As a vegetarian family we eat a lot of pulses, our store cupboard always has a large selection of dried beans, peas and lentils. We love to eat warming stews, chillies, dhal and slow cooked baked beans particularly during the colder winter months. Which is why this month we have decided to research more and find out if all these beans are really good for us and what we can do to improve the way we buy and eat them.

Pulses are part of the legume family, which is the second most important family of flowering plants after the grasses. It is most likely that humans have eaten pulses, like beans and peas, in their green state since the dawn of mankind when we were still hunter-gatherers. However it wasn’t until we learned how to cook that we were able to unleash the power of pulses in their dried state. Dried pulses maintain their nutrients and can be stored for a very long time and are also easily transported. Empires have been built on the strength of their beans. In Ancient Rome, for example, four of the most famous families were named after legumes: Fabius from the fava bean, Lentulus from the lentil, Piso from the pea and Cicero from the chickpea.
The ‘common’ types of bean (such as black, pinto, navy and kidney) all originated in Central and South America and were introduced to Europe by the Spanish explorers in the 15th Century and subsequently spread to Africa and Asia through trade routes, just like chocolate and chillies. Pulses have spread to every corner of the globe because they are easy to grow in a large variety of climates. They are versatile, they store well, travel well and they are highly nutritious. These days there are about 20 different species of legumes cultivated on a large scale, here is a table of some of the most popular and where they originated from.

Table of popular pulses and their origins
Soybean is by far the most grown legume crop, but the vast majority is grown for oil and to feed livestock. Because soybeans are very different in their structure and uses to the majority of pulses, we will not be discussing them in this article, but will save them for another.
Today, the largest commercial producers of dried common beans are India and Brazil. Nearly 18 million metric tons of dried beans are produced in these two countries alone.
Pulses are so successful because they are a cheap source of protein as opposed to expensive meats. The proteins from pulses help our bodies regulate sugar, water and other aspects of our metabolism. They are a rich source of fat and carbohydrates, potassium, calcium and several B vitamins. The pink, red and black pulses are also rich in antioxidants. The proteins are also said to promote proper growth of the body including the brain, which is good for children. However with infants under 18 months old it is best to introduce sprouted pulses before moving onto just soaked and cooked. This is because sprouted pulses are easier to assimilate and metabolise and children under 18 months (or whenever they develop molars) are unable to chew and also don’t have the right enzymes to digest the legumes properly.

We generally always keep a few tins of beans around for emergencies but we much prefer to use dried. Tinned beans very often have lots of added salt and a slimy texture so need to be rinsed thoroughly, which does reduce the salt content but it also removes a lot of the nutrients. Tinned beans are essentially cooked inside the can and there is very little control over the texture and taste, plus they are way more expensive than dried beans.
Some people do not digest beans well and experience flatulence and poor digestion; normally this is because of poor preparation and cooking methods.
The best way we’ve found to prepare dried pulses is to pre-soak overnight and then cook the next day. Beans should be rinsed and soaked in acidulated water using a squeeze of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar (2 tablespoons for each cup of dried beans) to reduce the phytic acid.

After 8 hours, drain and rinse the beans and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil and remove any foam or scum that rises to the surface of the water. Then cook on a low simmer until the beans are tender and to your liking. Only use as much water as necessary (typically around 5cm above the legumes) so that when the beans have finished cooking there will be no excess water which contains a lot of the nutrients and flavour. A lot of people recommend adding a piece of kombu seaweed to the pot, which will improve the digestion and reduce flatulence.
You can add salt to the boiling water which will decrease the cooking time by breaking down the hard exterior of the beans and allowing the moisture to penetrate, however it also means they loose their structure and go mushy. If you do it with bicarbonate of soda it is even more effective. On the other hand adding acids such as tomatoes and molasses during long cooking will help the beans maintain their structure.
Lentils and split peas don’t need pre soaking but it is a good idea to do so, if you can, as it will reduce the phytic acid and improve digestion. Even if you don’t pre soak them it is a good idea to rinse them thoroughly in a bowl of warm water to remove any dirt and dust before cooking.
These days there are lots of varieties of beans and lentils available in most shops and supermarkets, don’t be afraid to try new ones and explore new recipes. As with all food produce, always choose organic where possible. It may cost a few pence more but the quality and nutritional value will certainly make it worth it. If you have storage space in your house a good way is to buy dried pulses in bulk from a wholefood supplier. This makes them super cheap (even organic) and because they are always on hand it is easy to plan and prepare a delicious meal.

Here is our recipe for Homemade Baked Beans This will serve approximately 4 people but you can easily double the quantities and keep some to eat later as they will certainly taste even better the next day


2 x cups dried beans (pinto, borlotti, haricot or cannallini are ideal)
A squeeze of lemon
1 x onion
2 x small carrots
1 x stick of celery
1 x tin of chopped tomatoes
1 dried ancho chilli
2 x cloves garlic
6 x dried prunes
1 x bayleaf
1 x a few sprigs of thyme
1 tblsp  of blackstrap molasses
1 tsp paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp all spice
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
a good splash of tamari
salt and pepper

First you will need to soak the beans for at least 6 hours, (normally we soak ours overnight). You will need to give them enough water to allow them to double in size. We also add a squeeze of lemon to the water to reduce the phytic acid.
Once they have soaked, drain and rinse the beans, put them in a pan and cover with fresh water, approximately 5cm above the level of the beans. Bring to the boil, then reduce to a simmer.
Finely dice the onion, carrot and celery (this is caled a mirepoix or a sofrito). Now put them in the oven proof dish that you are going to bake the beans in. Something like a cast iron casserole dish, or a terracotta pot with a good lid are ideal. Lightly saute the vegetables in a little olive oil over a low heat for approx 10-15 minutes. You can put the lid on the pot and let the vegetables cook in their own liquid, just stir them from time to time.
Meanwhile split and deseed the Ancho chilli and then put it in a hot and dry frying pan. Lightly toast the chilli until it begins to change colour and become fragrant, but make sure you don’t burn it. The Ancho chilli doesn’t add any heat to the beans but will bring a rich depth of flavour. Once toasted roughly chop the chilli and put into a heatproof jug and cover with 150ml of boiling water then leave to soak for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile finely chop the garlic and prunes and add to the mirepoix in the pot. You can now also add the spices, molasses, thyme and chopped tomatoes. By now the beans should be tender and you can add them and their liquid into the mixture. You may need to add a splash more water at this point to make sure there’s enough liquid.
Blend the chilli and water together then put the paste through a sieve into the pot. Add salt, pepper, tamari and the vinegar. Give it a good stir, put the lid on and then place in the middle of the oven at 110ºC.
Depending on your pot and your oven you can cook the beans from anywhere between 4 to 8 hours. The first time you make them we’d recommend keeping an eye on the beans to make sure they don’t dry out. Once you’ve done it once or twice and you know the heat of your oven and the times you can go out and leave the beans cooking. There is nothing nicer than coming back from a cold walk to a house filled with the rich smell of homemade baked beans.

Do you have your own favourite baked bean recipe? What do you do differently? If you try out ours please let us know what you think.

Here is a link to another great article about rediscovering British pulses by the Sustainable Food Trust along with a video about Hodmedods which is a British producer working exceedingly hard to revive pulse farming in the UK. http://sustainablefoodtrust.org/articles/rediscovering-british-pulses/