Counting beans: why 2020 should be the year of the legume

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From fagioli-eating peasants to lentil-loving hippies, legumes have quietly endured – in fact, they’ve been around since before 6000 BCE, filling the plates and bellies of people from cultures as diverse as Greece, Italy, Morocco, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Egypt, Mexico and India.

Yet legumes have often been maligned as bland food for vegans and the down at heel – a cliche that does a disservice to both people and plants. Less than one in three Australians eat them regularly. Some people aren’t even sure what they are, let alone how to cook them. Whether it be for health, the environment, animal ethics or simply tapping into their diverse potential for simple, scrumptious meals, the time has come to shake some more cobwebs off the humble beans and restore them to their rightful glory.

They were so precious to my late Italian mother-in-law that she smuggled dried cannellini beans into Australia in her bra when she migrated to join her husband here in the 1940s. Combined with generous dollops of velvety extra virgin olive oil, hand-crushed from their own trees, and homegrown “scarola” (endive), the beans were transformed into a simple yet exquisitely creamy dish that remains one of my husband’s favourites to this day.

Cannellini beans comprise one of nearly 20,000 different species of legume. The hardy crops grow everywhere except Antarctica, from deserts to plains to the alps. Coming in a vast array of shapes and colours, they sprout as shrubs, vines and even trees. The one thing common to these plants is the fruit they grow in pods that can be split open to reveal the seeds. Edible versions are enjoyed fresh, dried, fermented and processed. Some well-known examples are broad beans, lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, soya beans and lima beans. More bizarre varietals include jack, winged, tongue of fire, rattlesnake, sword and velvet beans.

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