July 05, 2023
Blink and you'll miss it.
Section 3 in my new book Instant Pot Indian - to me - is one of the most critical chapters. But, to the untrained eye it may not look like much. Titled 'Instant Pot-Cooked Legumes to Stovetop,' it shows you how to cook whole beans, peas, and lentils (legumes) in plain water. That sounds so simple, so why is it revolutionary?
Well, with a bit of planning, it eliminates the need for canned beans ever again. And, it gives you a head start to your meal prep especially during the week when time is critical and you cannot always cook from scratch, meaning cooking from dried beans - which is ideal and the rest of my cookbook showcases.
As I've traveled across the country teaching cooking classes and giving demos, I've learned that not everyone understands legumes. A reporter ahead of a tv demo said she thought chickpeas just came from a can. She had no idea that they were a crop grown on a farm. It may sound amusing, but it's understandable when you are removed from the source of certain foods and just don't encounter them on a regular basis. I grew up visiting my family in India and watching street vendors pull carts stacked with stalks bursting with pods that housed seeds - fresh, green chickpeas. It makes all the difference to see it and experience it.
This is similar to the farmers I met when I was a young agricultural reporter for Bloomberg News and traveled to dozens of farms on the Midwest Crop Tour. I tried to explain to one farmer whose crops we were examining that the soybeans he was growing on his farm for livestock feed were actually boiled, salted, and eaten in Japan at bars with beer (though likely a different variety). You may have now heard of edamame. But, he had not at the time and just shook his head in disbelief. He just could not comprehend that humans would willingly consume something he grew for animals to eat. That was just in the early 2000s -- not that long ago. I think that lack of knowledge still exists when it comes to legumes in the West and especially in the United States. Here, we have farms that cultivate wheat, corn, and other grains. But, how many chickpea farms have you visited or even seen on television? Believe it or not, there are some out there now in the U.S. This lack of exposure is why I like to talk and write about legumes - a lot.
The term 'legume' is a category that includes all seeds that grow in a pod. These can be beans (chickpea-urad dal-moong-black beans-kidney), lentils (masoor-green), or peas (green-yellow). Can you name one of the most commonly eaten legumes out there? Peanuts! Yep. They are not nuts, but a legume. Why if you have a peanut allergy you may also be sensitive to other legumes. Another common 'surprise' legume is fenugreek or methi. These little seeds from a pod are dried and used like a spice in Indian cooking. But, they can be soaked and sprouted and make healthy additions to salads.
Legumes do not grow in or come from cans. They are processed and canned for convenience. If you have ever tried to get dinner on the table fast and dealt with dried beans, you know what I mean. Need black beans or refried beans for taco Tuesday? You could be waiting an hour or more for beans to cook to perfection.
While canned products are convenient in a pinch, rest assured that cooking beans from dried will take your meals to another flavor level entirely. No matter how elevated the canned product (many come with little to no salt these days, etc.), the reality is that it's a product that has already been cooked and already has absorbed as much flavor as it can. Thus, when you use canned chickpeas in an Indian curry or in hummus, it's fine, but it won't absorb much additional flavor or liquid and your dish will often taste flat.The texture can also be a bit off as well - slightly mushy.
Also, no matter how clean that canned product is, it has a certain amount of preservatives to make it shelf stable. Product stored in anything outside of glass tends to absorb residual amounts of the container it is stored in as well as the product that the cans are lined with. There is so much research and material out there now - finally - on food storage safety and chemicals - feel free to look for yourself. For now, I think it's safe to assume that the less our food sits around in plastic containers or in lined cans - no matter how food safe - the better. Again, I am not espousing perfection nor do I like to be an alarmist, but understanding this does help us navigate our days better and more mindfully.
Even if you don't buy into the health aspects, know that eating beans from dried will save you money and help reduce environmental waste. Dried beans are significantly cheaper. You don't have to lug heavy cans from the grocery store, and when you are done you're not discarding bulky cans in the trash. I often wonder why food banks don't give away dried beans along with a good recipe, and perhaps a slow cooker and/or a pressure cooker?
But, still - the thought of cooking from dried legumes during the week gives me hives. It can take a long time and can be unpredictable on the stove. I cannot tell you how many times I've walked away and burned a pot of chickpeas that took over an hour to soften. The answer lies in your Instant Pot - or slow cooker if you have my first book The Indian Slow Cooker.
For the Instant Pot, turn to page 96 in my current book. Here, I tested everything from whole moong to chickpeas to kidney beans and black beans in an Instant Pot with just water to give you perfectly cooked beans and lentils every single time. The results are amazing. A couple of tips that will go a long way with this? To speed up the soaking process use hot, boiled water. Always drain and discard the soaking water. But, always KEEP the cooking water, which is wonderful as a vegan soup thickener. It can also thicken hummus without a ton of olive oil.
This section also includes several stovetop recipe suggestions on what to do with the legumes once you have cooked them. Please note that the way to the best and deepest flavor in your legumes is to cook them dried in your curry - which the rest of my book shows you how to do. But, it's not always convenient to do so. Why this section is a godsend.
When cooking a batch of legumes, use what you need, and freeze the rest in 1-2 cup batches to pull out later. I will often pull out a serving or two in the morning to defrost by the time I'm ready to cook dinner. I can easily whip it into a hummus, make a curry out of it, sprinkle it with spices and put it in my air fryer, or simply add it to salads.
I was motivated to share a little more on cooking from dried after sharing my Chickpea Quinoa Masala burgers. Check them out for a healthy and delicious addition to your weekly meals.
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