When I was growing up my idea of what to have for dinner was like many people’s, shaped by what was prepared for me. In fact, it was more than just an idea because once my mother went back to work, my sisters and I were involved in helping to prepare that meal. Our responsibilities were to make a salad and to ready and cook a vegetable and a starch to go with what might be the main course (some meat dish). That notion of a menu was reinforced by a home economics class in junior high school.

When I got my own place, that template for a meal—meat, salad, vegetable, starch—set the stage for the meals of my early adult life.

However, just as the US food pyramid has changed, so has my idea of what could be the entrée for a meal. In my younger days, I don’t remember seeing many legumes as the basis of a main dish. Legumes are defined as a one-celled fruit, which splits along the structure of the single carpel, a pod; that encompasses such familiar edibles as chickpeas, fava beans, black beans, and pinto beans.

My mom did use kidney beans for chili, and often we ate baked beans with hot dogs. And I think, during my teens and early 20s, she made one recipe with lentils on a regular basis, one with kielbasa in it, but we mostly had meat, two vegetables and a starch. 

My approach to a meal these days is different. Part of it has to do with being exposed to recipes from other cultures that feature legumes as their primary source of protein. The other part has to do with how good those recipes taste. I can remember the first time I had felafel, which was in New York City, when I was in my early 20s. They were a revelation to me. Or black bean soup with orange accents, made by a friend from a Sunset magazine cookbook recipe. Or just having hummus.

Another reason to eat vegetable protein is that it is more economical than animal protein to serve, so in these leaner economic times, using legumes helps the pocketbook, too.

Cookbooks like Anna Thomas’s “Vegetarian Epicure” series, Molly Katzen’s “Moosewood” series and many others originally broadened my ideas of what you could do with all vegetables, including legumes. 

Some of my recent “favs” are black bean burgers, curried chickpeas with dosas (a form of Indian pancake), lentil soup, and hummus. 

Before I get to sharing recipes, I want to talk about what causes many people to shy away from lentils or chickpeas or black beans: the gas factor. 

Legumes do have less fat and cholesterol and more fiber and complex carbohydrates, but they also have a molecule (oligosaccharide) that is hard for the intestine to break down.

I had always thought you could use Beano to counteract this, but I learned in researching this article that Beano is not recommended for anyone with diabetes or anyone with a mold allergy. For the diabetic, the active ingredient in Beano can elevate blood sugar levels. And the same ingredient, the web page said, can cause an allergic reaction in someone who is sensitive to mold.

 So is there any other way to deal with the gas factor? Yes, there is. You can presoak dried beans before using them. And then throw out the water they are soaked in—which will remove 70 percent or more of the offending molecules. I found some helpful suggestions on a Mayo Clinic webpage, 

That site said that dried legumes, with the exception of black-eyed peas and lentils, require soaking in room-temperature water, a step that also rehydrates them for more even cooking. After picking through the beans first, discard any discolored or shriveled ones or any foreign matter (like leaves or tiny stones).The site has a variety of presoak methods, so I recommend looking it up. 

Here is the one they suggested for less gas: “Gas-free soak. In a stockpot, place 1 pound of beans in 10 or more cups of boiling water. Boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Then cover and set aside overnight. The next day 75 to 90 percent of the indigestible sugars that cause gas will have dissolved into the soaking water.”

Another site suggested that if you eat beans on a more regular basis, it will allow your intestine to adapt to eating legumes. The same site recommended using bay leaves, a good pinch of cumin, 2 tsp of dried epazote or a 2-inch strip of kombu, which have gas-reducing properties, adding these to the beans when they are cooking (You can get epazote or kombu at Amber Waves or another health food store. Or look in the ethnic food shelves at Stop & Shop, Windfall, or Shaw’s). One final tip I will add here is to not add sugar to bean recipes, which can stress one’s digestion more.

 Please don’t let this deter you from planning a protein-rich, meatless meal. I am including here some recipes that I have made and enjoyed for several years.

Although you can use dried legumes, for most of them, I use canned chickpeas or beans. It is more economical, of course, to soak your own. But if you factor in the cost of your time, I think that it all evens out.

Black Bean Burgers

This is an ideal meal for a work night. You can have it within a half-hour. This recipe from Gourmet magazine (February 2009) “has a Latino flair and is pantry-friendly to boot.”

2 (14-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained, divided 

3 tablespoons mayonnaise 

1⁄3 cup plain dry breadcrumbs 

2 teaspoons ground cumin 

1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled 

¼ teaspoon cayenne 

¼ cup finely chopped cilantro or try fresh basil instead (for those who cannot eat cilantro)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil 

4 soft hamburger buns 

Pulse 1 can beans in a food processor with mayonnaise, breadcrumbs, cumin, oregano, and cayenne until a coarse purée forms. Transfer to a bowl and stir in cilantro and remaining can beans. Form mixture into 4 patties. 

Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Cook burgers until outsides are crisp and lightly browned, turning once, about 5 minutes total. Serve on buns. 

We eat this one at home without the buns and substitute drained plain yogurt for the sour cream.

Accompaniments: sour cream; salsa; lettuce 

Curried Chickpeas with Rava Dosa
(Gourmet 2009)

This is well worth the extra work. Rava dosa is a traditional Indian breakfast pancake or crepe. Again the ingredients are available at Amber Waves, or Whole Foods and in the ethnic sections of many supermarkets.

For masala filling:

1½ pounds Yukon Gold potatoes

13 cup dried grated unsweetened coconut

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 (3-inch) fresh jalapeño, coarsely chopped, including seeds

1 (2½-inch) piece peeled ginger, coarsely chopped

3 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tablespoon curry powder

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon turmeric

13 cup vegetable oil

1¾ cups water, divided

1 large onion, chopped (about 3 cups)

1 (15-to 19-ounces) can chickpeas, rinsed and drained

½ cup frozen peas (do not thaw)

½ cup chopped cilantro

For rava dosas:

½ cup semolina flour

½ cup rice flour

½ cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon cumin seeds

½ teaspoon salt

2 cups water

Vegetable oil for brushing

Make Masala filling: 

Peel potatoes and cut into 1½-inch pieces. Transfer to a bowl and cover with cold water.

Toast coconut in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and wipe out skillet. Toast cumin seeds in skillet over medium heat, shaking skillet frequently, until fragrant and just a shade darker, about 30 seconds. Transfer to another small bowl. Reserve skillet.

Purée jalapeño, ginger, and garlic in a blender with curry powder, cinnamon, turmeric, oil, ¼ cup water, and 1 teaspoon salt until smooth. Transfer purée to skillet and cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until thickened slightly, about 1 minute. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to soften, about 8 minutes.

Drain potatoes, then add to onion mixture with cumin seeds and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are barely tender, about 10 minutes.

Add chickpeas and remaining 1½ cups water, scraping up any brown bits, then briskly simmer, covered, until potatoes are tender, 16 to 20 minutes more. Add peas and cook, covered, until just tender, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in toasted coconut and cilantro.

Make dosas while potatoes cook:

Whisk flours, cumin seeds, salt, and water in a bowl.

Generously brush a 12-inch nonstick skillet with oil and heat over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Pour ½ cup of batter into skillet, swirling until bottom is coated. Cook, undisturbed, until dosa is set and edges are golden, about 2 minutes. Flip using a rubber spatula and cook dosa until the underside is golden in spots, about 1 minute more. Transfer to a plate. Make more dosas with remaining batter, stacking and covering loosely with foil to keep warm. To serve, spoon masala filling into dosas.

Cooks’ note: Masala filling, without coconut and cilantro, can be made 6 hours ahead and chilled. Reheat before stirring in coconut and cilantro.


(adapted from Moosewood Cookbook)

¾ c. dried chickpeas

1½ c. water

Soak chickpeas for 90 minutes in the water.  Drain. Add more water to cover. Bring to a boil, then cook for 1½ hours over low heat until tender. Drain the cooking liquid and save some of it. Set aside to cool.

Using a food processor, take 1 large clove of garlic (or more) and mince it with 18 c. fresh parsley, and one scallion, cut into 1-inch lengths. Put this mixture in the bowl in which you will store or serve the hummus. Then take the cooked chickpeas, juice of 1 lemon, ¾ teaspoon of salt, 13 c. tahini, dash of tamari (optional), a pinch of cayenne and ground black pepper. Mix together in the food processor until it forms a relatively smooth paste. You can add some of the reserved cooking water, if you like a less stiff mixture.

Then combine with the garlic/parsley mixture. Adjust seasoning (more pepper or lemon juice, to taste). 

In addition to serving this with crackers or fresh veggies as a dip, I often use a generous tablespoon on a fresh salad, instead of salad dressing. It adds protein as well as a dressing of sorts to the salad.

Here’s a variation on potato salad:

Lentil-Potato Salad

¾ lb new red potatoes (3 medium)

½ c. cooked lentils

2 TBSP chopped scallions

1 TBSP imitation bacon bits

2 TBSP mayonnaise

2 TBSP plain yogurt

¼ tsp salt

18 tsp pepper

Cook lentils. Cook potatoes in boiling water until tender. Drain and peel if you want to. Slice or cut into chunks.

Toss potatoes, lentils, scallions and bacon bits.

Add mayonnaise, yogurt, salt and pepper.

Serves 4

If you have not been cooking with legumes, or were looking to expand your repertoire of recipes, I hope you will try some of these.