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In my job as a registered dietitian, I often get asked, “What’s a legume?”

Legumes are a class of vegetables that include beans, peas and lentils. They are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available. Legumes make a great addition to any menu. They are typically low in fat, contain no cholesterol and are high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. They contain beneficial fats and soluble and insoluble fiber. Legumes are a healthy substitute for meat as they are a good source of protein. Try adding more legumes to your diet, use this as a guide.

If you buy dry beans, you can reduce cooking time by up to half by soaking them before cooking. If you are short on time, you can always buy canned, frozen or fresh beans. There are two ways to soak beans.

The leisurely method: Soak beans for at least four hours or overnight in a pot filled with room-temperature water. Use a large enough pot because the beans will expand.

The quick method: Bring water to a boil, and let beans soak in hot water for one to four hours, depending on the type of beans.

Types of legumes

Black beans: Also known as turtle beans, black Spanish beans and Venezuelan beans. Common uses include soups, stews, rice and beans, Mexican dishes and Central and South American cuisine.

Black-eyed peas: Also known as cowpeas, cherry beans, frijoles, China peas and Indian peas. Common uses include salads, casseroles, fritters, bean cakes, curry dishes and Southern dishes with ham and rice.

Chickpeas: Also known as garbanzos, garbanzo beans and ceci beans. Common uses include casseroles, hummus, minestrone soup, Spanish stews and Indian dishes.

Fava beans: Also known as broad beans, faba beans or horse beans. Common uses include stews and side dishes.

Lentils: Common uses include soups, stew, salads, side dishes and Indian dishes.

Lima beans: Also known as butter beans or Madagascar beans. Common uses include succotash, casseroles, soups and salads.

This salsa is a perfect partner for grilled fish or chicken, or use it as a salad.

Black-Eyed Pea and Sweet Corn Salsa

1 cup dried black-eyes peas, picked over and rinsed,

soaked overnight, and drained.

3 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 yellow onion

1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 cup corn kernels

1 tomato, seeded and diced

1 clove garlic, minced

Grated zest and juice of 1 lime

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

In a large saucepan over high heat, combine the peas, water and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover partially, and simmer until the peas are tender, about 45 minutes. Drain the peas, rinse with cool water, drain again, and transfer to a large bowl to cool.

In a large nonstick sauté or frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper and sauté until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the corn, tomato and garlic, and sauté until the tomato is softened and the corn is tender-crisp, about 4 minutes.

Add the corn mixture to the peas along with the lime zest and juice, vinegar, cilantro, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and the pepper. Toss to mix. Serve immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

Makes 8 servings.

Per serving: 112 calories, 6 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams total fat.

Sources: Eatright.org, Mayoclinic.com and the New Mayo Clinic Cookbook

Sandra Bittner is a registered dietitian in the Nutrition Services and Dietetics Department at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse.

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