Feeling the Pulse

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The lowly lentil – and its pulse-family brethren – are loved and lauded during the international Year of Pulses.

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 5.45.45 PMGrowing up, we ate a lot of lentils.

My health-conscious, well-meaning, thrifty Seattle mom tucked them into what seemed like every soup or stew she made throughout the 1980s and onward. These stick-to-your-ribs, belly-warming bowls were packed with protein, fiber, and folate and were low in fat. As a child, these were not selling points. Maybe it’s because we had them so often the same way, but I began to see lentils as muddy, mushy, and mostly flavorless.

Lentils are part of the legume family — plants whose fruit is enclosed in a pod. Because they dry naturally on the vine before they’re harvested, lentils are referred to as pulses, a term that refers to the dried seeds of legumes. Dried beans, peas, garbanzo beans — also known as chickpeas — and, of course, lentils, are the most common pulses.

I didn’t know any of that as a girl. And it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It wasn’t until I was living in Eastern Washington as an adult that my perception of the humble lentil changed. is is legume land, where lentils — along with other pulses, such as dried beans and peas — are not only grown but revered.

Each August in Pullman, the National Lentil Festival celebrates a particular pulse. throughout the year, local restaurants — such as Central Food and Ruins in Spokane — spotlight the nutritious and comforting staple, placing mains atop beds of braised lentils and offering house-made hummus platters, among so many other preparations.

Here, in this region of rolling hills and dryland farming, is where I learned to love pulses’ creamy texture and rich, earthy flavor in everything from salads, spreads, and wraps to unexpected places, such as cookies, cakes, and meringues. I even enjoy them in soups and stews now — just not exactly how Mom used to make. (Sorry, Mom!)

No matter in which side of Washington State you live, this is the perfect time to embrace Palouse-grown pulses. The United Nations designated 2016 the International Year of Pulses with the aim of raising worldwide awareness of their health benefits and sustainability, as well as encouraging their use and increasing production and trade.

Truth is, products like pulses could use a little more love and attention. Americans eat only about 7.6 pounds of pulses per person per year, according to the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, a Moscow, Idaho–based nonprofit that promotes dry peas, lentils, and chickpeas in America. at breaks down to 6.3 pounds of dry beans and 1.3 pounds — roughly the amount of four generous hamburger patties — of dry peas and lentils. And that’s far below the one and a half cups per week recommended by the latest set of U.S. dietary guidelines.

“These are crops that have been overlooked by a lot of people,” says Jessie Hunter, director of domestic marketing for the council. “This International Year of Pulses is a chance to really highlight what these crops are and why they are so great.”

First, let’s talk a little about why pulses often go unnoticed. “We have certain foods that are seen as more of a status symbol in western culture,” Hunter says, referring to foods such as steak, lobster, caviar, and high-end cheeses. Pulses — affordable, inexpensive, even — aren’t in that category. And for some, their association with the counter-culture of the 1960s and ‘70s — read: hippies — isn’t a positive connotation.

Plus, the compact little pellets can be confusing. Many home cooks wonder, “What in the world do you do with a bag of dried beans?” Hunter wants them to know: “It’s not as hard as people think.”

Humble yet hearty, pulses, especially lentils and peas, cook up fairly quickly — in about 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the variety. They don’t require soaking like their dry-bean counterparts. And, Hunter says, “They are nutritional powerhouses.” In addition to protein, fiber, and folate, pulses provide minerals such as iron and potassium, and they’re high in antioxidants. They’re also naturally gluten-free, sodium-free, and cholesterol-free.

Simply put, “They’re amazing,” says Denise Breyley, “The Local Forager” for Whole Foods in the Pacific Northwest. “Unfortunately, most people’s experience with lentils — just like you, at an early age or early time — were with lentils that were cooked until they were mushy and just weren’t prepared well. People have all these horror stories about their grandmother’s lentil loaf, and that’s not how lentils are best prepared. Not to take anything away from anyone’s grandmother” — (or Mom!) — “but hopefully things have evolved.”

They certainly have from a production standpoint. Lentil production began on the Palouse, the self-proclaimed “Lentil Capital of the World,” 100 years ago this year. In 1916, J.J. Wagner — a farmer, carpenter and Seventh-day Adventist — was given 5 pounds of the mud-colored legumes by a friend from church. Instead of cooking them, he planted them and, in the dry heat and rich soil of southeastern Washington, they flourished. Other farmers took note. Today, the region produces about 185 million pounds of lentils per year.

“The fact that we grow lentils in the Pacific Northwest is something that most people don’t know about,” Breyley says. “Most of the lentils grown here are consumed internationally. People in other countries eat a lot more lentils than we do.”

According to the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, national pulse production stands at 2.2 to 2.5 billion pounds per year. Together, Washington and Idaho produce about 280 to 285 million pounds of pulses, or about 13 to 15 percent of the country’s total. About 65 percent of them are exported. Most Palouse pulses are shipped overseas to countries such as Spain, Mexico, and India, where these foods are more widely consumed.

Wheat remains king on the non-irrigated Palouse, which includes parts of western Idaho. But planting pulse crops in rotation, Hunter says, “helps improve the quality of the wheat and the soil.” Pulse crops restore nitrogen to fields. And, according to the official website for the International Year of Pulses, they’re among the most sustainable. It takes just 43 gallons of water to produce one pound of pulses, compared with 216 gallons for soybeans and 368 for peanuts.

One of the things that surprised chef and food writer Kim O’Donnel when she moved to Seattle from the East Coast eight years ago was just how accessible regional pulse crops are, particularly at local farmers markets. “It just blew my mind,” says O’Donnel, who frequents the West Seattle Farmers Market. “You don’t have to go to the supermarket to get dried beans. It’s not clear to me how well they’re appreciated by people who either grew up here or now live in this area, but I think it’s amazing. I really do.”

The author of “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook” and “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations,” O’Donnel is working on her third cookbook, this one about vegetarian eating in the Pacific Northwest. Pulses play a big part in the recipes. Recently, she was experimenting with lentil sprouts — as in sprouting her own and incorporating them into recipes. She’s not a vegetarian, but her cookbooks center around this question: How do I make meat eaters like me make more room for plants? “It has always amazed me,” O’Donnel says, “that you have a protein that’s really inexpensive and you can do practically anything to it, and it’s going to be totally delicious. If I thought pulses were really difficult to prepare, I would not be going on and on about them. They’re a quick study. When they’re regionally available, there’s really no excuse not to cook them.”

Jim Hermann says he eats his “fair share.” A third-generation farmer, he cultivates some 2,800 acres on the Palouse with his son Ben. The land has been in their family since 1909. “It’s kind of exciting to be a pulse grower right now,” Hermann says. “They’re promoting a crop that people in other countries have been eating for thousands of years, and people here are just discovering now. The change in the last five years or so, at least to me, has been amazing, and this is before the International Year of Pulses started. I think it’s taking off. I really do.”

Hermann serves on the growers’ board for the USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council. Late last fall, he traveled to New York City for a kick-off event for IYP2016. “I’d never been there before. For somebody like me, it was amazing how chefs are using pulses now; they’re not just for soups anymore. They can really dress up a plate and make it look pretty.”

Chefs from around this region will share their pretty pulse creations at this year’s National Lentil Festival. All pulses — not just lentils — are spotlighted at the event, which includes cooking demonstrations and the chance to meet growers like Hermann.

Breyley will be there, too, emceeing the fest’s ask-the-experts panel. “Lentils are such an unsung food,” she says. And the same could be said for all pulses. “They’re good for you, but beyond that, they taste wonderful, and they’re so versatile.”

Pulses can be roasted, pickled, pureed, milled into high-protein our, whipped into smoothies, and formed into fritters, falafels, and patties. They can be used as a meat extender, a meat substitute, egg replacement, emulsifier, and stabilizer. Stuff them into squash, peppers, enchiladas, and hand-pies. Add them to lasagna, quiche, nachos, and guacamole. Put them into cakes, cookies, pancakes, muffins, breads, and brownies.

When Breyley cooks with them, however, she always makes them the star of the show. “I believe that foods like lentils are amazing as the centerpiece of a dish,” she says. “The key is to pair them with other delicious ingredients and flavors. Rather than hiding them, they should be highlighted.”

For more information, visit pulse.org, iyp2016.org, and pea-lentil.com.

Seattle native Adriana Janovich now lives in Spokane, where she writes about restaurants, food, and cocktails.


Recipe from Sylvia Fountaine, Feasting At Home

Serves 4 | 25 minutes

For the lentils

1 cup caviar black or pardina brown lentils
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt to taste

For the sauce

2 tablespoons tahini paste
3 tablespoons warm water
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 to 2 garlic cloves finely minced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
cracked pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon Sriracha sauce

For the wraps

1 1/2 cups shredded cabbage
1 1/2 cups shredded carrots
3 cups chopped cilantro and scallions
1/2 avocado, sliced (optional)
2 tablespoons toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds (optional)
4 (12-inch) tortillas, warmed


Cook lentils in a pot of water until cooked al dente. Drain well and season with cumin, coriander, olive oil, and salt to taste.

While lentils are cooking, make tahini sauce. In a small bowl, using a fork or tiny whisk, mix tahini paste, warm water, lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, and Sriracha sauce, until creamy.

Prep all veggies.

When ready to make wraps, heat tortillas over a gas stovetop, set to medium, flipping and turning frequently until tortillas are warm and pliable (or toast in a toaster oven). Do not over-toast, or they will become tough and hard to roll.

Divide lentils, cilantro, scallions, cabbage, carrots, avocado and seeds if you choose, among the tortillas and roll up like a small burrito. Cut in half at a diagonal. Serve with the spicy tahini sauce on the side, spooning it in as you eat.


Berbere Chicken with Ethiopian Lentils

Recipe from Sylvia Fountaine, Feasting At Home

Serves 6 | active time 15 minutes, total time 45 minutes

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 1.31.05 PMLentils

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups diced onions
1 cup diced carrots
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
2–3 tablespoons Berbere Spice Mix (recipe below)
1 cup French green, indigo, or beluga caviar lentils (do not use a split lentil)
1 cup diced tomato
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups water
fresh Italian parsley for garnish


6 chicken thighs (skin on)
kosher salt
ground black pepper
2–3 tablespoons Berbere Spice Mix
olive oil

Berbere Spice Mix

3 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes, ground plus more for extra spiciness
2 teaspoons cumin seeds or powder cumin
1 teaspoon coriander seeds (or powder)
1 teaspoon cardamom powder (or seeds, shell off)
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds (or powder)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns (or freshly ground)
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon


Preheat oven to 400°F.

In a heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven, add olive oil and saute diced onion, carrots, garlic, and ginger until tender, about 5–7 minutes. Add 2–3 tablespoons Berbere Spice Mix and saute 2–3 minutes. Add lentils, diced tomatoes, salt, and water. Bring to a boil, cover, turn heat to low, and cook until al dente, about 30 minutes.

Pat chicken dry. Salt and pepper all sides. Generously rub each piece with Berbere Spice Mix.

Heat oil in a heavy-bottom skillet on medium-high heat. Place chicken skin-side down and sear until it is crispy and golden, about 6–8 minutes. Turn over, and turn heat down to medium, searing for 2–3 minutes. Place the skillet of chicken in a 400°F oven until the chicken’s internal temperature reaches 165°F (10–15 minutes).

Serve chicken over a bed of the Ethiopian lentils and garnish with fresh Italian parsley.

If using whole seeds, lightly toast them in a skillet on the stovetop for 2–3 minutes. Then grind them using a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Remember to crush or grind the red pepper flakes.

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