Eat & Drink

Beans, peas and more: Pulses pack nutritional power in a pod

Rustic Salad (Insalata Rustica)
Rustic Salad (Insalata Rustica); food styling by Karen Elizabeth Watts

Chickpeas, kidney and cannellini beans, fava and lima beans. Soybeans, snap peas, lentils and peanuts. They’re all part of the genetic family called pulses.

If you haven’t already jumped on the pulse bandwagon, treat your taste buds to one of the most cost-effective protein sources on the planet. With a low carbon footprint and natural nitrogen-fixing properties, pulses can help to increase soil fertility, foster sustainable agriculture and slow climate change.

Pulses became big news globally when the 68th U.N. General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, calling them “nutritious seeds for a sustainable future.”

High in fiber and amino acids, low-glycemic pulses may reduce the risk of diabetes. Pulses are also rich in potassium, which can promote lower blood pressure and counteract the effects of excess dietary sodium. And they’re a good source of folate, a B vitamin that aids in cell production and maintenance. These nutrients may help prevent or manage chronic health issues including obesity, coronary conditions (by lowering cholesterol levels) and cancer.

But for most bean lovers, pulses are simply tasty ingredients that can star in a wide array of dishes, sometimes even substituting for dairy’s creaminess and body. Every bean has a slightly different texture and color, which enhances its deliciousness.

“The basic quality of beans is they have a wonderful creamy center that is a perfect carrier for flavor — waiting for something to give it a little zing,” says Robin Asbell, chef, instructor and author of eight books including “Great Bowls of Food” (Countryman Press, 2016). “Red lentils are a beautiful backdrop for wonderful spices. There are beans that will hold more texture, like a lima bean, and there are others that become completely soft.”

TV personality, cookbook author and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich remembers her grandmother growing beans that they used in Italian winter soups, stews and sauces. “They’re kind of a neutral flavor that harmonizes with other strong flavors like bacon or tomatoes and sausages,” she says. “They mellow chicory and escarole salads, adding a tender element.” They also absorb the flavor of meat and sauces and are good on top of bruschetta, she adds.

Beans are an integral part of the Native American “holy trinity” — beans, corn and squash — too. These “Three Sisters” “provide every nutrient known to sustain life,” says Lois Ellen Frank, James Beard award-winning author of “Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations.”

From the Kiowa nation on her mother’s side (and Sephardic Jewish on her father’s side), Frank has documented the foods and ways of tribes from the Southwest for more than two decades. A chef, photographer and founder of Red Mesa Cuisine in Santa Fe, N.M., Frank is also a culinary instructor and an adjunct professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

“Historically, native people ate a lot less meat, and they ate seasonally,” she says. “Beans could be eaten throughout the year. They are the foundation that things revolve around. Food is our medicine (and) is encapsulated in the bean. They’re low in fat and a plant-based miracle — sustenance in a pod and way more sustainable than animal protein is.”

Frank says hummus, soups, stews, tacos and burritos are only a few ways to use beans.

Bastianich particularly likes cannellini, kidney and fava beans. The cannellini bean “has a thin skin and it’s very pulpy,” she says. “I like kidney beans — they’re great for soups — and dried fava beans — I buy them shelled. They split in half and they give a great density to the soup. The puree can almost be like mashed potato.”

Registered dietitian, nutrition consultant and educator Lisa Markley loves lentils too, especially the beluga variety. “They’re the gateway bean because you don’t have to plan ahead or soak them ahead of time, and they tend to cook up fairly quickly. Red lentils take less than 30 minutes to cook, but I love all of the colors.”

“My second favorite (pulse) is chickpeas. They’re heart-shaped and really good for your heart because of complex carbohydrates. I love the flavor. One of my favorite ways to use (toasted chickpeas) is as croutons on a salad; start with already cooked or canned chickpeas.”

“Heartlanders like to eat from the garden, or farm-to table,” says Judith Fertig, an award-winning, Kansas City-based author whose cookbooks include “Heartland, the Cookbook.” But “instead of just simmering a pot of beans, a traditional favorite, there are now other ways to enjoy them.”

“Beans in their shells might be new to gardeners and grillers, but a welcome addition. (They) add heartiness while still being able to carry whatever flavors you want to add to them. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame has been celebrating shelled, gently cooked beans for a long time, and they’re just starting to catch on here with the added popularity of Middle Eastern food. They’re delicious as a topping on grilled bread with fruity olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt.”

A plethora of pulses

There are many types of pulses, and some go by several names, which can be confusing. Here are the most common.

1. Adzuki bean, also called Adanka bean

2. Broad bean, also called fava bean, bell bean, field bean

3. Vetch

4. Kidney bean, or common field bean, habichuela, snap bean

5. Chickpea, or calvance pea, chestnut bean, dwarf pea, garbanzo bean, gram pea

6. Cowpea, or asparagus bean, black-eyed pea, crowder pea, field pea, Southern pea, frijole, paayap

7. Guar bean, or cluster bean

8. Hyacinth bean, or bonavist, bataw, lablab

9. Lentil

10. Lima bean, or butter bean, patani

11. Lupin, or lupine, lupine, sweet lupin

12. Mung bean

13. Peas, or podded pea, snap pea, chicharo

14. Peanuts, or groundnut, earth nut, mani

15. Pigeon pea, or kadios

16. Soybean, or tepary bean

Grilled Fava Beans in the Pod With Fresh Pecorino

This recipe is from “300 Big & Bold Barbecue & Grilling Recipes” by Judith Fertig.

“If you’re lucky enough to know any Italian gardeners, ask for fava beans in the pod. Brushed with a little olive oil, seasoned to taste, and simply grilled, they’re wonderful served with a fresh pecorino. If fresh fava bean pods are not to be had, do the same with fresh peas, snow peas, or edamame in the pod,” she writes.

Makes 4 servings

1 pound fava beans, in the pod

Olive oil for brushing and serving

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

8 ounces fresh pecorino or other sheep or goats milk cheese

Prepare a medium-hot fire in your grill. Brush the pods with olive oil, then season with salt and pepper.

Grill, turning often, until you have good grill marks. To serve, portion the grilled pods and cheese on each plate. Try eating them pod and all, if pods are not too tough, or open the pods and scoop out the fava beans to eat with the cheese and a little olive oil.

Per serving: 356 calories (52 percent from fat), 21 grams total fat (10 grams saturated), 59 milligrams cholesterol, 18 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams protein, 686 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.

Rustic Salad (Insalata Rustica)

Makes 6 servings

1 pound russet potatoes, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for the pot

6 anchovy fillets, drained

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1 bunch scallions, trimmed and chopped (about 1 cup)

6 cups baby arugula

2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

In a medium saucepan, put the potatoes in salted cold water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook until tender but not mushy, about 10-12 minutes. Drain well.

While the potatoes cook, make the dressing. In a mini-food processor, pulse together the anchovies, vinegar and mustard. With the processor running, drizzle in the olive oil to make a smooth, emulsified dressing.

When the potatoes are cooked, put them in a large bowl with the beans and scallions. Season with  1/4 teaspoon salt, and toss with about three-quarters of the dressing.

In another bowl, toss the arugula with the remaining  1/4 teaspoon salt and the remaining dressing. Add the eggs, and toss gently. Serve the salad on plates, with the arugula-egg mixture mounded on top of the potatoes.

Per serving: 319 calories (57 percent from fat), 21 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 74 milligrams cholesterol, 26 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 454 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.

From “Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking” by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and Tanya Bastianich Manuali (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Quinoa, Black Bean and Baby Greens Bowl With Sriracha Apricot Dressing

Quinoa is quick cooking; by the time you stir up the simple dressing, it will be ready. Canned beans are ready in a snap, and you just pile on some fresh, crisp veggies for a purely healthy meal.

Makes 4 servings

1 1/2 cups quinoa

2 3/4 cups water

1/4 cup apricot jam

1/4 cup tamari soy sauce

2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 clove garlic, pressed

2 cups cooked black beans, rinsed and drained

4 ounces baby kale, chopped

1 cup pickled beets, slivered

1 cup shredded carrot

1 cup microgreens, washed and dried

Bring the water to a boil in a 2-quart pot and add the quinoa. Bring back to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cover tightly for 15 minutes. Take off the heat and let stand.

In a medium bowl or glass measuring cup, stir the jam, tamari, Sriracha, cider vinegar and garlic. Drizzle 2 tablespoons of the dressing on the quinoa and toss.

In 4 wide pasta bowls, place  3/4 cup of quinoa and arrange  1/2 cup of beans and  1/4 of all the remaining ingredients on top. Drizzle with dressing and serve.

Per serving: 481 calories (8 percent from fat), 5 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 95 grams carbohydrates, 19 grams protein, 1,414 milligrams sodium, 15 grams dietary fiber.

From Robin Asbell, chef, instructor and author of eight books including her latest, “Great Bowls of Food” (Countryman Press, 2016)

Three Beans, Roasted Corn and Feta on Romaine Leaves

Red chili honey is a specialty item available at, but regular honey will do in a pinch.

Makes 8 servings

1/2 cup each dry pinto, kidney and black beans, soaked for several hours or overnight

6 cups water

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons red chili honey or regular honey

1/3 cup olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 cup roasted corn kernels

18 romaine leaves, washed and dried

4 ounces feta cheese

In a large saucepan, place beans and water and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and cook, slowly simmering, for several hours, until the beans are tender to the bite but hold their shape. Remove from heat; strain beans in a colander. Return beans to saucepan and stir in cumin and salt, adjusting to taste. Allow to cool completely before making the salad.

In a bowl, whisk together the freshly squeezed lime juice, mustard, red chili honey and olive oil together. Season with kosher salt and pepper.

Add corn to beans and pour half of the salad dressing over all; mix together well.

To serve, place a few romaine leaves on a salad plate. Top with a portion of the bean mixture (about  1/2 to  3/4 cup). Top with the feta cheese and drizzle the top with remaining salad dressing.

Per serving: 175 calories (61 percent from fat), 12 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 13 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams protein, 386 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

From Lois Ellen Frank