Last Updated on April 26, 2021 by Fiona Maclean
Legumes pack a punch in this new cookbook – a recipe for Dal Pancakes
I came to beans relatively late in life. Growing up, I ate green beans regularly, but other legumes came in the form of tinned baked beans, the occasional kidney bean salad or lentil soup. Hence, I am still learning about the huge variety of pulses and was keen to discover more in Judith Choate’s The Mighty Bean (Countryman Press). Choate published The Rediscovered Bean nearly 30 years ago. Decades on she is revisiting the subject because of the sheer diversity of available beans. Legumes form part of all cuisines around the world and human consumption has continued to grow thanks to the huge popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets. Even for those of us who are more omnivore than vegan, the importance of pulse-based meals is part of eating a balanced diet.
For those who need to keep an eye on their cholesterol level, one positive dietary change is an increase in one’s intake of legumes. This is because legumes are high in fibre and low in fat with most of what they do contain being unsaturated. They are also good for maintaining glucose levels and are packed full of nutrients. A serving of cooked chickpeas has three times the iron of 85g of chicken breast. Compared with many other sources of protein they are economical too. That’s a lot of virtue for a small bean. Or, as Choate opines, the mighty bean.
Before trying my hand at Choate’s recipes, I read with interest the informative chapter which provides a comprehensive A-Z list and description of every legume (beans, lentils, peas and peanuts) one could ever wish to encounter. The various names of beans provided are most helpful. I had no idea that a cranberry bean is what I know as a borlotti. Nor did I know that my favourite bean of all, the flageolet, originates in Oaxaca. The Marcella bean named after the renowned and much-loved cook, Marcella Hazan, is one I hope to track down. As Choate is based across the pond, her list of suppliers of heirloom beans is US-based. These days, with online shopping having revolutionised our access to popular or obscure items, a little rooting around should bring most beans to your pantry if you want to sample varieties that are native to far flung countries.
The Mighty Bean presents 100 recipes which are grouped into chapters for appetizers, soups, salads, mains, sides, snacks and sweets. I began with a white bean purée with olives which had a wonderfully Mediterranean taste. I used a jar of cannellini beans which was puréed along with sautéed onion and garlic as well as lemon juice, olive oil and crumbled feta. Once this was smooth, I added finely chopped kalamata olives. I often serve dips as part of a mezze selection and this one will join my platters this summer. It has a gorgeous texture, and the tang of lemon and sharpness of the feta adds depth of flavour to the beans.
From the salad section, I chose a simple lentil salad because I fancied the dressing made with balsamic vinegar, olive oil and grainy mustard. I used my best vinegar and oil as a recipe this simple needs to be well-dressed. This is the sort of food to make ahead as the flavour deepens as the hours tick by. It also helps cooks get ahead.
The moment I set eyes on the recipe for dal pancakes, I sent a copy to a vegetarian friend and we both enthused about how delicious this looked. The lentils did not even need to be pre-cooked. This recipe involved a bit of fine chopping – what recipes call mincing – but stick the radio on and the garlic, ginger and herbs will be chopped in no time. The lentils soaked in hot water for an hour and then, having been rinsed, took a three-minute spin in the food processor. Added to some yoghurt and the batter was ready. No eggs, no flour. I must admit to feeling a bit concerned at whether this sloppy mixture would turn into a pancake, but after four minutes in a hot pan, they lifted out firmly. These were cheerfully sunny in colour and as moreish as could be. The recipe suggests serving them with yoghurt but I thought they were even better with some sweetness so I served them with mango chutney. You could make salsa or another relish of your choice. My dinner guests were so surprised when I told them what they were eating. Serve these warm. The recipe (below) is enough for six pancakes but take it from me, you will need more.
Not all the recipes in The Mighty Bean are vegetarian as I had assumed from the title. Curiously, the least successful of the recipes was the only meat-based one I tried, this time from the main course chapter. West African Chicken Stew seemed perfect for the icy snap we were having but I found it to be a rather pale rendition of this vibrant dish.
I was fascinated by the sweet section where I came across a mocha-black bean smoothie and another for white bean-orange cake. These have been earmarked for the weeks ahead when I hope to be able to share these unusual recipes with friends who will appreciate these while sunning themselves in the garden. At least I can rely on The Mighty Bean if not the weather.
I am a rather lazy cook when it comes to beans and, perhaps because I have not engaged with online availability, I tend to rely on canned beans. Supermarkets these days do have more variety than I recall from years ago or perhaps I am paying more attention. I was impressed recently to find adzuki beans when I wanted to try a curry using this variety. I like most the beans one finds in jars – I use the brands imported from Spain by Brindisa – which are certainly more pricey but incomparable in terms of quality. The Mighty Bean has given me many new ideas for this health-enhancing food. It has encouraged me to branch out to buying dried beans and giving them an overnight soak. I am not sure why the need to soak has always put me off trying new types of bean. After all, I think nothing of marinating food overnight when a recipe calls for this time-consuming prep. Once soaked, beans are generally low maintenance. They can feed a crowd cheaply (I live in hope of catering for more than 6 people), are tasty, nutrient-rich and boost good health. Inspiration for cooking this wonderful food is plentiful in The Mighty Bean.
Lentil pancakes make a perfect vegetarian starter
- 1 cup red lentils or yellow split peas
- 1/2 cup vegetable stock I used Marigold bouillon
- 1/2 cup onion chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger minced
- 1 tbsp garlic minced
- 1 tsp hot green chilli minced
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp ground turmeric
- salt to taste
- 1/4 cup full fat yoghurt
- 2 tbsp spring onions, white and green part minced
- 2 tbsp coriander finely chopped
- 2 tbsp flat leaf parsley finely chopped
- clarified butter (ghee) for frying I used a mild olive oil
- yoghurt or chutney for serving optional
Pour the lentils into a bowl and cover with very hot water. Set aside for an hour.
In the meantime prepare the chopped onion, garlic, ginger, chilli and herbs
After an hour, drain the lentils and put into the bowl of a food processor along with the vegetable stock, onion, garlic, ginger, chilli, cumin, turmeric and salt. Process for 3 minutes or until well blended and frothy.
Decant the mixture into a mixing bowl and add the yoghurt and chopped herbs. Mix well.
Heat a frying pan with a generous layer of butter or oil. When the butter or oil is very hot, lower the heat to medium-high and drop in enough batter to make a pancake about 10-12 cm. If your pan is very large you can make a few at a time. Keep them warm while you complete the rest in batches.
Fry the pancakes for 2 minutes on each side. You want the underside to be browning before you flip it over.
Serve warm with some yoghurt or chutney or make a relish of your choice.