21st century pulse: pulse flours

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: pulse flours

When we consider cooking pulses in Britain, we usually think of the whole beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas (be they dried or canned), that we stir into curries, stews and salads. Split legumes (the most common being the ubiquitous red lentil), that collapse down to a purée in a dal or soup are also popular, but legume flours made from ground, dried pulses are still something of a novelty.

It may be that pea, bean and lentil flours are beginning to pop up in our health food shops and mainstream stores in response to the huge growth in the gluten-free, clean-eating market, but they’ve been around for centuries.

It always amuses me that the stereotypical legume-doubters, who consider pulses to be the diet of tree-hugging yoghurt-weavers, probably consume more than their fair share at the local curry joint, without even knowing it.

Who can resist a pile of crispy papadums with pickles while they wait for their curry? That fantastically crunchy, light texture comes from the flour, it’s made with ground black gram (urad beans). Onion bhajis and vegetable pakora are staples on the Friday night ‘Indian’ menu, the batter is heaven and it’s made using besan (chickpea flour).

Lusciously creamy sauce
Once the real deal arrives, usually with twice as much as you planned to eat, you’ve surely ordered some dal or perhaps a dhansak, where this time the split, rather than ground pulses, have collapsed into a lusciously creamy sauce. So there you have it: beans, chickpeas and most probably lentils, all in one sitting.

Certain breads, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent, have historically been made with pulse flours, or blends with rice or wheat. If you’re up for some experimenting, a trip to Brick Lane or your local Asian store is a great place to start.

Back home, some commercial bakers have been using soya flour as an ‘improver’ for years, but are now adding other pulse flours as they recognise their nutritional benefits. I’d recommend adding small quantities of the British pea or fava bean flours, which are increasingly available, to your own yeasted doughs (not too much though, as they are gluten-free and will inevitably make the bread heavier).

Soda breads are fabulous when made using pulse flours. I tend to use a 50/50 blend of wholemeal wheat to pulse with great results, but if you’re after a gluten-free loaf you can go 100 per cent legume or blend with other gluten-free flours.

Papadum in disguise
Pulse-y pastas, biscuits, crisps and ‘healthy’ snacks are tripping over each other as they vie for a space on the supermarket shelf nowadays, but they’re nothing new either. Chinese vermicelli or cellophane noodles made from mung bean starch have been eaten for centuries, and a lentil crisp is really just a papad or papadum in disguise. We’re just finally clocking on to the fact that these products can be delicious, are packed with protein and other precious nutrients, and are gluten-free too.

I particularly like to have a selection of pulse flours in the cupboard for Mediterranean-style fritters. Chickpea flour is the key ingredient in some of my desert island nibbles: moreish panelle in Sicily, panisses in Provence and my favourite tortillas de camarones in southern Spain (where tiny shrimp are added to the batter).

There’s the unforgettable thick, pancake-like socca of Nice that pops up again just over the border on the Italian Riviera as farinata. These dishes are basically just seasoned chickpea flour and water that’s fried in olive oil, but do try playing around with other pulse flours too. I love to make pea flour fritters and top them with seasonal fruit and cheese, seafood or charcuterie.

A couple of tips: pulse flours make great thickeners for soups, stews and s­­auces. Just stir a little liquid into the flour to make a smooth paste before adding to the pan. They’re also a wonderful gluten-free binder, for holding together bean burgers.