Legumes in the Kitchen: They Are Not Just for Nitrogen-Fixing

When it comes to legumes, I come from a fortunate background. Born and raised in the southern Louisiana, where cuisine is something entirely different than the rest of the United States, food has long been a product of love and cherish. It deserves devotion. It is given time. Louisianans know the value of doing it slow. Consequently, I grew up intrinsically aware of the worth, nutritionally and palatably, of a home-cooked meal.

Garden (hardworkinghippy)
Garden (hardworkinghippy)

What’s more is that, in Louisiana, food comes from the earth. It’s a state full of food festivals and festivities centered around locally produced food. I grew up knowing the time to buy watermelon or the season for crawfish, and I grew up sharing a table with extended family, all of us licking our fingers clean of spices and sauces. We know how to eat. We know how to cook. And, around the country, the world even (though people don’t realize that Cajun is of Louisiana), our flavors are renown.

All of this is to say that, for me, moving into permaculture, the constant inclusion of legumes as a powerful garden element is nothing short of miraculous. In Louisiana, we are a bean-and-rice eating people. Traditionally, Mondays are for one of our signature dishes: red beans and rice, often with homemade sausage. For New Year’s Day, black-eyed peas (a variety of cowpeas) and cabbage are tradition for bringing in health and wealth in the months to come. We eat beans all the time.

Red beans’n’rice (Jeremy Keith)
Red beans’n’rice (Jeremy Keith)

Cooking Tip #1: Everybody has their own take on how red beans and rice should be done, but by and large, the tradition in Louisiana is to cook the beans, along with what we call the “Holy Trinity” of onions, celery and bell pepper, until they are very soft, creating a sort of thick sauce to pour over rice. If a link of sausage makes its way in there, nobody gets too upset.

Beans & Rice

In my adult life, I’ve spent much of my time in Central America, where beans and rice are also staples. The legume moving onto to pintos and black beans, and the final result often being a mushy mix referred to as refried beans. The point is, undoubtedly, the combination has continued for me, and my appreciation for a bowl of simple legumes (I also like Indian food, with dal taking the bean role) and rice has continually grown.

What I didn’t realize, until I began traveling a lot, was that the majority of the world is not clued into this combination. My wife, a Brit, knew little more than baked beans from a tin, but that’s not to say she didn’t love them. She put them on toast, smothered baked potatoes with them and even ate them for breakfast (all new ideas for me). She also loved rice, but she’d never thought to combine the two.

But, she began to love the duo, just like I do (and I loved her beans on toast and, especially, baked potatoes). Living in Korea, where we met, we ventured into the soybean (tofu) and rice combination. In Guatemala, it was rice and black beans with fresh salsa and guacamole. Life, in other words, seems somewhat incomplete without a pot of legumes bubbling up for dinner, more often than not with a steaming side of rice.

Burritos with corn salad (Jeffreyw)
Burritos with corn salad (Jeffreyw)

Cooking Tip #2: As we’ve lived in Central American, refried beans have become a daily source of food for us. In order to keep them healthy, I like to cook them until they are soft enough to blend. They can then be returned to the pan or pot and reheated with a little oil (Cold-pressed coconut oil makes for something wonderfully different). This goes great in a tortilla with fresh shredded cabbage, homemade salsa, guacamole and rice—a burrito.

A Bouquet of Flours

To the chagrin of many a permaculture practitioner, as well as my friends and family back home, I’ve now been a vegan for several years, the reasons for which we needn’t get into here. Suffice to say, that the result of this dietary choice has made my dependence on legumes as a source of protein equally as great as my pre-existing love for eating them. It has also made me much more keenly aware of how diverse legumes can be.

While beans and rice have long been part of my vernacular, and good bean or pea soup has certainly been no stranger in my kitchens, and tossing them whole and cold into salads a common practice, until very recently, I’d never experimented with legume based flours. They seemed a fringe market thing, an expensive and unnecessary jaunt into a world of cooking that likely would apply to me. But, I’ve been proven wrong.

Firstly, I never buy legume-based flours because I can make them. It’s as easy as putting dried legumes—be them lentils, chickpeas or white beans—in a blender and pulverizing them into flour. From this, a wonderful world of quick soups (split pea!), burgers (black-eyed peas work really well), sausages (lentils on this one), flavorful flatbreads and even omelets (chickpea with a bit of turmeric for color) are possible.

Veggie Burger (Barry Pousman)
Veggie Burger (Barry Pousman)

Cooking Tip #3: When making burgers and sausages from vegetables, one of the things people really strive for is texture. Veggie versions often come out mushy or fall apart. Using flour helps to make them denser, less apt to fall apart, and adding some flax or chia seeds creates a chewier, meatier texture.

It has been a miraculous stroke of good fortune for me, as someone growing in his appreciation of permaculture and self-sustainable food production, that the legume holds a spot of such reverence. I’ve been introduced to new varieties (like the wonderful, perennial pigeon pea), new uses (like chop-and-drop mulching) and new concepts (like nitrogen-fixing soil). Much like my history with legumes as a food, they have come to hold a centerpiece in the heart of any garden design I come up with.

However, what I’ve come to realize as my permaculture chops have progressed is that, far too often, the legume in my patois is being reduced to a gardening prop, a piece of guild puzzle that I’m putting together. In reality, especially with our plant-based diet, legumes are every bit as valuable in the kitchen as they are the garden, and in my opinion, that’s a good way to think about what we are growing: Legumes, one of our biggest crop outputs are integral to our diet.

Barbecue beans (Vegan Feast Catering)
Barbecue beans (Vegan Feast Catering)

Legumes, in all those myriad forms, can be a vine, a bush, a tree, a ground cover and even a root, making the family such a great fixture throughout any kind of system we make. They are similar in the kitchen: Be it bulking up on beans, building burgers or folding flour into bread, legumes easily work into just about any meal we can conjure up. How fortunate are we!

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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