How to make the best of beans

Lentils. Beans. Split peas... Don't exactly get the old gastric juices going, do they? Not like mash, which elicits oooohs and ahhhhs and other squeals of ecstasy. But why not? Pulses should be just as sexy as potatoes.

Maybe it's because, traditionally (with the odd exception, such as split and dried peas, which are served on Bonfire Night in Lancashire), we don't have much of a bean-eating culture - or at least one that's not allied to a five-letter word beginning in H and ending in Z.

Pulses, the collective noun for the dried seeds of leguminous vegetables (veg which have seed-bearing pods), have for centuries been at the heart of European peasant culture, a practical way of storing vegetables for winter. They include lentils, chickpeas, kidney, haricot, fava and soya beans, black eye and marrowfat (mushy) peas, all valuable sources of protein, particularly if eaten in conjunction with grains or other carbohydrates (think couscous and chickpeas, rice and peas). They can also, of course, be sprouted.

They are one of the oldest foodstuffs, going back to prehistoric times. Fava (broad) beans were used by ancient Egyptians; and lentils, according to the American food writer, Waverley Root, were cultivated in the gardens of King Merodach-Baladan in Babylon, though they appear not to have caused much excitement then, either. Root reports that the Greeks were particularly snooty about lentils: "Some of their philosophers ate them ostentatiously to demonstrate that they were above worldly pleasures and self-indulgence." Hippocrates, apparently, prescribed lentils for liver ailments "accompanied startlingly with slices of boiled dog". The word cicer , the Latin for chickpea, was believed to have been derived from one of Roman orator Cicero's ancestors, who had a wart on his face shaped like a chickpea.

Things weren't much better in the middle ages. Again according to Root's seminal work, Food, "the lentil was not only looked down upon as a food unworthy of the solvent, it was also accused of being difficult to digest, and prone to inflame the stomach, weaken eyesight and engender nightmares". And, according to Harold McGee, St Jerome went as far as to forbid them to the nuns in his charge on the grounds that "in genitablibus titillationes producunt".

If you want to see pulses viewed more benignly, you have to look to some of the countries to which they eventually spread - Egypt, north Africa, via the Arabs to Spain, then on to South America, where fejoida (that meltingly delicious combination of smoky pork and black beans) is celebrated as the national dish of Brazil. In Spain and Italy, they're taken far more seriously. Look at the River Cafe cookbooks and you'll find sexy, soft-focus photographs of borlotti beans, combined with nothing but fresh herbs and top-quality olive oil.

The beauty of beans and other pulses is their "fantastic ability to soak up flavour", says Jeremy Lee. "Combine them with inexpensive cuts of meat such as ham hocks or shoulder of lamb, and you end up with something quite remarkable and splendid." They miraculously absorb fat, so that the overall dish seems not remotely greasy, and develop a smooth, silky texture that makes sensational soups and purées (particularly useful at this time of year, when old potatoes are well past their best). They can be cooked and reheated with impunity, kept in the fridge for a couple of days, and are just as useful a standby as a can.

Most pulses, with the exception of split peas and lentils, need to be soaked beforehand, preferably overnight. Some books recommend as a short cut boiling them for five minutes, then leaving them to stand for an hour, but I'm not convinced the flavour is as good. You should then drain them, add fresh boiling water, then simmer for one to two hours, depending on the type of pulse (chickpeas generally take longer) and how fresh they are. Beans can get quite heavy and starchy if you don't use enough water. "You need lots and lots of liquid, just like you do for pasta," says Lee. "Too many people cram beans into the smallest pan imaginable." You can use ingredients such as garlic, bayleaves, sage and rosemary to intensify the flavour, but never add salt until they are cooked, otherwise it toughens them up.

The key to getting the best out of pulses is to buy the current year's crop, harvested the previous autumn. Like many top London chefs, Lee buys his from Spanish foods importer Brindisa (020-7403 6932), which runs a regular stall in London's Borough Market. Such high-quality beans don't come cheap, however: the Rolls-Royce of the bean world, for instance, the Spanish Judion beans - they are large butter beans harvested individually from the pod - fetch £9.40 a kilo, but that will do for several meals. "As always, it's about quality," says Lee. "Never buy things that have been hanging around on the back of the shelf."

These days, of course, pulses are seriously sexy, especially on the restaurant front - there's hardly a menu that doesn't have a pulsating dish. And the praises of pulses as an essential component of your everyday, healthy Mediterranean diet are now quite as vociferous as the voices that condemned them in the past.

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