Niki Bezzant: Keep your finger on the pulses

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Photo / Babiche Martens
Photo / Babiche Martens

Did you know that the United Nations has declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses? It's a great idea to celebrate these humble ingredients; they punch well above their weight health-wise and with their versatility in cooking.

"Pulse" describes the edible seed from the pod of a legume crop. They include chickpeas, lentils, peas, broad (fava) beans, mung beans and other legumes. Pulses have been derided in the past - lentils and chickpeas, in particular, are associated with boring, hippie vegetarian food.

This is unfortunate and highly inaccurate. Pulses are a staple of many of the world's great cuisines - the dhals and curries of India, the cassoulet of France, the pasta e fagioli of Italy and Morocco's harira.

These sophisticated, classic dishes have layers of fabulous flavour and texture and are celebrated and enjoyed worldwide.

Pulses notably feature prominently in the cuisines of the world's healthiest people.

The so-called Blue Zones - the places where people enjoy the best health and live the longest - are all about pulses.

The Blue Zones include Nicoya in Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece and Loma Linda in California. In these places, people eat lots of beans, peas and lentils - about a cup a day - as part of a plant-based, minimally processed diet. They eat meat, too, but in small amounts, more as a garnish than the main feature.

What is so great about pulses, then? They're a useful source of low-GI carbohydrate and protein, making them satisfying and filling. They contain soluble and insoluble fibre and resistant starch, making them great for our gut health.

Research has found pulses are useful in protecting against various cancers, managing blood sugar, lowering risk for type 2 diabetes and lowering heart disease risk.

Emerging evidence suggests pulses may also be useful in weight management.

Pulses are also kitchen stars. They're incredibly versatile; you can make everything from a dip to a brownie with black beans, for example, and pulses can be added to soups, stews and meat dishes to boost their nutrition and make them go further.

They're also good value. Dried beans, peas and lentils are super-cheap and require just a bit of time to prepare.

Canned versions cost more than dried but they are still inexpensive and are ready to eat, right out of the can. If you have a can of lentils in the cupboard, you have the base of a meal. Try a lentil and roast vege salad with a lamb steak, or a lentil and kumara curry.

And don't forget what is perhaps Kiwis' favourite pulse meal: the humble baked bean.

In general we tend not to eat a lot of pulses but this is the year to start. I don't believe in magic foods, but eating these is a great addition to a magic diet.

Niki Bezzant is editor in chief of Healthy Food Guide.

- Herald on Sunday

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