The best way to cook lentils and chickpeas

Dried chickpeas require soaking.
Dried chickpeas require soaking. Photo: Marco Del Grande

I am new to lentils and chickpeas. How do I cook them? P. Nieman

With patience. Legumes are a brilliant source of nutrition, offering twice as much protein as grains, plus a good whack of iron and B vitamins. When you serve grains and legumes together, you are eating a culinary combination that has powered civilisations. Rome marched on fava beans and barley. The Aztecs built pyramids on a volcanic lake thanks to corn and beans, while Chinese emperors led armies fed on fermented soy and rice.

All dried lentils and other legumes (apart from black beans) require soaking. About four hours is enough to begin to soften the skins and rehydrate the interior. Most recipes, however, suggest soaking the legumes overnight. Drain the soaked pulses and cook them in enough water to cover them. Split red lentils could be ready in under 10 minutes, while brown lentils can take 20 minutes. Puy lentils (French green lentils) take longer still.

Bring soaked chickpeas to the boil then simmer, covered, for an hour or so until soft but not mushy. Some varieties, especially larger ones, can take several hours to cook. Add more water when necessary. It takes about 45 minutes to cook chickpeas in a pressure cooker.

Legumes will cook faster in slightly alkaline water and there are many recipes suggesting adding sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to the cooking water. This method will soften the legumes but will leach important nutrition into the water. Conversely, legumes do not soften in acidic conditions, such as in a chilli or curry sauce, so cook them first then add to the dish.

​I have a surplus of bread. What do I do with it? K. Vanturen

Well my friend, you've come to the right place. When I was working with Melbourne baker Phillippa Grogan on her book, Phillippa's Home Baking, we were perfecting the bread recipes for the home kitchen and in doing so ended up with dozens of loaves of bread. To avoid waste, we developed and devoted an entire chapter to cooking with bread.

One of my favourite recipes is to make a savoury bread and butter pudding by simmering four bay leaves, a dozen peppercorns and four cloves of garlic in a litre and a half of milk, cooling, whisking in eight eggs and seasoning. Pour this over 500g of buttered sourdough slices layered in a buttered ovenproof dish and cook at 160C for 45 minutes or until the custard is set. Allow to rest for five minutes. Serve with pork, veal or chicken as the starch dish.

Also consider making a hot panzanella by tearing 500g of two-day-old sourdough bread into pieces, putting the bread, along with 500g chopped tomatoes, 12 basil leaves, three finely chopped garlic cloves and 100ml olive oil into a large bowl, mixing and allowing to rest for several hours before baking in an ovenproof dish as above. I'll have more suggestions next week.

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Letters

J. Martin writes: "I recently made my own mung bean sprouts. I soaked the beans in a large jar. I then drained all the water through a pair of my ex-girlfriend's stockings secured to the jar with an elastic band. Five days later I had bean sprouts, which I added to a stir fry. Every part of this process gave me great pleasure."

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