategies including:
- Having a couple of cans in the cupboard, just in case.
- Preparing them in stages: I soak the beans overnight and cook them in the morning, as I’m getting ready to go to work. If I start cooking them right away, they’re done by the time I’m ready to head out the door. I can just pull them out of the fridge as soon as I get home for an evening meal.
- Cooking ahead and freezing them.
- Keeping quick-cook varieties on hand. For example, split red lentils take about 20 minutes to cook. Smaller, split varieties tend to cook quickly.
- Using a pressure cooker! This saves time and money.
Preparation Tips to Make Pulses Easy
Sourcing local: We do grow a number of pulses here in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes. Many farmers’ market vendors offer the distinctive Jacob’s cattle bean in dried form; these are a simple swap for red or white kidney beans in most recipes. Maritime suppliers, like Speerville, also carry a range of products (not all locally grown), including chickpeas and lentils. Start asking about locally grown pulses or add some to your garden.
Canned beans: Always rinse them really well before adding to your dish (and look for low sodium).
Amounts: Whether pre-soaked or not, pulses can double or triple in size as they absorb water when cooking. Check your recipe and the particular pulse variety to figure out how much you really need. I’ve often used the final cooked quantity for the dried quantity and am left with a lot of beans.
Soaking: Soaking shortens cooking time, but can change the texture and colour. Most recipes recommend pre-soaking. If you don’t soak before cooking, then be prepared for extra cooking time. Add only water to beans when soaking, rinse them well before cooking and use fresh water when cooking. While you can pre-soak lentils, I find they aren’t as tasty, so I tend to leave extra cooking time.
Cooking: Check cooking times for the particular pulse you’re using. Start by boiling the pulse for 10 minutes and then turning town to a simmer. Keep covered and avoid adding salt until cooked. Don’t forget about them! I’ve ruined a few pots with burned beans.
Pressure Cookers: Pressure cookers can be a bit daunting if you’ve never used one, but are very energy efficient and reduce cooking times dramatically. For instance, unsoaked kidney beans will be tender in about 20 minutes. Pressure cookers come in a range of sizes, prices and features.
Freezing: I find beans can be susceptible to freezer burn, so I like to rinse them well and air dry them a bit before freezing. The texture can also change (turn mushy or mealy) if fully cooked, so sometimes I undercook them just a little bit and then cook them until tender before adding them to the meal. Or, I make sure I’m adding them to dishes where it doesn’t matter (e.g., soups, refried beans). Split lentils/beans can also get a bit mushy when defrosted, but whole lentils freeze beautifully.
Sprouting: Another alternative is sprouting. Mung beans are most often used to make bean sprouts, but you can sprout any whole pulse, including lentils. They are great additions to salads, stir frys, or cooked in a meal.
Recipe: Bean & Celery Root Purée
This recipe takes advantage of the celery root (celeriac), a great Nova Scotia winter vegetable, and beans. It’s a slightly different approach to beans and goes well with a chunky stew or with juicy vegetables like braised leeks. You can use as you would a soft polenta or in place of mashed potatoes.
- 1 tablespoon of canola oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed or minced
- 1/2 small yellow onion (or 2 shallots, if you prefer a milder flavour)
- 1 ½ pounds of celeriac (after you peel the outer layer off), chopped into chunks
- 2/3 cup of vegetable broth
- ½ teaspoon of dried thyme or 4 sprigs of fresh
- 2 cups cooked beans (white kidney beans, Jacob’s cattle beans, navy beans or any mostly white bean)
- salt to taste
- Sauté the oil, onion and garlic until softened on a medium heat (a few minutes). Add vegetable broth, thyme and celeriac. Bring to a boil and then turn it down for a simmer, cooking covered until the celery root is tender (about 20 minutes).
Take the lid off add the cooked beans and salt at the end. Simmer for a few more minutes.
Use a hand-held blender or food processor to purée the mixture to your desired consistency.
Adapted from Vegan Eats World by Terry Hope Romero
Originally published in 2016 for the International Year of Pulses. by Satya Ramen, Community Food Coordinator, Our Food Project, Ecology Action Centre. Photo by Charlotte Karlsen on Unsplash.
Adventures in Local Food is your source for food news in Nova Scotia, from pickles to policy. It is a project organized by the Ecology Action Centre. Learn more about our program at https://www.ecologyaction.ca/ourfood