From fagioli-eating peasants to lentil-loving hippies, legumes have quietly endured – in fact, they’ve been around since before 6000 BCE, filling the plates and bellies of people from cultures as diverse as Greece, Italy, Morocco, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Egypt, Mexico and India.
Yet legumes have often been maligned as bland food for vegans and the down at heel – a cliche that does a disservice to both people and plants. Less than one in three Australians eat them regularly. Some people aren’t even sure what they are, let alone how to cook them. Whether it be for health, the environment, animal ethics or simply tapping into their diverse potential for simple, scrumptious meals, the time has come to shake some more cobwebs off the humble beans and restore them to their rightful glory.
They were so precious to my late Italian mother-in-law that she smuggled dried cannellini beans into Australia in her bra when she migrated to join her husband here in the 1940s. Combined with generous dollops of velvety extra virgin olive oil, hand-crushed from their own trees, and homegrown “scarola” (endive), the beans were transformed into a simple yet exquisitely creamy dish that remains one of my husband’s favourites to this day.
Cannellini beans comprise one of nearly 20,000 different species of legume. The hardy crops grow everywhere except Antarctica, from deserts to plains to the alps. Coming in a vast array of shapes and colours, they sprout as shrubs, vines and even trees. The one thing common to these plants is the fruit they grow in pods that can be split open to reveal the seeds. Edible versions are enjoyed fresh, dried, fermented and processed. Some well-known examples are broad beans, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, soya beans and lima beans. More bizarre varietals include jack, winged, tongue of fire, rattlesnake, sword and velvet beans.
These little gems are brimming with nutritional goodness, including antioxidant polyphenols and essential nutrients such as B vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Being high in fibre, legumes have a low glycemic index, which helps keep blood sugar levels under control, and they feed the hard-working microbes that keep our gut healthy. They are also a quality source of plant protein, especially when combined with wholegrains.
This is good news for people seeking healthier meat alternatives that are also gentle on the planet. Legumes have some unique qualities that make them a no-brainer for sustainable agriculture. Growing them can release five to seven times fewer greenhouse gases than wheat and oilseed rape crops and they help sequester carbon in the soil. Legumes also have a nifty talent of imbuing the soil with nitrogen, in collaboration with microscopic friends that live in their roots. This makes them the perfect plant for intercropping and crop rotation, to enrich the soil and reduce the need for environmentally damaging fertilisers.
Australians have access to a medley of cuisines from which to draw inspiration for legume dishes. Red kidney and borlotti beans, for example, just need a generous dose of paprika, sautéed with garlic, onion and chilli to make a base for nachos, tacos and burritos. A Lebanese feast invariably includes the traditional falafels and hummus, while a Moroccan twist can transform chickpeas into something else altogether. Indian dahls, made from an assortment of different lentils, beans and spices, are good comfort foods – simple recipes abound, or you can get more creative.
On that note, Yotam Ottolenghi has risen to the challenge with his unique take on bean mash and vegetarian kubbeh; spicy cannellini bean, leak and eggs (pictured above) or mouth-watering lentil recipes. If you fancy some butter beans, Rose Elliot has four recipes to choose from, depending on whether you feel like curry, soup, dip or warm roast vegetable salad.
Lentils can provide a satisfying, savoury alternative for meat pies, and they can be moulded into burgers for summer barbecues or hamburgers. Baked beans are always popular, either from a tin, or as a gourmet excursion in themselves.
If you don’t feel like going to much effort, a tin of cannellini beans is also a surprisingly morish side dish, cooked up in two minutes flat with some extra virgin olive oil, garlic and salt. It may not rival my mother-in-law’s nonna magic, but it’s sure to please.
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Australia. Follow her on Twitter: @NatalieParletta
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