If you're trying to shift your diet toward more nutritious foods you need to make friends with dried beans, chickpeas and lentils if you haven't already. Their nutritional benefits are legendary. Just one example: Studies of the world's longest-living people (in the so-called "blue zones") find that such beans are the one specific food they all eat in common.
But health is just one focus of a new United Nations campaign around these wonders. The U.N. declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, a global marketing effort promoting their promise in feeding a growing population. (Such declarations only occasionally involve edible crops, by the way: The last two such designations were quinoa in 2013 and potatoes in 2008. In 2015 the two subjects were soil and light/light-based technologies.) Among other things, the campaign asked member nations to submit recipes for signature dishes using pulses (which are sometimes referred to as "grain legumes"). It also inspired U.S. and Canadian growers to launch the Pulse Pledge, a website where eaters can vow to eat more pulses and get access to recipes, cooking tips and more.
I spoke with Tim McGreevy, a pulse farmer in Washington state and chief executive of the American Pulse Association, about the campaign and about growing, cooking and eating pulses. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.
What exactly defines pulses, and how is the term different from other categories we use for legumes and beans?
They're a legume. The legume category is broad. It includes soybeans; it includes peanuts. The category of pulse crops actually is a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization definition. There are 11 types, but in the United States the primary pulse crops are dry beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, a little bit of fava beans as well. They're in their dry form; they're not fresh. We're not fresh peas, we're not fresh green beans, which are terrific products but not pulse products. Pulses are really defined because they have a low oil content compared with the other legumes in the family.
So that's what makes them unlike peanuts.
Yes. Soybeans have a very high oil content, and so do peanuts. Pulses really are in their own category in the legume matrix. Legume plants are unique in the plant kingdom because they fix much of their own nitrogen in the soil from the air. … They require none to very little fertilizer to produce a good crop, which is absolutely critical.
Why else are they considered such an important food from a global perspective?
For the developed world like the United States, where we have problems with weight management, these crops offer super high protein and an excellent source of dietary fiber. These foods will keep you full longer and will help with weight management. From the U.N.'s perspective, these are absolutely critical to food security. People don't need as much dietary fiber in the developing countries, but they need the protein.
When it comes to food waste, surely it helps that these are dry products and easy to store.
Yes. The word "pulse" is from a Latin word, puls, that means thick soup. One reason the Romans were able to conquer the world is because they had lentils and pulse crops that they carried with them in their knapsacks. They'd have some rice and they'd have some pulses in some form. … They would cook up their own vegetable protein, and they could go long distances, which they did, without having to kill animals and without all that spoilage.
Why don't we eat as many pulses in America as in other parts of the world?
When the Europeans descended upon the Americas, they brought pulses with them, because they are portable, they are storable and they were a staple. But we are a meat culture, a meat protein culture. We are not under-proteined in this country. We are over-proteined. That's a great thing. But people are starting to look more and more at plant proteins because of a lot of different factors. Health is one, and sustainability is certainly another.
As a pulse grower, what are some of your personal favorite ways to eat them?
With the chickpeas that I raise, of course we make hummus. Hummus has taken center stage, and it's tremendous. And roasted chickpeas are terrific. Another thing, with lentils, they cook really quickly, so in our house, since my wife, Christine, is into green drinks, we are actually now including lentils as a puree right in with our smoothie. I'm telling you, getting that good protein hit early in the morning is a game-changer.
Tropical Green Protein Smoothies
You'd never guess that the protein in this brightly flavored smoothie comes from lentils.
Frozen lentils can be found in some grocery stores, but you can also cook any variety of lentil you like, drain well and freeze at least overnight.
2 cups unsweetened apple juice
2 tablespoons coconut oil
2 cups lightly packed spinach leaves
1/4 cup fresh pineapple chunks
1 cup cooked, frozen lentils, any variety
1 cup frozen mango chunks
Combine the apple juice, coconut oil, spinach, pineapple, frozen lentils and frozen mango in a blender; puree until smooth.
Divide among glasses; serve right away.
Makes four 8-ounce smoothies.
Nutrition per serving: 210 calories, 5 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 20 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 20 g sugar
Source: Adapted from a recipe developed by Portland, Ore., chef Brittney Galloway, at PulsePledge.com.
Spiced Roasted Chickpeas
This party appetizer has a fraction of the fat found in nuts but is just as snackable. Consider the recipe as more of a formula; you can use your favorite spices and spice blends instead of the Indian chaat masala called for here. Substitute za'atar, Chinese five-spice, ras el hanout, dukkah, Old Bay, Spanish smoked paprika and more.
3 cups no-salt-added canned or home-cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained (from two 15-ounce cans)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
1 tablespoon chaat masala or spice blend of your choice (see headnote)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Dry the chickpeas thoroughly on paper towels by gently rolling them, then spread the chickpeas in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with the oil and toss to coat, then sprinkle with the salt. Roast, shaking the pan occasionally, until golden brown and crisp on the outside, 20 to 30 minutes.
Remove from the oven. Taste, and sprinkle with more salt as needed, then season with chaat masala (or another spice), tossing or stirring until the chickpeas are evenly coated.
For maximum crispness, serve warm; once the chickpeas have cooled, they will less be crisp but addictively chewy.
Makes 12 servings (about 3 cups).
Nutrition per serving: 80 calories, 4 g protein, 11 g carbohydrates, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 140 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar
Source: Adapted from recipes at PulsePledge.com and at TheKitchn.com.
Smoky Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili
The classic pairing of black beans and sweet potatoes becomes a deeply flavored, warming winter stew. It gets a touch of smoky flavor from the combination of chipotle and smoked paprika.
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium-small yellow onions, chopped (2 cups)
1 ¼ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into ¾-inch cubes (4 cups)
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 chipotle in adobo, finely chopped
1 tablespoon ancho chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
½ teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
1 (14.5-ounce) can no-salt-added diced tomatoes, plus their juices
3 ½ cups cooked no-salt-added black beans, rinsed and drained (from about 2 ¼ 15.5-ounce cans)
1 ½ cups homemade or no-salt-added vegetable broth, or more as needed
½ teaspoon fine sea salt, or more as needed
Flesh of 1 large Hass avocado, sliced, for garnish
¼ cup thinly sliced chives, for garnish
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, for 8 minutes or until tender and translucent. Add the sweet potatoes and garlic; cook, stirring frequently, until the garlic is fragrant and the sweet potatoes are just starting to soften, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the chopped chipotle, ancho chili powder, cumin and smoked paprika; cook, stirring constantly, until the spices are very fragrant and well distributed, 1 minute.
Stir in the diced tomatoes, black beans and broth; increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, so the liquid is barely bubbling. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the sweet potatoes are tender, 30 to 35 minutes, adding broth as needed to achieve your desired consistency.
Stir in the salt; taste, and add more as needed.
Let the chili sit for a few minutes so the flavors meld. Serve hot, topped with the avocado and chives.
Makes 8 cups.
Nutrition per serving (based on 8): 210 calories, 9g protein, 39g carbohydrates, 3g fat, 0g saturated fat, 0mg cholesterol, 260mg sodium, 10g dietary fiber, 7g sugar
Source: Adapted from Food 52 Vegan: 60 Vegetable-Driven Recipes for Any Kitchen, by Gena Hamshaw (Ten Speed Press, 2015)