Pulses and grains

Pulses and grains

Antonio Carluccio
16 recipes
Published by
Quadrille Publishing
Laura Edwards

We have already talked about pods and seeds, and in this section we are going to be talking about seeds again, but on the whole those that are used dried rather than fresh. Both pulses and grains produce seeds that are food for human or animal consumption. In fact, many experts call both of these seed-producing plants ‘grain crops’, and they are classified into several types: the cereal grains such as wheat and rye (which are members of the grass family); the pseudo-cereal grains such as buckwheat (no true relation to wheat or other cereal grains); the legume or pulse grains such as beans and peas; and the oilseeds, grains which are grown mostly for their oil, such as rapeseed.

Pulses and grains are among the most ancient of foods. The first crops were thought to have been domesticated around 9,000 BC in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of the Middle East, between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, evidenced by cave and other drawings, archaeological discoveries and grave goods. Because grain needed to be grown, cared for and harvested on a seasonal basis, grain agriculture could probably have led to the first settlements, to the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a settled agricultural society – in other words, the beginnings of civilization. When the fresh grains or pulses were dried, they were able to be stored through the winter, providing nourishment when fresh foods were scarce or non-existent, and they could easily be transported, so they were probably the most valuable of foods.

Also contributing to their value is the fact that both types of crop are very rich in nutrition. Grains, pulses and seeds are packed with all the energy and nutrients needed for the next generation of plants, and so can form the chief source of energy (carbohydrate) for the majority of the world’s population. Although pulses are also rich in protein (thus can take the place of meat for vegetarians), this protein is incomplete, but eating pulses in tandem with grains creates a good nutritional balance.

I would love to do proper research regarding all these foods, but it would take years and years, and for that I would have to live for ever…


Legumes or leguminous plants are a group of vegetable plants that produce pods containing seeds. Some of these seeds are edible fresh, pod and all, before the seed is ripe (runner beans, mangetout or snowpeas); some have seeds that are eaten when podded or shelled (broad beans or fava beans); and some of these seeds are left to mature in the pod and then dried. These latter are what we call pulses, and include dried beans of all types, peas, lentils and chickpeas. Before we start describing them, please remember when cooking any pulse, you should not add salt, as this will toughen their skins. Season to taste only when the pulses are fully cooked.

A poetic naturalist said to me one day that when a small child passes wind, the soul of a bean goes to heaven! Having lived in Germany for many years, I also remember the phrase – which is obviously intended for children – that ‘Jedes Böhnchen gibt ein Tönchen’ (every little bean makes its own sound), referring to the flatulence that many beans cause. Dried beans (fagioli) may be the noisiest of vegetables, but they are also an important part of the Italian diet, because of their high protein, vitamin and mineral content, and their fibre. Every region in Italy has a different dish, made from a different type of bean, whether cannellini, borlotti, fava or broad.

As mentioned in the pods and seeds section, the broad bean (fava) was the original European bean, and it is eaten both fresh and dried. The dried beans, if you can find them without skins (which are tough), are made in Sicily into a purée, maccu; a similar purée in Puglia is delicious with braised wild chicory.

Kidney and other beans were introduced to Italy and the rest of Europe after the discovery of the New World. The family of kidney beans include two that are very popular in Italy, cannellini and borlotti. Both can be found fresh, but are used mostly dried, the latter more popular in the north, the former in the south. Borlotti beans are cooked with brassica veg such as cabbage in filling winter soups, and in the famous pasta e fagioli, which is popular all over Italy. (Borlotti are also known as Saluggia beans, named after a town in Piedmont where they are prolifically grown.) Cannellini beans are also canned and bottled, and are used in a variety of soups, including minestrone, and salads. The Tuscans – known as ‘bean-eaters’ for fairly obvious reasons – cook them in a glass flask, fagioli al fiasco, and in Campania they are used in pasta e fasuli (the Neapolitan word for fagioli), which is celebrated in the song ‘That’s Amore’.

Other kidney beans include the French flageolet, red kidney bean (used in the Texan chili con carne), and butter or lima beans. Most of these dried beans need to be soaked overnight, or for at least 12 hours, before cooking. After draining and rinsing, most of them need to be cooked at a good boil for 10 minutes, then simmered for about an hour until cooked and tender. All kidney beans are good cold in salads.

Soya beans (fagioli di soia) have found their way to the Western dining table relatively late, only in the twentieth century. They are originally from China, where they were grown and eaten as long ago as 1,000 years BC. Soya beans are as near to a complete protein as a vegetable food can be, containing almost as many amino acids as red meat. Available fresh (known as edamame), dried, canned or frozen, soya beans are now one of the world’s largest crops. The dried beans should be soaked overnight, cooked at a good boil for half an hour or so, then simmered for at least a couple of hours until tender. Commercially, soya is used to make many familiar products, such as flour, oil, tofu, TVP (textured vegetable protein) or quorn, and fermented for soy and tamari sauces and the miso paste so popular in Japanese cooking. Italy has become a major producer of soya beans because of its favourable climatic conditions.

Peas (piselli) have been a basic of the human diet since at least the Stone Age, but it was the dried pea that ruled. It was not until the Italians cultivated more tender varieties of pea in the sixteenth century that we grew to appreciate them fresh. We still eat them dried in Italy, though, as they are wonderful in soup, with some prosciutto (not too dissimilar to the English pea and ham soup), with potatoes or spare ribs. Cooked and puréed, they are a wonderful accompaniment to pork and other meat dishes: in Britain a dried pea purée, ‘mushy peas’, accompanies the traditional fish and chips. Dried peas need to be soaked before cooking.

The chickpea (cece) is a pulse native to India, south-west Asia and the Middle East. Also known as Bengal gram, the chickpea is as important in those areas as it is in Italy and Spain. It is almost never seen fresh, but comes from small fat pods containing two to three large seeds, which are dried. After soaking (for 8–24 hours, depending on age), the peas can be braised (for at least 3 hours), then used in a variety of ways. Pasta e ceci is a dish of chickpeas and pasta popular in the north of Italy. In Sardinia, Piedmont and Liguria, chickpeas are ground into flour which is made into a pancakelike flat bread, called farinata or faina (much the same as the socca of Nice). In Sicily you find panelle, which look like fried slices of polenta, but are fritters made with that same chickpea flour. I’ve also used chickpea flour to make gnocchi, which worked well. In the Middle East chickpeas are mashed to a purée, mixed with tahini (sesame seed paste), and made into the popular dip, hummus. Cicerchie, an old-fashioned pulse similar to chickpeas, is known as ‘grass pea’ in English. It is used in parts of Italy in the same way as chickpeas, and is popular in Spain as well. It contains toxins, though, so must be used with care.

The lentil (lenticchia) comes from South Asia, but has been cultivated in the Mediterranean area for at least 10,000 years. Like many other of the pulses, lentils are a winter staple, and a traditional accompaniment to the meats that were preserved for winter, such as bacon and ham, or indeed sausages. Lentils and sausages are popular throughout the north of the country, and in Emilia-Romagna, lentils are classically served with stuffed pigs’ trotters or zampone.

There are various types of lentil: the Puy from France, the Castelluccio from Umbria in Italy, the red (usually split) and others from India and elsewhere in Asia (generically known as dhal). Castelluccio lentils are organically grown, and are very highly valued and priced; they are delicious braised and eaten hot, or cold in salads. Another delicious Italian lentil is the lenticchia de Altamura, from Puglia. Lentils do not need soaking like other pulses, but they do need a thorough wash, as they can be very dusty, and can contain tiny stones.


The word ‘cereal’ comes from Ceres, the Roman goddess of corn. The term ‘cereal grain’ is used to describe any grain – or seed – from a domesticated grass, and includes the Old World cereal grains such as wheat, barley, millet, oats, rye and rice (and buckwheat, although this is not from a grass), and the New World maize and quinoa.

Grains, with wheat (frumento or grano duro) in pole position, are the most important basic foods, and they help to sustain the majority of the world’s population. At one time soldiers were paid in salt and grain, with which they could barter for other goods, or produce bread. And for Italians even today, wheat means bread and, above all, pasta. To produce good pasta, the first necessity is a particular type of wheat, one that grows successfully in Italy (but is now supplied from elsewhere, as Italy cannot supply her own needs): this is commonly known as hard wheat, semolina or durum wheat (Triticum durum, or grano duro). Good pasta needs a hard ‘durum’ flour, because of its gluten content, which prevents the pasta stretching and breaking while it is drying, and also helps the pasta retain texture and flavour during its cooking. For, as you all know, pasta must remain ‘al dente’, with a little resistance to the bite.

Durum wheat was developed from an ancient type of wheat called emmer (T. dicoccum). This is known in Italy as farro, and its popularity has led to the development of another wheat type, known as spelt (T. spelta). Einkorn (T. monococcum) is yet another ancient wheat, known as farro piccolo (little farro) in Italy. Spelt, emmer, einkorn and durum wheat flours are available from good delicatessens, as is soft wheat flour (frumento), made from T. aestivum, which is used for breads and cakes in Italy.

Semolina – ground durum wheat – is also used to make couscous (cuscus), soups and gnocchi (in particular the famous baked gnocchi alla romana). Couscous is not a grain in its own right, but is made from little pellets of semolina. In Morocco, it is steamed to accompany a spicy stew of meat or vegetables; flavoured and coloured with saffron, it is served in Sicily with a fish stew. Fregola, the Sardinian version of couscous, is toasted and served in soups or with fish or meat stews. Bulgur or bulghar, cracked wheat, is not used much in Italy, but it is the centrepiece of the popular Middle Eastern herb and cracked wheat salad, tabbouleh. And yet another wheat product, from the Middle East and North Africa, is freekeh, green wheat grains/seeds which have been roasted: these have a unique smoky flavour.

A special wheat dish made in Campania, especially for Easter, is ‘pastiera di grano’. The whole-wheat grain or berry is cooked in milk until soft and then combined with ricotta, cooked fruit and cinnamon, and baked in a shortcrust pastry shell. At this time, housewives prepare many pastieri to give to friends and relatives for good luck. Wheat berries and flakes are also used for breakfast cereals, which have now been introduced to the Italian diet, as have cereals made from the other familiar grains, rye (segale), barley (orzo), millet (miglio) and oats (avena). None are used much nowadays in Italian cooking, as wheat, maize and rice seem to have taken over.

Being the staple food of most of Asia, rice (riso) is second only to wheat in importance so far as world nutrition is concerned. In Asia, there are various types such as basmati, sticky, glutinous, etc., and in America, Carolina used to produce long-grain rice, as do, to this day, Cajun farmers around New Orleans (also farming crayfish for the local gumbo in the flooded rice paddies). Wild rice, with its nutty black strands, comes from North America as well, a water grass distantly related to Asian rice.

Originally from China, rice has been cultivated mainly in the valley of the River Po in the north of Italy, because there it can enjoy the abundance of water coming from the Alps, which is channelled to the fields on either side of the river right through to the Veneto. The most famous type of rice grown and used in Italy is risotto rice: the best varieties include carnaroli, arborio, roma and vialone nano. These risotto rices have been developed to give the requisite and infinitely desirable creaminess to a finished risotto. (Lesser rice qualities are used for rice pudding, soups and other dishes.)

One rice that I particularly love is a very special one, grown in the province of Vercelli in the Po Valley. Acquarello carnaroli rice is grown exclusively by the Rondolino family, rice growers for many generations. It is a rice that is aged for up to nine years, and it is healthier than other rices as it retains its germ after husking. The family had a wonderful party once: they invited the great chefs of the world – belonging to an exclusive club called ‘chefs of chefs of chefs’ – as well as the great and the good from all over the world, and we were all together, Obama, the Queen, eating risotto in the Po Valley…

Buckwheat (grano saraceno) is not actually a grass like the other cereals, but because it is cultivated for its seeds, it is referred to as a ‘pseudo-cereal’. It comes from Mongolia and has been cultivated for thousands of years; it was brought to Europe by the Moors, which explains its Italian name. A century ago, Russia was the world’s greatest producer of buckwheat, thus the use of buckwheat flour in the famous blinis; the flour is also used in the crêpes of northern France. In Italy, buckwheat flour is used in the making of a special pasta and a coarse polenta. The pasta is called pizzoccheri. Buckwheat is grown in only two areas of Italy, in the Valtellina in Lombardy, and in the Veneto.

Maize (mais or granoturco) came to Europe after the discovery of the Americas. It is a quick-growing grass native to South America, and was a staple food in ancient times. It is still the most widely grown cereal in the Americas today. There are two types of maize (or corn): sweetcorn – corn on the cob, popcorn, baby corn, etc. – and field corn, which is tougher and starchier, used for cornflour, corn oil and animal feed. In Europe we eat it straight from the cob, or as (tinned) sweetcorn kernels; in Italy, we make polenta from corn. Once chestnut flour was made into a sustaining porridge for the poor in the north of Italy; when maize arrived, it replaced the chestnut. Today polenta made from corn is having a revival in good restaurants, where it is served with juicy meat dishes. It can be flavoured with cheese, allowed to set, then sliced and fried as a savoury accompaniment. Maize flour can also be used in cakes and biscuits.

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