Colin’s webinar No 2, an interview with Hodmedods, explains the importance of pulses in almost all of the world’s cuisines, as well as their significant contribution to the health of humans, animals and the land. As a staple, they are second only to grains in terms of their contribution to food energy and create a formidable partnership when served together. In Britain that partnership manifests today mainly in the guise of baked beans on toast but this wasn’t always so. The decline in their role in British cuisine probably stems from our early Agricultural Revolution, but I suggest other potential reasons which may get in the way of them enjoying the revival they deserve.
As Josiah Meldrum and Nick Saltmarsh have demonstrated through their company Hodmedods, it is perfectly possible to grow a range of pulses here, although the processing involved in presenting them for human consumption perhaps makes it a struggle to compete cost-wise with imports. It is exciting to see the revival of ancient pulses, which we were in danger of losing altogether. They don’t necessarily need to be cooked in the traditional recipes, although these can have strong regional associations which we should treasure. One strong factor that works in favour of a resurgence in popularity is the general trend towards eating less meat. There are certainly many recipes to choose from.
Why don’t we eat pulses as much as other countries?
When Colin asked me to give a cook’s perspective on pulses, my first reaction, as a highly seasonal cook, was that pulses really come into their own during the hungry gap (March to May). Certainly, this is the period in which I most frequently reach for them in my store cupboard, although when I paused to think how many times I had eaten them in the last week (which included Halloween and Bonfire Night) it was four, giving me pause to think again about just how seasonal pulses really are. Although technically a fresh pea or bean is still a pulse, most cooks use the term to refer to them in their dried form. Dried, they are available all year round and whilst I would choose to eat fresh over dried, they actually have quite a short season in this state, particularly because their sugar turns to starch very rapidly once picked. Let’s be honest, most of the peas eaten in this country are frozen rather than either fresh or dried. However, it’s equally the case that grains have a growing season, yet their fundamental place in our diet means that they are eaten year-round. Also seasonality is hardly peculiar to this country.
Before completely dismissing seasonality as a factor in the popularity of pulses, we should remember that pea dishes (and peas are the pulse at which Britain excels in growing) were historically strongly associated with Lent. The 5th Sunday in Lent, officially called Passion Sunday, was also known as Carling Sunday, when the Carling Pea was eaten. There were many regional variations on the dish, but it’s popularity remained strongest in the North of England and the Northumbrian version of cooked dried peas being mixed with breadcrumbs, onion and herbs before being fried in lard is a common theme. It wasn’t only on Carling Sunday that dried peas were eaten as they were an important source of protein whenever the Church decreed a meatless diet, however, so strong was the association with this particular Sunday that some people mistakenly came to believe that it was the only day on which the Church permitted their consumption. There has often been conjecture that our fasting days led to an inferior status of the foods permitted at this time, for example fish. Given the popularity of fish in many Catholic countries, I have always doubted this explanation, but cannot discount it entirely. Lent mostly falls into the hungry gap, so it is difficult to separate the fasting issue from seasonality. Even if I extend my personal concept of the season for eating pulses beyond the hungry gap, I think the warm and comforting qualities of pulses means they mainly relate to winter.
Although the tradition of eating Carling Peas during Lent has all but disappeared, there is still a strong connection between dried peas and winter in the North of England. The Bonfire Night tradition of eating Parched Peas – Cooked Black (Carling) Peas served with vinegar, remains very strong to the north and east of Manchester and I heard plenty of reference to them on the radio this year. The long soaking and cooking required for dried peas means that this is not a dish that can be conjured up quickly and in fact Parched Peas have always been sold ready cooked by vendors either at market or travelling around the pubs. Originally served in pottery mugs, these were later replaced by a thick paper wrap and nowadays often a waxed cardboard carton. I have read the theory that they were particularly popular in the industrial north because the working hours gave little time for home cooking. So, they were once considered very working-class, but this lack of time for home cooking is a pretty widespread issue today, which may well aid their comeback. I doubt though, that the exact same dishes will be served nationwide, and we should cherish the regional specialties that endure. Whilst mushy peas with fish and chips have spread southwards from their northern roots, they have never been as warmly embraced in the south, likewise the notion of serving gravy with them. In fact, gravy itself is in danger of dying out in London and the south as it is rarely eaten by the young, whatever food it accompanies.
The changing habits of Britons over time will have played a role in once traditional pulse dishes dying out. Take, for example, the Guernsey Bean Jar, which was the traditional breakfast in Guernsey until the 1920s. Haricot beans were cooked overnight together with a pig’s trotter, beef shin bone and sometimes tripe. Very few people anywhere in the UK breakfast regularly on a cooked breakfast of any form now. Having sufficient time available for making a meal from scratch is, according to Statista, rare amongst the younger generations – so perhaps a breakfast cooked overnight might be an answer!
When it comes to dried pulses, we often have the option of buying them ready-cooked in a can, as, for example, we almost always do for baked beans. This could work to the advantage for future pulse consumption, although it would not be my preferred option. I have found it harder in recent times to buy dried pulses, and on one occasion having thought I had put dried lentils in my on-line shopping, was shocked to find that they too came ready cooked, in a pouch rather than a packet. In a recently purchased cookery book, written by a contemporary, I was similarly shocked to see recipes for bean soups that used several tins of beans to serve a family. I do keep tins of pulses in my store cupboard, and they are handy for when you want just a small quantity; but if I was making a larger quantity, where pulses were the main ingredient, I would normally use dried. They would certainly be cheaper, usually better quality and I would control any additives, plus they take up less room in the larder.
Enough of how pulses fit into our food culture – if you are going to cook dried pulses from scratch what is involved?
Most requiresoaking overnight (8 hours), the exception being those smaller pulses that are already free of their skin – lentils need no soaking whilst split peas, aduki and mung beans require only an hour. The soaking process can be assisted by the addition of a pinch of bicarbonate of soda, but unless you live in an area of exceptionally hard water, this is not really necessary and does reduce the nutritional value of the pulses. The purpose of soaking is to draw out indigestible toxins from the pulses as well as to rehydrate them. The kidney bean family contains toxins that are particularly dangerous, but they are rendered harmless by boiling. So, after soaking, the next step is to throw away the soaking water, add fresh water, bring it to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes. Throw this water away too and your beans are then ready for cooking.
I don’t own one, because I am at home most of the time, but I think a slow cooker would be the ideal thing in which to cook pulses as the cost of energy for the long cooking time is much lower than using an oven. Of course, you might have an Aga style oven that is on all the time, giving you hot water and heating to boot. Again, I don’t own one, but they would be ideal for this long slow cooking. What I use is a clay pot, as the Guernsey Bean Jar would also normally have been. This porous material is believed to cut down on the unfortunate side effect of beans – flatulence. I’m not promising that it removes the problem entirely! Another measure that counteracts this is the use of Winter Savory, otherwise known as the bean herb. I always include a good handful in the bouquet garni that I use for flavouring beans – Winter Savory, Bay Leaf, and celery tied between two halves of a stick of celery. Winter Savory is well worth growing, it is a low growing herb that spreads to provide good ground cover, completely winter hardy, unlike thyme, which would be the nearest substitute, and it is often recommended in place of salt. Which brings me to another important point, do not add salt to beans, at least until they are almost cooked, as it will toughen the skin and extend the cooking time considerably. Likewise acid ingredients, such as tomatoes, should only be added once the beans are tender. Most beans will be tender after simmering for an hour and a half, although many recipes call for longer.
Texture is the main reason given for why some people don’t like pulses, it may be a something you get culturally acclimatized to (like the north south divide over mushy peas) but the most important thing the cook can do to overcome this is to get rid of the skin surrounding the pulse. The ultimate hummus, for example, is one where all the chickpea skins have been removed to create a silky-smooth purée. It is, however, a time-consuming task, which begins by skimming all the skins that float to the surface towards the end of cooking, and then continues by giving them a rub in a clean tea-towel to release yet more skins for removal. I confess, I am not overly fastidious in performing this task, but there is definitely a difference between one made with care in this way and the fast version which just blends the contents of a tin.
Beans and pork are classic partners, especially salted pork (ham or bacon) since fresh meat would have been preserved this way for the winter. However, the salt in the meat can cause the toughening of the skins, so split peas (which no longer have their skin) are the best pulse to cook with ham. This combination gives us the classic pease pudding. For beans I would use fresh belly pork, or a trotter if I had one. Beans and bones are another classic combination.
What if you don’t eat meat? Pulses are used extensively in vegetarian cookery because of the protein they provide. In many vegetarian dishes the pulses are combined with grains, e.g., bread, pasta or whole grains. Then there are all the spices or herbs. Hodmedods website contains a wealth of recipes from all over the world, most of which can now be made with mainly British ingredients, with their reintroduced heritage beans and pulses. The recipe I have chosen to give below is for the Tuscan bean soup called Ribollita. The Tuscans are called “The bean-eaters” by the rest of Italy so fond of this ingredient are they, and Ribollita means re-cooked, because this entirely vegetarian soup develops its flavour when left overnight and reheated the next day. Beans are a great vehicle for other flavours and this hearty soup/stew is often used as the background for tasting the new season’s olive oil. I always make it when the new season’s oil is first available (usually in January).
Ribollita (Tuscan Bean Soup)
12 oz/350g dried cannellini beans, soaked overnight
4 ripe, well flavoured tomatoes (or use tinned)
2 sticks celery
11 oz/300g Cavolo Nero
2 cloves garlic
small handful of Winter Savory
2 sprigs fresh thyme
6-8 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
6 slices of stale country bread (2-3 days old)
7 oz/200g savoy cabbage
best olive oil
Pour off the water in which the beans have been soaking, place them in a large saucepan and cover with fresh water to a depth of 2″ above the beans. Bring to the boil and boil hard for 10 minutes, drain. Cover the beans with fresh water and add a small handful of winter savory if you have it. Bring the water back up to boiling point then reduce the heat and simmer for about 1½ hours until the beans are tender but still whole. Drain the beans and pass three-quarters of them through a sieve or mouli-legumes into a bowl with 2 pints (1.2 litres) of fresh water. Reserve the rest of the beans separately.
Finely chop the carrots, celery and leeks. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and cook the vegetables until soft. Meanwhile peel, de-seed and chop the tomatoes then add them to the vegetables along with the garlic and thyme. After 5 minutes add the cabbage, salt and pepper and cook for a further 10 minutes before adding the bean puree. Cook slowly for an hour adding tepid water if the soup becomes too solid, although it should be a very thick soup. About 5-10 minutes before the end of the cooking stir in the whole beans to heat them through. Leave overnight for the flavours to develop.
To serve, reheat the soup. Finely chop the savoy cabbage and sauté in a little oil. Serve the soup ladled over a slice of bread and topped with cooked cabbage. Offer finely sliced red onions and olive oil at the table.