Chickpeas are humble heroes

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “Southern Living: The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at

Not unlike the stereotypical movie scene where the dowdy librarian takes off her glasses, lets her hair down and becomes a glamorous babe, the humble and affordable chickpea is revealing its sexy side on fashionable menus.

At Valenza restaurant in Brookhaven, chef Matt Swickerath punctuates plates of carpaccio of beef and arugula with a sprinkling of ceci — that’s Italian for chickpea. He says, “They’re a classic Italian ingredient and I like the rustic flavor and texture they add. We want to do honest Italian food here, and the little chickpea is nothing but honest!”

Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, are used in cooking all over the world from the Mediterranean to Mexico and are an important ingredient in African and Indian cuisines.

Food expert Sharon Tyler Herbst defined the chickpea in “The Food Lover’s Companion” as “A round, irregular-shaped, buff colored legume slightly larger than the average pea with a firm texture and mild nut like flavor.” Chickpeas are eaten cold in salads, cooked into stews and soups and even ground into gluten-free flour and used in baking or as a batter in frying.

Chickpeas are the main ingredient in the Mediterranean specialty falafel, which has a satisfying meaty consistency, and are often featured on vegetarian menus. If you like dipping carrots and celery into hummus, you’re eating mashed chickpeas seasoned with lemon juice, garlic and olive oil.

The versatility of the nutritious chickpea was put to a serious taste test at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in California’s Napa Valley. Billed as a “Legume Smack Down,” cookbook authors specializing in a variety of international cuisines including Greek, Indian, Italian and vegetarian cooking presented their favorite bean recipes for an audience to taste.

The winner? The chickpea, of course, for proving it can star in a world of dishes from exotic curries to veggie burgers.

Nutritionally, at 100 calories per half cup, chickpeas are on the go-to list of foods that help lower risk of heart disease and cancer and control blood sugar levels. And because they’re filling without being high in calories, chickpeas are welcome on weight-control diets.

  • They're a good source of protein with 6 grams per half-cup serving.
  • A quarter cup of chickpeas, like other beans and legumes, can be a substitute for an ounce of meat, poultry or fish, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department's My Plate nutrition guidelines.
  • Chickpeas are an excellent source of dietary fiber with 6 grams per half-cup serving.
  • Other chickpea pluses: good source of calcium, iron, folate and zinc.

Salty side note: A half cup of canned chickpeas contains about 300 milligrams of sodium. If you drain and rinse canned beans, you can reduce the sodium content up to 40 percent.