For the love of legumes: Everything you need to know about the plant-based powerhouses
Healthy, environmentally friendly, cheap and incredibly tasty. It’s time to add the underrated legume to your weekly meal plan.
Legumes aren’t just for vegetarians. These nutrition powerhouses are the best sources of plant-based protein going around and are bursting with health benefits, making them the perfect addition to your weekly diet. Despite their nutritional benefits and versatility in cooking, they are often overlooked when it comes to superfoods, with less than 30 per cent of Australians eating enough legumes in their diet. Two serves of legumes a week is a good start, but try to aim for four serves to really maximise their nutritional benefits, more if you’re vegan or vegetarian.
But what exactly are legumes? These “magical fruits”, often referred to as beans and pulses, are plants in the Fabaceae botanical family which have seed pods that split into two halves. There are thousands of different legume species available throughout the world in a variety of colours, shapes and sizes, ranging from lentils and chickpeas to split peas and peanuts.
Legumes are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, health-protective antioxidants and fibre. They are particularly high in B-group vitamins, especially folate, iron, zinc and magnesium. Since they are rich in protein, legumes are an ideal base for a vegetarian dish or a substitute for meat. Known for their disease-fighting properties, legumes have been proven to help lower the risk of heart disease and cancer. They are heart-friendly and help protect your cardiovascular system by reducing the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which can increase blood pressure and inflammatory markers in the body.
Since legumes have the lowest glycaemic index (GI) of any food group, they are one of the best foods for blood sugar control and weight loss, making them ideal for diabetics or people who are suffering from obesity. Legumes contain enzyme inhibitors which help slow digestion and absorption. This makes you feel fuller for longer and can help reduce excessive food intake and lead to weight loss in the long term. The soluble fibre content in legumes helps stabilise blood sugar levels and increase cells’ sensitivity to insulin at the same time. Legumes are generally low in fat, including saturated fat and cholesterol, with the exception of soybeans and peanuts.
Did you know that legumes are also great for your gut? Since they are a great prebiotic, they will help healthy bacteria in your gut grow and thrive. Legumes are also full of healthy dietary fibres, including resistant starch and soluble fibres which help to keep your bowels healthy. Both of these fibres help feed your friendly gut bacteria and help form short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), such as butyrate, which may improve colon health and reduce your risk of colon cancer.
A word of warning: some people may experience wind and gas when they first start to include legumes in their diet, but don’t let this short-term affect put you off. It can take two to three weeks for your gut to get used to them, but it’s definitely worth it for your health in the long run. If you’re not used to consuming legumes, make sure you start introducing them gradually, get regular exercise and drink plenty of water. Soaking and rinsing dry legumes before cooking can also reduce these side effects by making them easier to digest and absorb nutrients more effectively.
Legumes have one of the lowest carbon footprints of all the food groups, making them an excellent environmentally friendly food option. They are “nitrogen fixers,” which means they have a unique ability to capture nitrogen gas from the air and return it to the soil. This process helps enrich the soil and alleviates the need to add fertilisers. Legumes require about 19 times less water to produce than meat, making them a much more sustainable eating option to add to your plate. They are also friendly on your purse strings since they are very cheap to buy, so including them as the main protein in your meals can help save you substantial money on your weekly grocery bills.
Determining how to cook legumes depends on whether they are tinned or dried. Cooking times vary according to the type of legume and brand, so make sure you read the packet instructions prior to consuming. Most dried legumes (with the exception of split peas and lentils) need to be soaked to allow them to soften and make them easier to digest. If time is an issue, tinned legumes are very convenient — just make sure they are drained and rinsed properly to help reduce excess sodium content. The sodium content of tinned legumes can be reduced by up to 41 per cent if the product is drained and rinsed thoroughly. Next time you shop, make sure you check the nutrition label for added sugar, salt and preservatives.
There are so many different varieties of legumes to experiment with in your cooking. Here are some of the most commonly available legumes in Australia and an overview of the best ways to include them in your diet and cooking.
Chickpeas, also known has garbanzo beans, are a great source of manganese, folate, iron, fibre and protein. A number of studies have shown that chickpeas can reduce both total cholesterol and “bad” LDL cholesterol, which are risk factors for heart disease. Since they are a low-carbohydrate food, they are particularly good at reducing blood sugar and increasing insulin sensitivity.
Home cooks rejoice! Chickpeas are incredibly versatile in cooking. Try switching plain flour to chickpea flour (also known as besan or gram flour) to bake breads, tarts and pizza, or you can simply try adding them whole to your next salad, soup, casserole or curry. Another great alternative is to blend them into a hummus for your next entertaining platter or use as a spread for sandwiches. Experiment with oven-roasted chickpeas, otherwise known as “chicknuts” for a healthy nut-like snack.
There are so many varieties of lentils available on the market, ranging from whole and split to yellow and black beluga. With a small and round appearance, yellow and red lentils are commonly used in curries and soups, while green lentils are slightly larger with a flattened seed and work better in slow cooking.
Don’t let the name French lentils fool you. French or puy lentils, which are dark green in colour, are actually grown in Australia. They are one of the most popular lentils to use in cooking due to their mild, nutty flavour, and hold their shape beautifully.
These nutrient-rich legumes are high in folate, manganese, copper and thiamine (vitamin B1). Unlike other legumes, most lentils don’t need to be soaked prior to cooking, which makes them extra convenient. Lentils are an excellent source of protein and a perfect meat substitute in traditional “meaty” recipes. Think lentil shepherd’s pie, bolognaise and lasagne. Try adding them to curries and soups, and experiment with different types of lentils to see what flavour and textures you like best. If you’re a sweet tooth, cooked lentils are also a delicious addition to bliss balls and brownies.
Beans, the most common legume and a staple around the world, may be known as the musical fruit, but they do a whole lot more than make you toot. They are another incredibly versatile legume and a great source of plant-based protein, amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and nutrients. Protein is a vital nutrient that plays a key role in maintaining and repairing the body. Beans are available in many varieties including adzuki, black, borlotti, cannellini, edamame, fava (or faba), Great Northern, lima (or butter), mung, navy, pinto, red kidney and soy.
From black beans, popular in many Mexican and Brazilian dishes, to creamy borlotti and cannellini beans more utilised in Italian dishes and salads, there are so many easy ways to add beans to your most popular dishes at home. Make falafel from fava beans or use black beans as a meat substitute in your next home-cooked burger, or experiment with sweet dishes like brownies. With their deep red colour, red kidney beans are great to cook with and add a beautiful pop of colour to dishes like chilli con carne, burritos and tacos. They also hold their shape particularly well when boiled, so are easy to add to almost any dish to add some variety. Try blending some cannellini beans with a bit of water for a cream substitute or as a thickener to soups and dips.
Soybeans, particularly popular in vegetarian and vegan diets, have many different health benefits and are a rich source of protein. They are often processed into other foods like soy milk, tofu or a hearty miso soup, but are equally delicious when raw when they are known as edamame.
The humble pea is often a much-underrated legume. These small, round, edible legumes are rich in nutrients like B vitamins, iron, phosphorus and minerals as well as carotenoid phytonutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, which have been proven to have benefits for vision and overall eye health. They are also naturally high in protein with a low carbohydrate, fat and sugar content similar to other legumes.
Whole peas require soaking prior to cooking, whereas split peas do not need any further preparation. They are incredibly versatile in cooking and can be used as a nutritious side or accompaniment to a mail meal cooked in soups like split pea and ham soup, or pasta or salad.
Lupins, perhaps the least known of the legume family, are starting to shine in their own right as people discover their versatility in cooking and health benefits. Two types of lupin are produced in Australia: the Australian sweet lupin, which is round with a speckled pigment, and the albus lupin, popular in the Middle East and Europe, which has a distinctive flattened and oval shape. They can be eaten fresh or in lupin flour or flakes which are great in baking. Lupin flour can easily be substituted with full wheat flour by substituting around 10 per cent, to prepare higher fibre, protein and lower GI foods.
With a similar taste to peas, lupins are also a great addition in salads and stir-fries.
Despite popular belief, peanuts are actually legumes since they grow underground and are often incorrectly classified with other nuts. Peanuts have a wide range of health benefits if eaten in moderation since they are rich in protein, B vitamins and “healthy fats” which are beneficial to heart health. They are a great source of resveratrol, an antioxidant believed to offer further protection against heart disease.
When consuming peanuts, try to consume them whole, dry roasted and unsalted rather than salted, roasted peanuts or peanut butter, which usually has a high fat and sodium content. Peanuts are delicious as a snack or as an addition to a Thai massaman curry, salad or a textural garnish. Since they are high in fat and calories, just aim for a small handful.
Chickpea Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp honey
- ½ tsp Dijon mustard
- Pinch salt
- 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 800g tin chickpeas, rinsed & drained
- 400g tin sweet corn, rinsed & drained
- 1 small punnet cherry tomatoes, halved
- ½ red onion, thinly sliced
- 1 cucumber, peeled & diced
- Small bunch fresh parsley, chopped
- 4 tbsp roasted red capsicums
- 4 tbsp sliced Kalamata olives
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp pepitas
- Fresh mint, to garnish
- To make the lemon vinaigrette, place all dressing ingredients in a small mixing bowl and whisk until well combined. Set aside.
- Place remaining ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Drizzle with lemon vinaigrette and toss gently. Add fresh mint to garnish. Serve immediately.
Slow Cooker Chilli Con Carne with Red Kidney Beans
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2–3 cloves garlic, minced
- 750g lean beef mince
- 1 large red capsicum, sliced
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp dried chilli flakes
- 1 tsp paprika
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 250mL sodium-reduced beef stock
- 85g tomato paste
- 800g tin crushed tomatoes
- 800g kidney beans, drained & rinsed
- Serve with steamed rice, fresh coriander, chilli, sour cream & tortillas (optional)
- Heat olive oil in a large, non-stick pan over medium to high heat and cook the onion for 4–5 mins until soft and translucent.
- Add the garlic, beef mince, red capsicum, cumin, chilli flakes, paprika and dried oregano and cook until beef is browned.
- Transfer beef mixture to a slow cooker and add beef stock, tomato paste, tomatoes and kidney beans. Stir together gently. Cook on low setting for 7.5 hours.
- Stir in the kidney beans and cook on high setting for 30 mins.
- Serve immediately with steamed rice and optional toppings.
Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with Roasted Chickpeas & Garlic & Tahini Dressing
- 3 sweet potatoes, scrubbed & pierced with fork
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Pinch salt & pepper, to season
- 400g chickpeas, rinsed & drained
- 1–2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- ½ tsp ground cumin
- ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp paprika
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper
- Pinch salt & pepper, to season
- Garlic & Tahini Dressing
- ⅓ cup tahini
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 2 tbsp lime or lemon juice
- 1 tbsp maple syrup
- ¼ cup water
- Sliced spring onions, green chilli & fresh lime, to garnish
- Preheat oven to 200ºC.
- Place sweet potatoes on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
- Place the chickpeas in a bowl and add the garlic, olive oil and spices. Mix until chickpeas are evenly coated and spread them over a separate baking tray. Bake for 30–40 mins until sweet potatoes are tender and chickpeas are slightly crispy.
- In the meantime, make the garlic and tahini dressiing. Place all the ingredients in a small mixing bowl and whisk until smooth.
- Cut the sweet potatoes in half and top with roasted chickpea mix. Drizzle over the dressing and garnish with spring onions, green chilli and fresh lime.
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