Jason Wessel

Gracie's Soft-Cooked Hen Egg served Over Lentils Du Puy, pork belly, fennel, and curly endive.

Taking the Pulse of Innovation

Dried legumes gain menu frequency and favor with diners.

The United Nations has designated 2016 the Year of Pulses, but restaurateurs could have told you that this category—which includes beans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils—has been growing in menu frequency and consumer acceptance.

The reasons are many: Pulses are gluten-free, packed with nutrients, cheaper than other proteins like meat and seafood, good for the planet (helping to replenish nitrogen in the soil), easy to prepare, and incredibly versatile.

Matt Varga, executive chef at Gracie’s, a fine-dining restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, likes to use pulses in the winter, when less fresh produce is available. “At this time of year, food is a little more heavy, and beans, lentils, and chickpeas are soul-warming foods,” he says. This winter he served a soft-cooked hen egg over lentils du puy, pork belly, fennel, and curly endive. 

At Gracie’s, lentils were toasted and cooked with aromatic vegetables and stock, then glazed with butter. And the pièce de résistance: Spanish octopus served with crispy chickpeas, cooked until soft then fried until crispy, and garlic hummus that’s passed through a chinois then aerated via an iSi canister. “It’s velvety smooth and as light as air,” Chef Varga says. “With the crunchy chickpea nuts and the hummus, it is light and delicate, crispy and crunchy. It pairs nicely with the charred octopus and a vinaigrette of lemon and caper, fresh parsley, and pequillo peppers, roasted cauliflower, and herbs.”

Varga also uses pulses to make his own flour. He blends dried chickpeas or lentils with liquid nitrogen then puts them through the food processor. He uses the chickpea flour to make chickpea fritters and the lentil flour to thicken soups. “It gives it a nice viscosity and a nutty flavor,” he says.

Pulses also sync well with current trends, like the movement to less-processed foods, says Helen Lundell, a consultant with The Hartman Group in Bellevue, Washington. “They’re nutrient-dense and fit with consumers’ desire to consume less meat.” Plus, says Nancy Childs, professor of food marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, pulses tend to be relatively bland, so they can easily be combined with other ingredients in many ways. 

The Big 4 Restaurant at The Scarlet Huntington Hotel in San Francisco uses pulses regularly. It serves pan-seared local sand dab fillets with Yukon Gold potatoes, romano or butter beans, a citrus salad, and tartar sauce. The beans are cooked with a bayleaf “and help support the fish, whereas rice or potatoes [alone] would be lost,” says Mark Gleason, director of food and beverage. There’s a great contrast between the creaminess of the beans, the seared fish, and the tanginess of the tartar. There are no downsides, he says. “They're nutritious, easy to keep on hand, chefs can play around with them, and they’re very versatile."