21st century pulse: New World beans

Categories: Expert guidance

To celebrate the International Year of Pulses, author and UN pulse ambassador Jenny Chandler explores these nutritional powerhouses and shares her tips on how best to prepare them. This month: New World beans

Speckled pink borlotti beans seem as Italian as the Colosseum; tiny haricots nestling in a Gascon cassoulet of pork and duck as quintessentially French as a beret—and yet these beans are relative newcomers to the European kitchen. The phaseolus gene of the bean family includes so many of our European favourites but in fact, they originally came from the Americas.

The phaseolus vulgaris genus includes the aforementioned borlotti and haricots, red kidney, cannellini, flageolet, pinto, black beans and simply hundreds of lesser known cousins, and came from Mexico and central America. Another gene pool, the phaseolus lunatus, includes butter beans and many varieties of the lima bean, and evolved in the Andes.

Some 600 years ago, Spanish explorers and traders brought back beans along with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, cocoa and many other New World crops. The north is still the bean pot of Spain, where returning colonists from the Americas began growing these new legumes, while much of the rest of Spain continued to—and still does—favour the lentils and chickpeas of old, due to both climate and tradition.

A hint of pork
You have the Galician caldo gallego, with its white beans, greens, potatoes and a hint of pork; the Asturian fabada, a hefty dish by anyone’s standards loaded with cured pork shoulder, chorizo, morcilla and mind-blowingly expensive beans; tiny green verdinas beans with clams, and Basque country beans cooked up with more pork.

What immediately struck me was that there are very few vegetarian dishes among these old favourites (the Spanish never have been big veggies) and looking further east to France and Italy, so many classic dishes contain meat or fish.

For centuries in Europe, pulses have been known as the meat of the poor, providing vital protein when animal protein was scarce or unaffordable, but in many cases the dishes still contained meat, it was just eked out much further.

Resolute carnivores
This is, for me, one of the greatest ways to prepare legumes and a perfect approach when convincing those resolute carnivores that pulses aren’t just for veggies and vegans—though there are, I must add, some staggeringly good meat-free dishes out there too.

A small amount of bacon, sausage or ham will flavour a whole pot of beans and the pig seems to snort its way into many well-known dishes: back over the pond you have the Brazilian feijoada (nose to tail eating at its best, it utilises every part of the pig) and even the seemingly meat-free Mexican frijoles is usually cooked in lashings of good pork lard.

The old stereotypical British, hessian-shirted hippy image of pulses is absolute nonsense, but there’s no denying that beans do have a very valuable role in a world where, for health and sustainability reasons, we need to reduce our meat consumption. Beans are a fabulous way to make a small amount of sustainably produced, carefully reared and butchered meat go a very long way.

A note on cooking
A note on cooking New World beans: a toxin called phytohaemagglutinin is present in many varieties of New World beans. In most beans the quantities of this lectin are not sufficient enough to do us any harm. Just soak them for 10 hours, drain, cover with water, bring up to the boil and then simmer until tender.

Red kidney beans and in certain cases cannellini beans can contain toxic quantities of phytohaemagglutinin and so you need to boil these beans for at least 10 mins to deactivate the toxins before simmering until tender. Never cook these beans in a slow cooker as you will actually increase the toxicity. For more tips on cooking beans, dip into my previous post.

Click here to find Jenny’s recipe for slow-roasted leg of lamb with butter beans and apricots