Peas, beans, lentils and other useful things
I’ve always been a lover of peas, beans and lentils – things that are cheap and can be turned into something delicious without too much effort. But, in Ireland, a hectic schedule prevented me from really getting involved with these in their dried form. Instead I had to content myself with their tinned equivalents which, although not hugely expensive, do prevent you from using them with too much abandon. Since coming to New Zealand, however, and discovering that dried peas, beans and lentils are readily available through the Bin Inn chain and also through the self-serve bins in all supermarkets, I’ve been putting them to good use.
In Dublin I had cooked dried chickpeas a couple of times with great – almost too much – success. When soaked overnight in too small a bowl, chickpeas have a tendency to start taking over the kitchen. And they don’t stop expanding then, so make sure you have a big saucepan for the cooking. The problem, besides me cooking too big a bag on my first attempt, was that we didn’t have a freezer in our Dublin flat so we had chickpeas in everything for a few days – stews, soups, couscous – and I even made a big bowl of hummus. At least we’re blessed with a large fridge-freezer in New Zealand so I can cook and freeze to my heart’s content. For a little work in the morning, you’ve got a supply of pulses for the next few weeks and they are delicious added to stews, soups and the like when you want to, as opposed to when you have to.
To cook pulses you do have to do a small bit of forward planning as most of them need to be soaked the night before you intend to cook them. Lentils, whether brown, split or du Puy, are the few exceptions to this rule. Proper soaking, rinsing and cooking also help to prevent gas or wind, thus avoiding the truth of the old rhyme (taught to us as children by our father, much to our mother’s annoyance!):
They warm your heart.
The more you eat,
The more you fart.”
I always rinse the pulses before leaving them to soak in cold water for at least 12 hours. Drain and rinse well again before putting them in the cooking pot and covering them with cold water. Add whichever aromatics you would like to the cooking water – bay leaves are always useful, as are roughly chopped carrots, onions and celery – but don’t add any salt as this toughens the skins and you may spend a year and a day boiling before they might deign to soften.
Sometimes, despite your forbearance with the salt, pulses may be uncooperative as regards the cooking process, especially chickpeas. It’s best to buy dried peas, beans and lentils in places that you know have a quick turnover as stale pulses are no fun to be cooking. Chickpeas, in particular, are likely to take a couple of hours boiling although I was caught by surprise when a batch I bought from our local Asian supermarket took less than an hour to become tender.
On the other hand, If chickpeas are taking over three hours to cook then make a paste with a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda and some water then add it to the cooking pot. This tends to have an effective, if brutal, effect on the uncooperative legumes, rendering them tender within 10 or 20 minutes. Beware, though, if you’re cooking the chickpeas for use in a salad, as this last resort measure also has the effect of removing the skins from the chickpeas, which is fine if you’re making Chickpea Mash but is not so visually effective otherwise.
Cooking pulses is an ideal occupation if you’re at home during the morning as they need little attention after you’ve got them on the cooker, just the occasional peek into the saucepan. When they’re cooked (I’ve found a very good chart for the cooking times of various legumes here), just drain and allow them to cool. They can be used immediately or frozen for use at a later date.
Vegetarian cookbook writer Rose Elliott, in her very handy The Bean Book, recommends freezing them in manageable bags of about 300g, which seems to be the usual weight of a tin of drained blackeyed beans or chickpeas, and then they’re ready to go for any recipe.