From Tobacco to Chickpeas

May 7, 2013 in Blog Recipes, Cooking & Baking Hints, Foodland, Mediterranean, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

There’s something warm and fuzzy about the feeling I had when I opened the April 30, 2013 Wall Street Journal article, Hummus Is Conquering America. In this article I learned that Virginia farmers who were accustomed to growing tobacco on their beautiful, fertile ground, are embarking on the growing of chickpeas. Yes, they’re going to give ordinary garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas, ceci beans) a whirl. And the best news of all, they’re not going to try to sell them for smoking fodder. I know the term win-win has been used and over-used, but this public health nutritionist, is happy as a clam. Not growing tobacco – huge win; and growing heart healthy chickpeas is another big win. It’s satisfying and enjoyable to report on trends that Americans are actually adopting more healthy choices.

Certainly, farmers must be driven by the potential financial gains in changing from tobacco to chickpeas, and chickpeas appear to be a pretty lucrative option; but the end result is a sign of some positive trends in American choices. First, is the dramatic shrinking of the demand for tobacco, a result of declining cigarette sales since the 1990s. Of course, I want our farmers to be successful, but in all honesty, I have a bitter feeling in my heart for those who promote tobacco for their financial gain despite the unequivocal evidence of the substantial pain and suffering of consumers and their families.

This past year a record was posted for chickpea production. The U.S. recorded a 51% increase from the previous year (to a total of 332 million pounds). The USDA said that the nation’s chickpea production has grown by 500% in the past decade; not only that, the demand for U.S. chickpeas has also grown in Spain, Turkey and Pakistan.

Presently, the main growing U.S. region is the Pacific Northwest (table 077.xls - mostly Washington State, Idaho, California, Montana and North Dakota); but the goal is to develop a secondary eastern U.S. source of chickpeas in Virginia in case of crop failures in the Pacific Northwest. An eastern source will also reduce shipping costs.

Some significant obstacles will have to be overcome. The high summer humidity in Virginia is the biggest one.  At Virginia State University they are working on developing a variety of chickpea that can be planted earlier, in order to avoid the most humid part of summer, when the fungus Ascochyta is most likely to threaten the chickpea crop.

When demand grows, it drives up prices. The demand seems to be growing by the day and the price for chickpeas has gone from 25 cents a pound during the past decade, to 35 cents this last year. Despite this price increase, chickpeas are still one of nature’s marvelous food bargains.

Hummus is at the base of the rising use and demand for chickpeas in the U.S. Speaking of price, if you enjoy hummus, you may want to make your own. Certainly, Sabra, Athenos and Tribe Mediterranean Foods all make wonderful options; but they are taking the relatively low cost ingredient, chick peas, dressing it up a bit, and making a profit – that is of course how business works. I’m glad that these companies are making these easy to grab food options; but if you’re looking for a way of cutting back on your food budget while giving your family better, fresher tastes, you may want to consider making it yourself. It is really easy; especially if you have a food processor or blender.

I remember when I first served hummus at a family gathering; most of our family did not know what it was. The 18 year olds to ’20-somethings,’ were the ones in the know; probably because they were at gatherings where dips and chips were served. Now most everyone in our family knows about it and enjoys it. And as I’ve reported in past Dr. Grandma Blogs, Dr. Grandpa has even developed preferences for a certain basil-flavored recipe over others.

You don’t need to only use hummus in the traditional ways of the Middle East where it began. There are many ways that they use it, but you may want to get really creative. Try it instead of salad dressing; use it as a sandwich spread or sandwich filling and, of course pita filling. And yes, as a dip with pita chips, or any chips for that matter. You may want to contemplate the use of whole grain chips. Consider using hummus instead of soft or hard cheese on crackers; an easy way to reduce saturated fat and cholesterol. Recently I mixed my homemade basil hummus with chopped egg and used it twice, once for salad dressing and once as a sandwich filling – it was quite yummy. You may want to think of adding tuna. Hmm, that sounds good. I believe I will try that next.

You can garnish your hummus with a variety of ingredients, making it a versatile staple to have on hand. Some ideas for hummus garnish include: chopped cucumber, parsley, cilantro (coriander), diced tomatoes, whole chickpeas, chopped olives, toasted pine nuts, paprika, olive oil sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions. Only be limited by your imagination.

If you decide to use canned chickpeas, try rinsing them to reduce the sodium or buy the no added salt varieties. If you have a pressure cooker you can make them much faster; using dry chickpeas are even less money than the canned ones.

As I’ve told you before, beans, including chickpeas are a wonderful source of complex carbohydrates; protein; dietary fiber and a host of healthy nutrients. When eaten with grain-based bread, crackers and traditional pita, chickpeas serve as a complete protein. Also, tahini a traditional ingredient in hummus recipes is mostly sesame seeds and is an excellent source of the amino acid methionine, which is limited in the chickpeas; so together they provide a complete protein. With so many people declaring gluten intolerance, in addition the increasing needs of vegan and vegetarian diets, chickpeas are an ideal pantry staple.

If chili beans and three bean salad are the only ways that legumes/beans are getting into your diet, you may want to give chickpeas a whirl in your blender or food processor for a nutritious, flavorful taste treat. Hummus may have begun in the Arabic world, but it is taking off around the world, especially in the U.S. – this is a trend that you can join, while improving the nutrition your body needs at the same time.