Pulses: Lentils, Beans and Peas that Pack a Punch

If you had asked me ten years ago, “Leanne, we would love you to write a blog all about the wonderful world of pulses”, I would have politely responded to you with two questions. The first questioning, “what exactly is a blog?”. Shortly followed by the second and probably more obvious, “I’ve heard of this word ‘pulses’, but what exactly are they?!”. Yet here I am on a calm Sunday afternoon in March 2021 excited to put finger to keyboard to share information and ideas surrounding pulses, whilst ironically munching my way through a packet of salt and vinegar pea and rice sticks that do not resemble the texture of cardboard. I have eaten A LOT of cake the past few days! Balance at its finest ladies and gentlemen.

My love of the underrated pulses world has grown massively over the past few years, with a wide variety now a staple ingredient of my cupboards and, therefore, meals on a weekly basis. A simple alternative to meat as well as a nutritious ingredient in their own right. As much as I love a pulse packed meal, I will break it to you nice and early that they will probably never replace the beauty of a moist slab of carrot cake. Or any cake for that matter. Shame. This blog, however, will provide easy to digest information about pulses themselves; their relationship with exercise and recovery; and ideas for making them exciting to eat and not taste like grass.

Putting our Finger on the Pulse(s)

What are they?

An awesome pun that also highlights the plural nature of pulses. A pulse is the seed found within a pod or a plant that are kindly grown agriculturally for our consumption, which is much more appealing than their other use in silage and manure. Nice. A bit of a no brainer for the pulses in their final destination preference! Dodging the less appetising farm life, pulses is an umbrella word for beans, lentils and peas; each of these we all know and (maybe) love. We are talking about that popular turquoise branded tin of baked beans, as well as all other tinned beans, lentils and peas, plus the packets of dried beans, lentils and peas, if you’re feeling a bit more “cheffy” with a bit of time to kill, but more on all that later.

“But why do people bang on about them?” I hear you ask. Pulses are a naturally low fat source of protein, plant protein at that, which make them perfect for vegetarians and vegans or even if you just fancy a meat free meal every so often. Add to that lots of vitamins, minerals (such as iron for healthy red blood cells) and fibre (because of their starchy nature) and we have ourselves a bit of a show off. Continuing to brag, pulses also count towards one of our five a day with an 80g cooked portion. Unfortunately, consuming more than 80g of pulses still only counts as one portion. Annoying, right? Despite containing lots of fibre, pulses do not contain the same mixture of vitamins and minerals as the humble fruit and vegetable. The perfect reason to add lots of tasty fruit and vegetables to your pulses and day to day life. Problem solved!

Lentils

Vitamin B, magnesium, zinc and potassium.

Made of 25% protein

Examples:

  • Red lentils
  • Green lentils
  • Split lentils
  • Can be dried or tinned

Beans

Vitamin B1, B6, E and K

High protein content

Examples:

  • Haricot (“baked”) beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Black beans
  • Butter beans
  • Edamame (soy) beans
  • Can be dried or tinned

Peas

High in iron and magnesium

High protein content

Examples:

  • Black eyes peas
  • Chickpeas
  • Split red peas
  • Split green peas
  • Can be dried or tinned
Split red lentil and basmati khichdi

Plant Protein and Exercise

When undertaking our chosen form of exercise, our muscle fibres become damaged and our carbohydrate stores depleted. The extent to which both of these occur will depend upon the exercise type. Strength based training will exhibit more muscle fibre damage compared to carbohydrate depletion, whereas as aerobic based training (e.g. steady running and cycling) will exhibit the opposite. Whatever your exercise choice, the high protein content of lentils, beans and peas makes them a great choice to fuel and recover from a sweaty exercise session, especially one of Chantal’s! The protein contained in our beloved pulses will help our body to repair our torn muscle fibres, ready for our next session and, in the long term, adaptation.

As with all things exercise and health related, it is important to remember it is all individual and that includes the food surrounding your activity. The amount of protein your body needs will depend upon your activity level; your body composition; how your body recovers post exercise (e.g. my recovery can be slow due to hypothyroidism); and your personal goals and targets. Pulses can play a great part in your diet, if you want them too. They can provide some, or a lot, of your protein intake, if you want them too. Either way, pulses are a food for fuel and enjoyment, so now seems a good time to get creative with ideas on how to pimp up our pulses to not taste like grass!

Ideas for Pimped up Pulses

It is no secret that lentils, beans and peas are very bland in taste as they are and can also illicit a strange, almost powdery texture which I know doesn’t agree with some taste buds! Their blandness, however, opens them up to soaking up a spectrum of flavour like a beige sponge. Spices, herbs, stock cubes, even a cheeky splash of wine, take our boring pulse of choice on a trip to flavour town! I can’t believe I have just used that phrase. Moving on.

My favourite chickpea and spinach curry!

There’s no Time to “Soak”

I’ll be honest straight away and admit I have never really purchased dried versions of pulses because, most of the time, they do require soaking and boiling before being able to be transformed into a tasty dish. Who wants to watch pale pulses soak? Reminds me of paint. Tinned lentils, beans and peas, however, are ready and raring to go, meaning the time saved not watching them soak can be used to pack them with your favourite flavours! Very little faffing around but rewarding hearty meals.

Chill con carne with mixed beans and lentils

Adapting the Family Favourites

Tinned pulses are affordable, easily accessed and still provide all the glorious, body loving nutrients mentioned above. One of my favourite ways of utilising them is either as a meat alternative, or addition to, in some of our favourite comforting meals that are not just stews and casseroles! There is no set list of what pulses should be used for particular meals; use your favourites! A mixture of lentils, beans, peas, or all three will provide different textures, flavours and in bulk, dinner for days! Treat them as if they were the meat, with no real need to adapt the rest of your recipe. Adding lots of vegetables takes the nutrition up another notch too. Some of my regular pulse filled plates are:

  • Chilli Con Carne (above) – kidney beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, butter beans, plus more, make for a great chilli. Onion, garlic, fresh or dried chilli, smoked paprika, cumin, tinned tomatoes and a stock cube provides a fragrant base for the chosen beans to be warmed through. Perfect with rice, on its own, or with some tortillas for a veggie nacho inspired treat.
  • Lentil Paella (below) – with or without seafood, the lentils take on the role of the short and stumpy paella rice grain for something a little different. Smoked paprika and saffron give the dish a super Spanish feel!
  • Spaghetti Bolognese – garlic, basil and sometimes a splash of red wine pack flavour into a lentil and bean bolognese. Baked beans in their sauce are also a great addition to add richness and extra flavour to the bolognese too.
  • Chickpea and Spinach Curry (above) – curry, particularly Indian curries, are one of my favourite ways to enjoy pulses. Chickpeas are the perfect vessels for taking on all the spices of your chosen curry, as well as lentils, and a bit coconut milk gives exotic creaminess.
  • Lentil Cottage Pie – lentils make a brilliant substitute for mince with their texture and ability to take on flavour. A few fresh or dried herbs, such as thyme, a bay leaf and stock make for a comforting bowl, especially with all that mashed potato!
Lentil and seafood paella

Soup, Salads and Snacks

Pulses are super versatile for any meal of the day, not just dinner, but I am unsure about breakfast and yet to venture down that path, so we will stick to lunch and snacks! I am a massive fan of a hot, vegetable packed soup. To make said soup go a little bit further and keep you fuller for longer, stir in a handful or two of your chosen pulse to your hot soup; I find tinned lentils, chickpeas and frozen edamame beans work well. If the texture bothers you, add the chosen pulse when blending your soup to a lovely smooth consistency. Extra fibre and extra protein; all hail the soup!

If you’re going to throw pulses at your soups, you may as well throw them at salads too. Use pulses in addition to another protein, or as the protein themselves. A mixed bean and lentil salad with extra salad veggies is probably my favourite. Like the hearty meals above, adding flavours from fresh or dried herbs makes it a lot more interesting and exciting to eat. Drain, rinse and generously throw in your flavourings. Dressings also help to mask the sometimes unappealing texture of the pulses. My go-to simple favourites are:

  • Low Fat Mayonnaise – creamy texture with the ability to flavour up as well.
  • Sweet Chilli Sauce – I am a big fan of this and a small drizzle goes a long way! For a creamy sweet chilli dressing, add a drizzle to the low fat mayonnaise.
  • Mayo and Yoghurt – half and half takes the creaminess up, but keeps the calories a little lower.
  • Pesto – a pre made taste of Italy! A teaspoon mixed into your salad/pulses adds a quick hit of flavour. Just watch out as some can be very calorific.
  • Fresh Herbs and Citrus – torn basil leaves and a squeeze of lemon juice. Even use a pestle and mortar to crush the leaves with the lemon juice to drizzle over.
Chickpea and vegetable salad with fresh basil

Time for the favourite ‘S’ of them all; snacks! The things that keep us from becoming hangry between breakfast, lunch and dinner and I am forever grateful for them. Chickpeas are the star of the pulses snack world (in my opinion) thanks to two brilliant words in the English language: hummus and roasted.

My hummus recipe is super easy and super fast to make at home; throw your tinned chickpeas and a little of their water into a food processor with your chosen flavourings and blitz to your desired consistency. That is it. So here’s some awesome flavoured hummus ideas:

  • Sundried Tomato – add a few of the jarred red jewels to give a tangy Italian punch.
  • Roasted Vegetables – onion, peppers and beetroot give hummus an amazing flavour.
  • Pesto – just like salads, a teaspoon or two adds instant taste!
  • Herbs and Spices – always the easiest way to get flavour into something! My favourites are a couple teaspoons of smoked paprika, or a handful of fresh basil.
  • Cocoa – a sweet tooth version using a tablespoon of cocoa powder, a drop of vanilla extract and a few pitted dates.

Pass the carrot sticks and a few tortilla chips for good measure, obviously, because snack time just got interesting! Make dips even more interesting with other tinned pulses too: I have used lentils in the past which give a more earthy tasting dip (if you’re into that kind of thing) and also butter beans.

Hummus flavoured with smoked paprika

Roasting Chickpeas takes this humble pea from slightly soft and powdery to crunchy with a more intense, earthy flavour and it couldn’t be easier:

  1. Heat the oven to 160c and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
  2. Drain, rinse and pat dry one tin of chickpeas and place in a bowl.
  3. Drizzle, or spray, olive oil to coat the chickpeas.
  4. Add flavourings, if you wish, with dried herbs or spices.
  5. Spread the chickpeas evenly on the baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes.

Enjoy a pot full on their own as a quick go-to finger food, add to salads, or create a bit of a different lunch with a tapas style bowl, with the roasted chickpeas as the star (below). The flavourings are ongoing as well; no batch of roasted chickpeas need ever be the same! Spices such as ground cumin, smoked paprika and chilli powder work particularly well for a tongue tingling kick.

Tapas style bowl with roasted chickpeas

Who knew there would be so much to write about the humble pulse? I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t think it would be this much when I was planning the layout and discussing the idea with Chantal. But here we are with lentils, beans and peas coming out of our ears and, hopefully, into our meals in lots of creative “I’m not a boring pulse” ideas.

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