garbanzos (chickpeas)

What is it? Those little beige orbs scooped up at salad bars go by many names around the world - chana, shimbra, ceci beans. In English, we usually stick with chickpea or garbanzo bean. Whatever we call it, this legume is among one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables, its roots traced to the Middle Eastern region some 7,500 years ago. It sprouts from pods in pairs, like other peas, and provides a base for Indian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cuisines.

What is it good for? Garbanzo beans are a strong nutritional ally for many a vegetarian, providing a low-calorie, nearly fat-free, and totally animal-product-free source of both protein and iron. Just one cup of chickpeas offers 29% of your recommended protein intake and 26% of the iron you require daily. The message: if you need energy, eat falafel. And the energy boost from chickpeas is the slow-burning, longer-lasting kind. Chickpeas also have a low glycemic index and are a great food to add to a diabetic meal plan.

These tiny treats provide nearly half of your daily fill of fibre, which can aid in digestion and help to reduce bad cholesterol. More heart-healthy benefits come from chickpeas' high amounts of folate and magnesium. Anyone's heart could be happy with hummus!

What does it taste like? Garbanzo's modest, low-key taste makes it a versatile addition to lots of different types of dishes. The marble-sized legume has a mildly nutty flavour and a texture that can be starchy, pasty, or quite buttery - depending on the preparation.

And whether dried or canned, they're a snap to prepare. You could puree a cup of chickpeas as a base for a hummus spread, to add to a falafel mix, or to thicken a soup. Stir cooked beans into a Greek-inspired pasta along with feta cheese, olive oil, and your choice of spices. Open up a can, strain off excess liquid, and toss a handful of chickpeas into a salad. Garbanzo beans are also an essential element of Indian curries. For even more variety, roasted chickpeas make a tasty snack, with zest added by flavours like wasabi or chili.

Amy Toffelmire