Legumes, including beans and lentils, have been part of the human diet for many thousands of years. And all over the globe, too—from ancient Egypt to Gaul to early Aztec and Incan cultures. They’re among the world’s oldest, most widely consumed food crops.
No wonder; they’re simple to cook. Legumes are easy to grow, and they replenish the soil (so they’re environmentally friendly). Seeds have traveled along with human migration since the beginning of agrarian societies. More to our point: They’re incredibly tasty and useful in all kinds of dishes.
While it’s easy to find prepared, canned beans and chickpeas, it’s really not hard (and certainly cheaper) to cook dried legumes from scratch. Lentils, even simpler. We’ll show you how.
Nutritional impact of beans and legumes
Packed with healthy fiber, protein and other nutrients—with a relatively light calorie load—legumes are something of a superfood. A 1/2-cup serving of cooked dried beans has 120 calories, 8g of fiber and 8g of protein, plus potassium, folic acid, iron and antioxidants. Chickpeas have 120 calories 6g of fiber and 7.5g of protein per 1/2 cup. Their legume cousin, the lentil, has a similar nutrition profile: 115 calories per 1/2 cup, 8g of fiber, 9g of protein, plus potassium, folic acid and iron.
These little nuggets of deliciousness contain both insoluble and soluble fiber; the former improves digestive tract health, while the latter binds to sugars, fats and cholesterol in food and keeps them out of the bloodstream. And high-fiber foods make us feel fuller, longer—that increased satiety helps us eat less, and less often. Bonus.
Bean and legume varieties
This is the glory of the bean: There are so. many. varieties. You may be familiar with basic types like Great Northern or Pinto, but there are so many different kinds with interesting names: Scarlet Runner. Christmas Lima. Good Mother Stallard.
Lentils are somewhat less varied, but still interesting: varieties range from tiny French Black lentils to green ones to pretty red ones (these are commonly split in half).
No matter what you cook, the fresher the dried legumes are, the quicker they’ll cook. Dried beans, chickpeas and lentils will keep in a cool, dark place, for up to two years, but they are best cooked within a year of harvest.
Find really fresh dried beans in the late fall at local farmers’ markets. Jungle Jim’s stores in Eastgate and Fairfield carry a wide range of types, sold in bulk quantities. Both Madison’s and Dean’s Mediterranean Market at Findlay Market have lots of kinds of beans and lentils. Or check out RanchoGordo.com
, an excellent mail-order source for heirloom beans.
How to cook beans and lentils
Couldn’t be easier. Let’s start with lentils, which cook more quickly.
To cook one cup of black or green lentils:
- Rinse the lentils in a colander under running water and pick out any debris (husks, small stones or other matter that creeps in during harvest).
- Place lentils in a medium saucepan and cover with three cups water. Do not add salt before cooking.
- Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, cover and cook until lentils are just tender, about 15 minutes.
- Drain and rinse under cold water to stop cooking.
- Add salt to taste.
- One cup of dried lentils = two cups cooked.
If you’re cooking split lentils (red ones are commonly split), they’ll take just five to seven minutes.
To cook one cup of dried beans:
- Rinse the beans in a colander under running water and pick out any debris.
- Soak: If you have time, place the beans in a large bowl, cover with about three inches of water. Let soak one hour if you’re pressed for time, or overnight. If you don’t have time to soak the beans, don’t worry; they’ll just take a bit longer to cook.
- Drain beans and transfer to a stock pot. Cover with water or broth by two inches. Add a generous pinch of salt. You can also add ground pepper, fresh herb sprigs or dried herbs. I especially like Colonel De’s Gourmet Herbs & Spices Kentucky Bean Soup Mix as a seasoning for a pot of beans (find it online or at their Findlay Market or Fort Thomas, KY, location)
- Bring to a strong boil and cook about five minutes, the lower heat to simmer and cook until beans are tender all the way through but not mushy.
- Cooking time varies depending on the type of bean, how fresh they are and whether they’ve been soaked — very fresh, soaked small beans may take 45 minutes; unsoaked, larger, older beans may take three hours.
- Drain and rinse under cold water to stop cooking.
- One cup of dried beans (1/2 pound) = three cups cooked.
Cooked beans and lentils can be stored in the freezer for up to six months, so make a big batch and freeze portions for later use.
How to use dried beans and lentils
Oh my gosh … how can you not
use them? So many delicious uses! In soup, of course, like this Golden Spiced Lentil Soup
or Pasta e Fagioli (Pasta Fazool) Soup
. Cooked beans or lentils, with some sautéed onion and carrot mixed in, make a terrific side dish for grilled chicken or fish. I love making a simple salad with cooked beans, halved cherry tomatoes, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil.
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