Legumes are an important staple in many cultures -- and it's no wonder, because they are as near to a perfect food as you can find. (Photo by Bob Fila)

From the pinto beans of Mexico to the chickpeas of the Middle East, legumes -- a class of vegetables that includes beans, peas and lentils -- are as near to a perfect food as you can find.

A 1/2-cup portion of legumes, on average, contains at least 20 percent DV (Daily Value, requirement based on a 2,000-calorie diet) for fiber, folate and manganese; 10 percent DV for protein, potassium, iron, magnesium and copper; and 6 to 8 percent DV for selenium and zinc.

Factor in that beans are economical, easy to store for long periods and suit a number of cooking styles, and it's easy to see why they have been such staple fare for years. And modern science reveals even more reasons to love legumes: They have been linked to lower blood cholesterol levels, lower body weight, higher intake of dietary fiber and lower rates of heart disease, hypertension, some types of cancer and diabetes. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that you eat at least three cups of legumes each week. So, what are you waiting for? Dig into legumes with the following helpful hints.

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Cooking up dried legumes

It's easier than you think if you follow these tips:

Rinse and drain dried legumes.

Sort and discard damaged legumes or foreign material, such as rocks.

Use one of these methods to rehydrate:

Quick hot soak: Cover dried legumes with water, boil 2 minutes. Cover pot; soak 1 to 4 hours. Discard soaking water, cover with fresh water and cook.

Overnight cold soak: Cover dried legumes with water; soak overnight, 12 hours or more. Discard soaking water, cover with fresh water and cook.

Yield: About 6 cups from 1 pound dried legumes

How to introduce legumes into your kitchen

Stock your pantry with canned beans for a quick addition to a menu.

Bring home a bag of dried legumes to cook in chili, stews or casseroles.

Toss garbanzo or kidney beans into salads for an earthy, nutritious addition.

Serve edamame as a healthy, delicious appetizer.

Include hummus as a yummy spread on crackers and bread.

Eat hearty bean or split pea soup as a starter or main course.