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To the river chickpea

I have written and re-written this post at least four times over the last few days. What started as a rant about the non-availability of Australian grown canned beans/pulses has been re-worked and re-written as I tumble over in my brain something a good friend of mine wrote in the comments section of my South American Superfoods post; ‘International food trade needs to be consciously balanced. We want people to buy our wheat, so we need to support foreign trade too…’.

I don’t have the answer to this balancing of foreign food trade. I guess I have kind of come to the conclusion that where products are successfully grown in Australia (i.e. chickpeas), we should be buying the local option where possible, however, if it’s not a product that's grown here (i.e. black beans), then supporting foreign trade is not all bad.

This leads me to the humble chickpea. Surprisingly, kabuli chickpeas are grown in WA’s Ord River region (one of the few successful crops of the Ord River Irrigation Scheme, I believe), as well as a number of other regions in Australia. However finding Australian grown chickpeas has been a challenge. The only canned variety that is a ‘Product of Australia’ (i.e. both grown and packed here) is Edgells. Quite surprisingly, as a lot of their other tinned products are not Australian grown, but I digress. All of the other canned chickpea options I have found (You’ll Love Coles, Annalisa, BioNature) are packed in Italy, either from Italian chickpeas, or other imported product (which may even be Australian, who knows!).

However, Edgell is by far the most expensive product, which grates a bit, as it’s travelled the least distance, and I often rely on beans and pulses for cheaper meal options. So I started investigating dried beans, not really expecting to come up with anything. I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised, the McKenzies brand of chickpeas are Australian grown (as are most of their other dried beans) and can be found in most supermarkets. And, I’ve even found the mysterious WA kabuli chickpeas, sold online via 2 Brothers Foods.

There are a couple of benefits to dried, over canned. They are significantly cheaper – one 375g bag is around $2.10, and equivalent to more than 3 cans of beans once cooked, compared to one can of Edgell’s at $1.70, and even the cheaper brands are still over $1 per tin. There’s a reasonable environmental impact – when you’re buying canned beans (of any kind), a large proportion of the weight is water, at 400g for 1 ½ cups of beans compared to just over 100g of dried beans (to give the same volume once cooked), and there’s the weight of the tin as well. That water still needs to be transported, either across the country, or around the world, using over 4 times the energy as the same end quantity of dried beans. And, I personally think they taste better. Cooked dried chickpeas definitely make the best hummus (and that's what's important, right?

But, obviously canned chickpeas are much more convenient, just open & drain and they’re ready to go, whereas dried ones need longer cooking times and pre-soaking. To combat this, as I mentioned in my Leftover is not a dirty word post, I keep a selection of pre-cooked beans and pulses in the freezer, ready to use. I tend to cook in bulk and freeze whatever I don’t need immediately for times I need the convenience of canned.

There is a bit of a myth out there that dried chickpeas take a very long time to cook – I have seen up to 3 hours quoted in some recipes (!) – but I find they rarely take over an hour if they've been soaked beforehand. If you can remember, soak them over night (or from the morning) in plenty of cold water, with a pinch of bicarb (a Lebanese Tata's trick!). If not, a rapid soak in boiling water an hour or so before you need to start cooking will still knock a bit off the cooking time. After they've been soaked, drain, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil. Once boiling, turn down to a simmer and cook until you can just squash them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue, usually around 45-60 minutes (the size of the ‘peas, and their age can influence the cooking time), then drain & use as you would use canned.

Whatever I don’t need immediately, I cool and divide into cup and a half portions (which are roughly the same quantity as a can) and freeze in snap lock bags. From frozen they can be dropped straight into a soup or stew, or if you need them for a salad or hummus, just let them defrost on the bench or zap them in the microwave for a minute or so. Easy!

And, if you’re looking for something to make with your freshly cooked chickpeas, I love Chickpea and leek soup (from Super Food Ideas magazine), or Morrocan meatballs with chickpeas (from The Sydney Morning Herald), and my sister highly recommends Bill Granger’s Chickpea stew.

Do you ever cook dried beans? Or do you prefer the convenience of canned?