Three cheers for pulses! 

UN declares 2016 as the International Year of Pulses

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED. - Beanie Babies Eight-year-old Hazelle Richer (left) enjoy's cookin with sister Sadie.
  • Photo submitted.
  • Beanie Babies Eight-year-old Hazelle Richer (left) enjoy's cookin with sister Sadie.

Don't groan yet, but you could say Pierre Richer's relationship with pulses started with a bang.

Pierre, who co-owns the popular Green Moustache vegetarian juice bars in Whistler and Vancouver along with his wife, Nicolette, grew up in Quebec City. He and his dad would often head off into the nearby woods to camp and hike. When he was about eight, they did a short hike early in the season, so his dad decided they should both lug super-heavy backpacks filled with tinned foods to help them get in shape. For the next day's breakfast, it was oatmeal, bread, and pork 'n' beans.

"So we're in a campground and have a fire, and just before we go to bed, he puts the can of beans in the embers," recalls Pierre. "He was saying, we are going to take them out in the morning warm — they're going to be amazing!"

But two or three hours later — POW! It was like a shotgun going off. All the neighbouring campers ran over, and in the morning when they woke up, there were beans on the tent, beans on the picnic table, beans everywhere, says Pierre.

"He forgot to punch a hole in the tin to let the pressure out!"

Lesson One: When you celebrate 2016 as the UN's International Year of Pulses, be sure to punch that hole in your first campfire meal of tinned pork 'n' beans.

As vegetarians like Pierre and Alex Powell will tell you, pulses make up a huge part of a good diet for good reason. They are highly nutritional and healthy for us — and for the planet. When I tell Alex the UN has honoured the often-overlooked pulse in this way, her response is, wow, good for the pulse! And good for us, too.

"Pulses are very good for our health, being high in fibre, low in fat, and an excellent source of protein," says Alex — manager at Olives Community Market, the organic grocery store in Function Junction — who tries to live by the concept "if it's good for the planet, it's good for me, too."

"Beyond that, they are good for the environment, too, which is good for us. The more people are eating pulses, the less they're probably eating meat."

We're all more aware of the impact that industrialized feedlots and raising animals have environmentally. For one, according to the FAO, livestock contribute directly and indirectly to climate change through the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Plus pulses as a crop replenish soil, rather than deplete it, by fixing nitrogen in the soil.

But what exactly are pulses?

In Canada, we're more likely to call them legumes, or just plain beans. But scientifically speaking, pulses are members of the pea family, and a subgroup of legumes. According to the FAO's website, only legumes harvested for dry grain are pulses. When legume species are used as vegetables (like green peas and green beans), for oil extraction (such as soybean and groundnut oil); and for sowing purposes (clover and alfalfa), they're not considered pulses.

We have literally hundreds of kinds of pulses. Some of the more common ones are kidney beans; navy beans (the kind used in pork 'n' beans); faba beans (also called fava beans, as in the infamous Hannibal Lecter moment in the movie, The Silence of the Lambs); chick peas or garbanzo beans; mung beans; dried or split peas; cowpeas; black-eyed peas; and the many lentils — yellow, red, brown, green and the dark, robust French or Le Puy lentils.

Pulses are thrifty. To start, they're inexpensive. Pierre notes that for the price of a single organic steak that feeds two, you can make a healthy and satisfying meal for three or four times that many if you use pulses. They also last so long in dried form they cut way down on food waste, at home and in the food chain long before they reach your kitchen. Plus they're very tasty.

Cultures beyond North America are very good at creating tasty dishes with pulses. There's India's wonderful chick pea curries and dals based on red lentils; the Middle East's popular hummus made from garbanzo beans (chick peas); githeri from Kenya and baassi salte from Senegal. So it's not hard to come up with tasty meal ideas. The FAO website has dozens of useful international recipes.

One of Alex's favourite ways to use pulses is in chilis because they're so versatile. Her secret: also add cubed yams or butternut squash, a bit of cinnamon and some peanut butter. (Don't forget to soak your pulses overnight, then be sure to drain the water and replace it with fresh water before boiling.)

At The Green Moustache, Pierre says they convert a lot of people to delicious, satisfying salads by adding pulses like garbanzos or kidney beans. At home, the Richer's girls — Jaden, 11, Hazelle, 8, and Sadie, 4 — are crazy for pulses like pork 'n' beans, and Pierre makes a tasty side dish with a Québécois flair: After boiling garbanzos until they are soft, toast them in the bottom of an iron skillet. On medium heat, melt some good butter, add a layer of garbanzos, and once you hear them sizzle, drizzle over a couple of teaspoonfuls of maple syrup.

Mmm – mm good! And they won't explode everywhere. Promise.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who keeps a steady pulse with pulses.

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