Legumes serve a dual purpose in any vegan kitchen:
1. A nutritional must: Making sure you get enough protein
Legumes are a valuable source of protein. Non-vegans usually get their proteins from consuming meat, dairy products and eggs. For a vegan, eating a variety of legumes can supply your body with the same amount of proteins it needs to function properly.
From the nutritional standpoint, it is also advisable to consume legumes with cereals, as they complement each other with different kinds of proteins. Hurray to Hummus in Pita bread, chili served on couscous, and Majadra (lentils and rice), just to name a few of these beneficial combos.
In the 2nd step of my 3 Steps Vegan Dinner you can replace the vegatables with legumes to serve a protein-rich dinner.
2. A versatile cooking ingredient
As a cooking ingredient legumes lend themselves to a variety of cooking ways, which always makes the cook smile from enjoying so many degrees of freedom. From cooking in liquid like in chili, to minced and mixed with mushrooms and nuts for a great minced meat substitute in veggie burger, to ground to a paste in a delicious spread like Hummus.
Members of the legume family
Here are the ones that I frequently use in cooking on a daily basis.
Beans - The legume richest in protein.
String beans (Snap beans, Green beans)
Chickpeas (Garbanzo beans, Hummus)
I know, I know, quinoa isn't a legume, but it has a very similar role in the vegan kitchen and is just as good as a source for protein.
Mash, Soybeans and more - members of the legumes family which I use less frequently.
Just like carbs, these six kinds of legumes actually represent doezens of different potential recipes. If you make sure to always have them present in your pantry (or in your freezer), It will make your life much easier..
You can keep legumes in your kitchen in 3 forms, each with its practical and nutritional pros and cons:
As the fresh variety retains all the nutritional values, it is usually the recommended form. However, cooking fresh legumes requires that you first soak them in water for periods of an hour upwards to 12 hours, and even more. For some legumes, like beans, it also means long cooking times, 2-3 hours, to get them soft enough to be comfortably edible.
Once cooked, the legumes can be used in making more elaborate dishes, and they can also be frozen for later use, shortening the eventual cooking time. Make sure to divide it into small portions so you can defrost only the amount you need for todays cooking.
A friend who is a food engineer mentioned that commercially frozen legumes, and vegetables, retain more nutrients than the home-frozen kind. The flash freezing method used in the food industry preserves more nutrients than home freezing and is less susceptible to the natural degradation that occurs as your fresh product waits on the shelf (in the supermarket and in your pantry) for its turn to get cooked.
Today you can also find frozen legumes that have already been cooked, which give you both the nutritional benefits, and add the bonus of reducing the cooking time of the dish you are making.
These usually come cooked and sometimes even seasoned. Although I am reluctant to use the canned variety, I do keep a can or two at hand, as sometimes having food ready quickly is the only relevant consideration.
The best practice I can offer from my own experience is to have legumes always available in all three forms:
When I have the luxury of time to plan and prepare, I always go for the fresh variety, as I find it makes for the richest taste in the dishes I prepare.
When preparation time starts to be a factor, or when I make a last minute decision to add legumes, like in soup, I'll go with the frozen form.
And when I have a hungry person hovering around the kitchen anxiously waiting to be fed, you bet I crack open a can and make haste in putting the food on the table :-)