Many of us know that legumes – lentils, split peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, black beans – are good for us. They're rich in protein, fibre, B vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting phytochemicals.
But you may not know that Canada – Saskatchewan to be specific – is one of the world's largest growers and exporters of these incredibly healthy foods, most notably lentils, chickpeas and dried peas.
More than 90 per cent of legumes grown on the Canadian prairies make their way to India, the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa, Europe and South America, where they end up in dishes such as daal, Greek fava, zuppa di lenticchie and Mujadara.
This is one of the many facts I learned last month during a visit to Saskatchewan. With my CTV producer and cameraman, we toured fields of lentils and dried peas ready for harvest, saw them sorted and packaged, and then whipped up delicious lentil dishes with a chef (including lentil brownies). I even got to drive a combine and watch firsthand as dried peas were cut and threshed from the field.
The nutritional content of legumes is hard to ignore. They're an excellent source of slow-burning, gluten-free carbohydrate and vegetarian protein, and they're one of the highest fibre foods you can eat. For instance, one cup of lentils delivers 18 grams of protein (the protein equivalent of three eggs or 2.5 ounces of meat) and 15 grams of fibre (slightly more than ½ cup of bran cereal).
Legumes are also an excellent source of folate, a B vitamin linked to a healthy pregnancy and a lower risk of colon cancer. Lentils and beans offer calcium, magnesium and potassium, minerals that help keep blood pressure in check. And they're a good source of iron for vegetarians.
Studies suggest that eating legumes at least four times a week helps lower the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and prostate cancer.
While legumes are one of the most versatile, nutritious and inexpensive foods around, most of us don't eat them on a regular basis. Many of my clients tell me they don't eat legumes often because they don't know what to do with them – aside from making a pot of chili or opening a can of brown beans.
Legumes are sold dried and canned. Dried beans need to be soaked to rehydrate before they are cooked. Although dried beans have a superior taste and texture to canned beans, they take longer to prepare.
Canned beans and lentils are incredibly convenient because they're already cooked. They're ready to add to salads, soups, stews, pasta sauces, quinoa, the list goes on. But you do need to drain and rinse canned legumes first to remove excess sodium.
As food companies look to high-protein, high-fibre, gluten-free and low-allergen ingredients, expect to see lentils and other legumes showing up in everyday foods such as breakfast cereals, snack bars, pasta, breads and baked goods.
Health Canada advises eating beans, lentils and dried peas often as an alternative to meat to reduce saturated fat and increase fibre intake. A food guide serving of legumes equals ¾ cup, about the size of a tennis ball.
The DASH diet to lower high blood pressure recommends eating four to five ½ cup servings of them a week.
The following 12 quick tips will help to incorporate legumes into your diet.
• Add cooked black beans or kidney beans to an omelette.
• Toss cooked lentils into a leafy green salad.
• Add chickpeas to Greek salad for a boost of protein and fibre.
• Toss cooked lentils, chopped bell pepper and chopped red onion with a vinaigrette to make a tasty cold salad. Add fresh herbs such as parsley or cilantro.
• Enjoy minestrone, split pea, black bean or lentil soup instead of the usual chicken noodle.
• Spread sandwiches with hummus (chickpea purée) instead of mayonnaise.
•Add chickpeas to whole-grain dishes such as quinoa, barley and brown rice pilafs.
• Use a variety of legumes when making chili. Try chickpeas, black beans and soy beans in addition to kidney beans.
• Add cooked black beans to tacos and burritos. Use half the amount of lean ground meat you normally would and make up the difference with beans.
• Add cooked lentils to quesadillas along with other fillings you enjoy.
• Add cooked white kidney beans to a tomato-based pasta sauce for a Mediterranean inspired meal.
• Toss cooked lentils into sautéed leafy greens such as spinach or Swiss chard for a healthy side dish.
For more great tasting legumes ideas and recipes, visit saskpulse.com.
Soaking and cooking legumes
To rehydrate dried beans before cooking, use the quick soak method. (Lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking.) Place beans in a large pot with three times the volume of cool water. Bring to a boil for two minutes and then remove from the heat. Cover and let stand for one hour, then drain and rinse in a colander.
To cook, add three cups of unsalted water for very cup of soaked beans. The water should come up to two inches above the top of the beans. Add one to two tablespoons of vegetable oil to prevent boiling over. Bring the beans to a gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer, partly covering the pot. Gently stir beans occasionally during cooking. Skim off any foam that develops.
The cooking time will vary depending on the size of the legume. Small legumes (black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, lentils) may take 30 to 45 minutes to cook; medium-sized legumes (kidney beans, chickpeas, lima beans) can take one to two hours.
Once beans are tender, remove from the heat and allow them to sit in the water they have been cooked in while they cool. This prevents them from drying out. Once cooked, legumes are ready to be used in recipes.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.