Sunday, 31 January 2016

Year of the Pulse

There has been a lot of talk about this being the UN's Year of Pulses. I first learned that in November when I heard Vandana Shiva speak in Toronto. It is fantastic that there has been so much buzz about pulses. And it is only February. It seems a bit of a shame that last year's honouree, Year of Soils, seemed to pass without much discussion. Soil, like air and water, is necessary for all life on earth. And our soils are under great pressure agriculturally.

But back to the celebration of pulses. They are members of the legume family and, as such, fix nitrogen in the soil. This is their great contribution to the health of soil in a sustainable agriculture model making them an essential component of crop rotation.

Pulses are the dried seed of a pod and include dried beans, dried peas, lentils and chickpeas. Canada has a big role to play as one of the world's biggest producers of pulses and the largest exporter of lentils.  The largest market for our lentils and peas is India, also one of the biggest producers of pulses. Other heavy hitting producers are Pakistan, the US, Australia and Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
Various lentils including the French delicacy, De Puy lentils
Heirloom beans I grow including Blue Jay, Orca, Jacob's Cattle, Carmina  and  Vermont Cranberry
And more heirloom beans; Black Valentine, Cannellini and another I've lost track of which I call Brown Mottled.

In addition to their important role as nitrogen fixers in the soil, pulses are a powerhouse of nutrients. At a time when feeding the world's exploding population is an ongoing concern, they have an important contribution to make. Pulses are high in protein and fibre, low in fat and also contain zinc, iron and phosphorus with traces of folate and B vitamins. As food from plants they also contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are not essential for sustaining human life but the same properties that help protect the plant are thought to also protect us against some diseases. Pulses are also complex carbohydrates which are beneficial for slow absorption of nutrients and therefore good for slow release energy and low on the glycemic index.

Being such a food powerhouse, it is not surprising that pulses have been cultivated for millennia and that virtually every cuisine has at least a couple signature dishes made from pulses. When cooking pulses they all come dried and in some cases, also canned. If you have the time, dried versions are preferable to canned which will have added sodium. When reconstituting dried beans it is important not to add salt until the beans have completely absorbed the water and plumped up.

Some of these dishes include, from the Middle East and made using chickpeas
Baked beans are a classic from North America. The process of reconstituting dried beans includes low and slow cooking with water and often dried or dijon mustard and often maple syrup - a real pioneer dish.
Slow baked beans
From the British Isles comes split pea soup or pease porridge. Dried peas need less time to absorb the liquid and naturally become mushy. You can puree the soup or not according to the consistency you prefer.
Split pea soup
Italian minestrone soup contains beans and is never pureed.
Minestrone soup
India's many versions of Daal is made from lentils. Each region has its own characteristic spices.  Like split peas lentils tend to absorb liquid and reconstitute quickly, also breaking up on their own.

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