I have a cup of black and white spotted Orca Beans soaking in warm water on my kitchen counter right now, waiting to turn into a bean and vegetable soup that we'll enjoy tomorrow after a long hike on the beach. We eat a fair amount of pulses: beans and lentils, split peas and chickpeas.
The United Nations recently named 2016 the International Year of Pulses, and with good reason: they're inexpensive, easy to store, nutrient-dense and they can be sustainably grown in a wide variety of climates.
For us? Well, they just taste good. They lighten my budget and they fill my family's bellies with wholesome, affordable nutrition which is why there's a whole section in my first cookbook The Nourished Kitchen on cooking with pulses and whole grains as well as many more recipes for pulses in my new cookbook Broth and Stock, out this May.
I'll be working with USA Pulses this year to share with you more recipes and cooking tips, but first I wanted to share with you the answer to a common question: what exactly are pulses?
What are pulses?
Pulses are edible dry peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. They fall under the legume family, but the word "pulse" specifically refers to legumes that are grown and harvested for their dry seed and grown as food. So pulses include lentils, chickpeas as well as split peas and beans like kidney bean or navy bean.
Aren't pulses just legumes?
In the US, we tend to refer to pulses under the broad, sweeping term "legume." Here's the kicker: While all pulses are legumes, all legumes are not necessarily pulses. Legumes are plants in the family Fabaceae, and they not only include dry peas, lentils, beans and chickpeas that are grown for food, but also those that are grown for forage or for crop rotation, like alfalfa.
So, you might be thinking, "I get it. Pulses are edible legumes."
Not so fast. Pulses include only dry, edible legumes like dry peas, beans, lentils and chickpeas. So, green beans and fresh peas don't count.
Why I Serve Pulses at Least Once a Week
Pulses help me to get more out of my budget.
Pulses are both nutritious and inexpensive; moreover, they're incredibly delicious when prepared well. We, like most families, need to keep an eye on our bottom line. Super affordable, pulses help to make the other foods I feed my family go a little further, particularly the grass-fed and pasture-raised meats that might otherwise weigh a little heavily on our budget.
The pound of ground bison I brown for a tomato-rich, spicy chili goes twice as far when I add a few cups of Kidney or Jacob's Cattle Beans. The broth I made on Sunday night gets stretched into a satisfying lunch with the help of a scoop of red lentils and some chopped vegetables.
Pulses are nutrient-dense.
Among all the plant foods, pulses are particularly nutrient-dense. They are rich in protein, a very good source of fiber (and more and more research shows how much fiber plays a positive role in gut health), and they're particularly rich in folate.
A cup of chickpeas, for example, boasts more than ten times the amount of folate than a cup of cooked kale and about as much folate as a serving of liver. This is good news for women looking to conceive or who are pregnant as folate is a nutrient critical to the prevention of neural tube defects in babies, and it's better to get it from food than from supplements.
How Do I Cook with Pulses?
Most pulses, with the exception of some of the more fragile lentils, benefit from soaking overnight in warm water with a pinch of baking soda. Pulses are rich in raffinose, a complex starch, that, when digested can cause gas. Soaking pulses not only softens them, making them cook more quickly when you've added them to the pot, but it mitigates the effects of raffinose - making pulses a lot easier to digest. Moreover, soaking pulses before cooking them makes their minerals a little more bioavailable, meaning you get a touch more nutrition with every bite.