On Meatless Monday, All Hail the Mighty Chickpea

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No doubt many of us are probably suffering from a slight meat hangover after all those holiday weekend grill-fests. Now that Tuesday's here, it's back to work and time to detox from all that poolside barbecue gorging. May I suggest you embrace the glorious chickpea?

Everyone knows and loves hummus, but the chickpea is capable of much more than just being pulverized into a mere dip. With its nutty flavor and plump kernels that stay firmly al dente when cooked and give way to a creamy, starchy interior, the chickpea is also an excellent source of protein, making it an ideal stand-in for meat.

It's also extremely high in fiber (with a large portion of that being insoluble fiber which is greatly helpful in keeping things, er, chugging along properly). Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, as they're also known, have also been consistently proven to improve blood sugar regulation, and legumes in general are known to reduce overall cholesterol levels. For being so nutrient-dense they're relatively low in fat and calories, with a half-cup serving containing just 250 calories, four grams of fat, 12 grams of fiber and 15 of protein.

Besides being a nutritional powerhouse, these little cream-colored gems are pretty damn tasty, not to mention versatile.

If you're feeling snacky, you can whip up a restaurant-quality super-smooth hummus by removing the skins from your chickpeas. (Drain a can, boil them for a minute or two, then shock them in ice water and the skins will slip off easily.) Whiz them in the food processor with a couple spoonfuls of tahini or peanut butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of salt and a clove of garlic--roasted is nice and cuts down on the halitosis factor--then drizzle in olive oil until the desired consistency is reached. Voila, you saved yourself a few bucks and you can tailor it to your tastes.

Hummus is fine and dandy, but my all-time favorite way to consume the almighty chickpea is via falafel. Falafel is like the exotic vegetarian cousin of the chicken nugget--crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle, tinted green with an abundance of parsley and boldly spiced with cumin. Tasty on its own with some tahini or garlic sauce for dipping, falafel also makes an awesome handheld meal when stuffed into a pita with some tomato, onions and greens and maybe a dollop of tzatziki, or hummus if you wanna go all chickpea-crazy. (Chophouse Burger downtown even has a "Green Burger" that serves up a falafel patty on a bun with all the fixins.)

In addition to being a pillar of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, the chickpea is also a fixture in Indian food, often playing the starring role in vegetarian dishes such as chaat masala. I particularly like the version at Mumtaz in Richardson, and it can usually be found on their bargain-priced lunch buffet, but any Indian restaurant should have a capable version. Or whip up your own version--just substitute a can of chickpeas for the usual animal protein in your favorite curry recipe.

So there you have it. Delicious, nutritious, inexpensive, versatile and user-friendly. Give chickpeas a chance.

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