Dried beans, peas and lentils — a.k.a. legumes or pulses — are a vital food source and one of the world's oldest cultivated crops. Evidence of cultivation goes back more than 7,000 years in some parts of the world. That's a heck of a long time!
An excellent source of protein, dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, legumes and pulses are flavorful, nutritionally dense, inexpensive and versatile. What more could you ask for?
Ever had a craving for Eyes of Goat, Tongues of Fire, or Mortgage Lifters? These are just a few of the outrageously named yet delicious heirloom bean varieties that are grown regionally throughout the U.S. in addition to widely available favorites like black, pinto and kidney beans. Dried beans, peas and lentils are simply mature beans that are dried and then removed from their pods; look for all kinds in our bulk section and grocery aisles. We think there's a darn good chance they could be the perfect food.
Bean Cookin' 101
We know, we know. Cooking dried beans takes more time than opening a can, but you'll be richly rewarded with superior flavor and texture. They're a superb value too! Here's how:
Sort: Arrange dried beans on a sheet pan or clean kitchen towel and sort through them to pick out any shriveled or broken beans, stones or debris. (Take our word for it; running your fingers through the beans in the bag doesn't work the same.)
Rinse: Rinse the sorted beans well in cold, running water.
Soak: Soaking beans before cooking helps to remove some of those indigestible sugars that cause flatulence. There are two simple ways to get the job done:
Cook: Put beans into a large pot and cover with 2 inches of water or stock. (Don't add salt at this point since that slows the beans' softening.) Slowly bring to a boil, skimming off any foam on the surface. Reduce heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if necessary, until beans are tender when mashed or pierced with a fork. Cooking times vary with the variety, age and size of beans; generally you're looking at about 1 to 2 hours.
Pea and Lentil Cookin' 101
Sort and rinse dried peas and lentils as you would dried beans (see above). Then simply bring 1½ cups water or stock to a boil for each cup of dried lentils or peas. Once the liquid is boiling add the lentils or peas, return to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, until tender, 30 to 45 minutes.
Cooking Tip: Uncooked dried peas and lentils can be added directly to soups and stews, too. Just be sure there's enough liquid in the pot (about 1½ cups of liquid for every 1 cup of lentils or peas).
Dictionary of Beans, Peas and Lentils
So there you are. You've brought home those lovely dried legumes and pulses and they're staring you down on the kitchen counter. Where do you go from here? Here's a dictionary of our favorite varieties and how to make them do all the work:
These little dark red beans are sweet and easy to digest. Splash them with tamari and barley malt or mix them with brown rice, scallions, mushrooms and celery for dynamite, protein-rich rice patties. (Or how about some Zesty Adzuki Bean Salad?)
This burgundy and white heirloom variety is popular in Southwestern recipes — especially soups. It's no surprise since they make an excellent substitute for pinto beans. Make refried beans with these little treasures and you'll never look back.
Black Turtle Beans
Combine these little lovelies with cumin, garlic and orange juice or toss them with olive oil, cilantro and chopped veggies for two incomparable salads.
On the search for soft, quick-cooking beans? Look no further. These creamy white, oval-shaped beans are ubiquitous in southeastern US states where they're a traditional New Year's dish. Toss them with yogurt vinaigrette, tomatoes and fresh parsley. (Mmmm, it doesn't get any better than Black-Eyed Pea and Collard Green Soup.)
These smooth-textured beans are packed with nutty flavor. Add them to tomato-based soups like minestrone or toss with olive oil and black pepper for a satisfying side dish.
Garbanzo Beans (a.k.a. Chickpeas)
This prominent ingredient in Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and East Indian dishes — think hummus and falafel — has a mild but hearty flavor. Garbanzos are a good foil for strong spices like curry powder, cumin and cayenne pepper, so add them to salads, soups and pasta dishes. (Having a party? Serve this Chipotle Veggie Stew and you'll be a legend.)
First things first; pronounce these beans "flah-joh-lay." This creamy heirloom bean is used in French country cuisine as a side dish for lamb and poultry. Their delicate flavor is enhanced by aromatic onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves and thyme. They're delicious in tomato sauces, too.
Great Northern Beans
Think of these guys as big teddy bears; they're the largest commonly available white bean, but they're all soft and mild on the inside. Great Northerns make for delicious baked beans or add them to soups and stews with longer cooking times.
Green Lentils (a.k.a. French Lentils)
Ooh la la! These lentils hold their shape well and have deep, rich flavor. They're an excellent addition to salads, spicy Indian dal or simple lentils and rice.
Green Split Peas
Give peas a chance! Split peas shine in soups where they're cooked until creamy to bring out their full, sweet flavor. Serve them with a dollop of minted yogurt for an Indian touch.
These large, red beans are popular in chili, salads, soups and baked beans. Make sure to cook them until completely tender and cooked through to eliminate the gastric distress-causing toxin Phytohaemagglutinin (Kidney Bean Lectin) that's present in raw and undercooked kidney beans.
Thankfully, succulent lima beans are shedding their bad rap as the food to force-feed kids. Add them to minestrone and other soups or combine them with corn and green beans for succotash. Who knows? You might even forgive your parents.
At Italian fairs and Spanish beer halls these beans are a popular snack. Technically a member of the pea family, these flat, coin-shaped, dull yellow seeds are second only to soybeans in plant protein content. Use caution when cooking! Lupini beans need a special extensive soaking and brining preparation to ensure removal of potentially harmful bitter alkaloids that occur naturally in the beans.
You probably know mung beans for their sprouts, but the beans themselves are revered as a healing food. Mung beans range in color from greenish-brown to yellow to black and have delicate, sweet flavor. They need no pre-soaking, cook quickly and are easy to digest; you can't go wrong.
A favorite in Southwest and Mexican dishes — "pinto" means "painted" in Spanish — these earthy beans have a delicious, creamy texture ideal for refrying. Combine with onions, chili powder, garlic and tomatoes as a filling for enchiladas or sauté cooked beans with olive oil, garlic and tamari.
These small, dark red beans are subtly sweet and hold their shape when cooked. They make a great choice for soups and chili and as a companion to rice.
Don't be fooled by the name; this variety of lentil isn't really red. In fact, their soft pink color turns golden when cooked. Note that red lentils cook quickly and don't hold their shape so they're best in soups or purées or cooked until creamy with Italian seasonings. (Still not sure what to make? Try Red Lentils with Garlic and Onions.)
While green peas are picked while immature and eaten fresh, dried peas are harvested when mature, stripped of their husks, split and dried. Split peas don't require presoaking and their mild flavor and creamy texture make good companions to garlic, onions, dill, curry and ginger.
Storing Your Magic Beans
Uncooked: Avoid the refrigerator! Instead, keep dried beans, peas and lentils in airtight containers and store them in a dry, cool, dark place. If you do it right, beans will last up to a year, lentils, up to 6 months.
Cooked: Refrigerate cooked beans in a covered container for up to 5 days. Alternately, freeze them for up to 6 months in an airtight freezer container.
Simmer beans gently. A vigorous boil can cause them to fall apart.
Cook beans until barely tender, if they are to be cooked again in a recipe.
Add salt to the beans about three quarters of the way through cooking. (Adding salt can lengthen cooking time, which is why it's good to wait. Don't wait until they are fully cooked, or seasoning won't be as effective.)
Don't add acidic ingredients (tomato sauce, wine, lemon juice, vinegar) to beans until they are tender. These ingredients can prevent softening.
For more flavorful beans, add chopped onion, garlic or bay leaves at the start of cooking.
Consider a pressure cooker. A pressure cooker will cook dried beans to tender perfection in a fraction of the time they cook in a saucepan.