The year 2016 has been designated as the international year of the pulse by the UN General Assembly.
Just what on earth are pulses? You probably eat them often without knowing what they are called.
Pulses are the dried seeds of crops in the legume family. If you still haven’t figured it out, they are dried beans, dried peas, chickpeas and lentils (just to name a few). Heck, one of the staple foods of the Appalachian region is a pulse — pinto beans.
My father often says that when he was a kid they had “beans and taters for dinner” and then “taters and beans for supper” just for variety. (Note: there was no “lunch,” the traditional meals in the south are breakfast, dinner and supper.)
But why would the UN go out of its way to promote dried beans? The answer is simple: nutrition. These crops are highly nutritious, usually high in protein, fiber, micro-nutrients and vitamin B. They’re also usually inexpensive — a much cheaper source of protein than meat.
Despite the pinto bean being a traditional staple food of the region, many people don’t grow dry beans in their garden. Most grow beans for fresh harvesting as green or string beans. While still healthy, those would be classified as a vegetable and not a pulse.
It’s too bad, because growing dry beans can be a great way to fill the pantry for the winter. As with most crops, there’s a lot more variety in the seed catalog than you’ll find at the grocery store. Last year I grew some beans that were given to me by a farmer in New Mexico. These beans, known by the variety “Bolita,” were absolutely delicious — the best dried beans I’ve ever had. I plan to have them in my garden again this year.
It’s not just gardeners getting in on the act. There are some farmers in West Virginia who are growing dried beans.
Tom McConnell, the director of the WV Small Farm Center at WVU Extension grows pinto beans on his farm. We always have some sort of pinto bean dish at the WV Small Farm Conference (last week it was baked beans).
Of course, there are some challenges when growing dry beans in the garden. You plant and grow them just like you would a normal green bean. The difference is how you harvest them. The green beans that we harvest are actually unripe. To harvest them as dried beans (or even just to save the seed) you need to let them mature on the vine. They’ll often change color to a light yellow or tan color, but sometimes could be red or spotted. You can let them go further and completely dry out on the vine as well.
The big challenge is the weather. Once they dry out, any amount of rain can make them sprout in the pod and make them inedible. Once they have ripened, you’ll have to be on weather watch and run out to the garden to pick them before they get wet.
After that, you just shuck them from the pods and let them dry a few weeks before you pack them up for storage. You’ll have tasty beans to savor all through the winter months.