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The Nutritional Power of Pulses

Photo: Brian Woodcock

How to cook some of the most nutritious, affordable, and delicious plant-based foods.

The dried seeds of plants in the legume family—you may know them better as chickpeas, lentils, dry peas, and beans—play such a major role in cuisines worldwide that the U.N. General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses.

Unlike most other edible plants, pulses are left to dry in the field before they're harvested, which gives them a longer shelf life and makes them easier to store. They also have one of the lowest carbon footprints of any food, reducing reliance on chemical fertilizers by recycling nutrients from the atmosphere back into the soil.

What's more, they're cheap and nutritious: A serving of lentils costs less than a dime, about 15 times less than a serving of beef. And because they're packed with protein, fiber, and antioxidants, you can easily swap them for meat. Chefs are rebalancing restaurant plates with these starchy, tasty little peas, and supermarket shelves now abound with dozens of new pulse-based snacks and pastas.

Photo: Brian Woodcock

Dry Peas

Yellow and green dry peas can be found either whole or split. When hulled, whole peas split along a natural seam, a process that speeds up the cooking time and eliminates the need to presoak. Dry peas are high in protein and fiber, with 8 hearty grams of each per 1/2 cup cooked, and contain as much potassium as a banana. Green split peas are also sweeter and less starchy than their milder, yellow counterparts.

Photo: Brian Woodcock

Beans

Cheap, healthy, and super versatile, beans are high in antioxidants, fiber, protein, B vitamins, iron, and potassium, copper, and zinc. Eating beans regularly may decrease the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and colorectal cancer because they contain a high amount of soluble fiber; they may also aid in digestion and help with weight control.

Canned vs. Dry Beans

• Canned beans are a go-to pantry staple and require no planning ahead. They're also more expensive, coasting twice as much per serving as dried beans. Most 15-ounce cans contain about 1 1/2 cups. Avoid the varieties packed with sodium; instead buy unsalted, and season them yourself.

• Dry beans take more care but are cheaper (less than $2 per 1-pound bag). Cooking from dried allows you to better control the texture and seasoning level. They also freeze well: Freeze in 1-cup cooked portions for can-like convenience. A pound of most varieties yields 6 to 7 cups cooked.

Photo: Brian Woodcock

Chickpeas

Let us count the ways we love chickpeas: hot, cold, roasted until crisp for salads, as a meat substitute in soups, whipped into silky-smooth hummus, or as a simple snack with big flakes of sea salt. Per serving, chickpeas have three times more folate than kale and triple the iron of a 3-ounce chicken breast. They often play a supporting role as a condiment or filler, but who says they can't take center plate? Toss together one of the salad variations below in a tasty 10-minute snap; you won't be disappointed.

Photo: Brian Woodcock

Lentils

Lentils are an excellent source of fiber (8g per 1/2 cup), contain 9g protein (1 1/2 times that of an egg), and have double the iron (3mg) of a 3-ounce portion of flank steak. But not all lentils are created equal. These little pulses vary in shape, color, size, and texture.

Cooked lentils can be pureed into dips, but they can also be tossed into salads or simmered into soups. Our trick to the perfect pot of lentils? Season them once they're reached desired firmness. Adding salt or acid at the beginning can toughen the skins and lead to crunchy lentils.

Photo: Brian Woodcock

What's the Difference?

BROWN: The outer seed coat helps these hold up well in cooking
FRENCH GREEN: Pleasantly peppery; firm with a deep, rich flavor.
RED AND YELLOW: Smaller, rounder, and sweeter than other lentils, the red and yellow varieties are the go-tos for Indian dal. They have no seed coat, which means they break down very quickly and tend to get mushy when overcooked.