As a vegan, most of what I eat is either a fruit, a vegetable, a grain or a pulse. When I was vegetarian, I tended to treat grains and pulses as the supporting act of the meal. The star was usually some kind of dairy-based sauce, or Quorn product. These days every aspect of the meal gets its turn to shine, and whilst the ever-present cliche question of “where do you get your protein?” can be tedious, it’s also quite an important one to have a decent answer for – even though you need only answer to yourself.
Fortunately, grains and pulses are excellent sources of protein, as well as being cheap and healthy. In my first few weeks as a vegan I remember being terrified by the vast array of different types of bean, but I have since come to realise that most beans are interchangable within a recipe, as long as they aren’t crucial to its authenticity (it would not be hummus, for example, without chickpeas).
Beans and Pulses
Dried pulses are cheaper and more nutritious than tinned ones, not to mention more environmentally friendly, but they can be a bit intimidating. It wasn’t until I attended a Beans, Grains and Pulses cooking class that I realised that you should both soak and simmer the larger dried pulses before cooking with them – no wonder my chickpea and kidney bean recipes had been verging on inedible up to that point.
Every pulse requires a slightly different length of time (if you google “how to cook dried ….” you will find many detailed instructions) but as a rule of thumb, soak the beans overnight in three times the water and plenty of space to expand. Then transfer them to a saucepan with the same amount of fresh water, bring to the boil for ten minutes and simmer for between 45 minutes and 3 hours until the beans are soft. If the pulse is smaller than a chickpea and will be cooked in a reasonably liquid recipe, you can skip this preparation stage – red lentils, for instance, need no soaking and cook in fifteen minutes, and brown or green lentils only take about half an hour to cook from dry.
The most obvious grains are wheat and rice – they’re pretty ubiquitous so I won’t dwell on those. Far more interesting are the less common grains, which help to add variety to the vegan diet and have the added bonus of making you seem like a very fancy, accomplished cook without requiring any extra skills or effort!
Pearl barley is one grain that I didn’t come across until my cooking class, where we made the most delicious grain risotto. I am a big fan of rice risottos, such as the one pictured above, but pearl barley has a great texture that’s well suited for a less creamy, tomato-based risotto.
I am shortly to acquire a large quantity of quinoa, which will be my newest ingredient project. I have heard good things about this “supergrain”, which comes up all the time on vegan blogs and in recipe books, so watch out for some new recipes imminently. I’ll be slowly building my grain repertoire; please comment if you have any suggestions or recipes you think I should try!