Canadian seed saver Dan Jason believes pulses – the edible seeds of plants in the legume family – can save the world.

Pulses are easy to grow, store indefinitely, are simple to prepare, and are nutritionally dense and protein rich. This message is not new. People around the world have been cultivating and consuming pulses for over ten thousand years. And in the early 1970s, Frances Moore Lappe famously advocated for eating more beans (and other meat-free meals) as a way to help the earth in her best-selling “Diet for a Small Planet.”

But in the age of global warming, Jason says it’s a missive that needs to be reiterated. He’s in good company: the United Nations General Assembly designated 2016 as the International Year of the Pulses in recognition of the crucial role they will have to play in a healthy future for the earth and its inhabitants.

In his latest book, “The Power of Pulses,” Jason explains that pulses – such as dried beans, lentils and field peas – all come from plants that leave an ultra-light ecological footprint. They require less water and fewer pesticides to grow than fresh vegetables do. Pulse plants pull nitrogen from the air and convert it to nutrients they need to grow, leaving the soil healthier.

Here they are: the most popular bean (the yellow eye) cooked at Maine church suppers, according to the University of Maine Folklife Center. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

According the USDA, American farmers have increased the amount of pulses they grow from 4.6 billion pounds in 2013 to an estimated 6.3 billion pounds last year, an average yearly increase of about 12 percent But the average American’s consumption of pulses has increased by just 3.5 percent annually, from 6.7 to 7.4 pounds during that same time period. We export more pulses than we eat by far.

Jason says the five pulses that grow best in North America are peas, beans, chickpeas, favas and lentils. I am pushing only the ones easily grown in Maine: dried beans. But Jason’s easy steps on how average eaters can help empower pulses to both heal the earth and nourish its inhabitants still apply.

• As restaurant patrons, order the cheapest thing on the menu. It’s likely the beans. This will encourage more bean-based options in the future.

 Gardeners can grow pulses as a simple, but rewarding, crop that gets planted in late spring in a plot with lots of sun, harvested when your fingernail can no longer make an indentation in the seed, and completely dried in their pods before the pulses are threshed out of them. Finding seed to grow more pulses is as easy as setting aside a few of your favorite dried heirloom beans before you drop their brethren into the pot to cook. (Or you can buy dry beans seeds at Fedco.)

 Consumers can pester grocery store managers to stock shelves with local beans. You have to go only as far as the local Hannaford to find two-pound bags of State of Maine Jacob’s Cattle, Yellow Eye, Soldier and Red Kidney beans grown at Green Thumb Farms in Fryberg. These varieties are used in traditional baked beans (see recipe), but also work well in soups, salads and stews.

Buyers can also pick pound bags up at farmers markets, where a growing number of vendors offer dried local beans at this time of year as a way to earn steady cash during the winter. Or you can mail order them from the Freedom Bean Company in Albion, where Tony and Helene Neves have been growing beans for 40 years. They have hand-picked the varieties they say make the best baked beans (Kenearly Yellow Eye), the best stewed beans (Jacob’s Cattle, especially with venison), best bean hole beans (Marafax), the best bean brownies (Soldier’s. ) and the tastiest bean gravy (Vermont Cranberry).

The options for cooking with beans are as endless as they are interesting, Jason writes. The trick to their ability to save the planet lies in having more people put their fingers on pulses more often.

Maple mustard yellow-eyed beans served on toast and topped with a fried egg. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

DOUBLE MAPLE AND MUSTARD BAKED YELLOW EYE BEANS
According to the University of Maine Folklife Center, the yellow eye is the most popular bean cooked at Maine church suppers because of its clean, mild taste. This recipe is an amalgamation of several recipes I’ve seen in community cookbooks. Since there are always leftovers, serve them for breakfast on toast with or without an egg on top.
Serves 8
1 pound yellow-eye beans
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
1 bay leaf
10 black peppercorns
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup Maine maple syrup
1/4 cup granulated maple sugar
1 tablespoon coarse-grain mustard
1 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 pound thick-sliced smoky bacon, roughly chopped

Sort beans to pick out stones. Soak them in cold water overnight. Drain and rinse the beans.

Place the beans in Dutch oven with 2 quarts water, the onion, bay leaf, peppercorns and vegetable oil. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until just tender, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the age of the beans (older beans take longer). A good test for doneness at this stage is to scoop up several beans in a spoon and blow on them: if the skin starts to peel off, they’re done. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F.

In a small saucepan, whisk together the maple syrup, maple sugar, mustards, ginger, salt and 1 1/2 cups of the reserved bean cooking liquid. Bring to a simmer and cook over medium heat until it thickens slightly, about 5 minutes.

Return the beans and cooked onions to the Dutch oven. Nestle the onions cut side up into the beans. Push half of the bacon pieces into the beans and spread the rest of the bacon on top of the beans. Pour the maple syrup sauce over the beans. Cover the pot and bake for 6 to 8 hours, adding more of the reserved bean cooking liquid, 1/2 cup at a time, if the beans become dry.

Remove the lid for the last 30 minutes to thicken the sauce. Discard the bay leaf before serving hot.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick. Contact her at: [email protected]