There was a time in my life when I lived with friends in an old farmhouse in the country, with chickens in the yard, a big vegetable garden, and lots of cats. During the week, we drove into the city for jobs or school, but come the weekend, we were back-to-the-landers in plaid shirts and work boots, often congregating in the big homey kitchen at some point in the day to cook a communal meal. A rosy picture, I know, but those are my memories. Our little hippie commune worked out pretty well for awhile.
We were all interested in healthy food, and made a lot of beans and brown rice. Unlike now, when new and wonderful cookbooks come out every day, there weren’t as many recipe books to choose from. I mostly remember the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, The Tasajara Bread Book, Diet for a Small Planet, and the Moosewood Cookbook, by Mollie Katzen. We cooked a lot from the Moosewood.
You could say the measure of wealth is not how many cars you have in your driveway, or how many holidays you take each year, but whether you have a batch of home-made soup in your refrigerator at the beginning of the week. Right now I’m thinking of minestrone, that thick, substantial Italian vegetable soup that will keep you going in good health for several days. We should all be so lucky.
Minestrone is something you make when you have plenty of time and want to enjoy the process. It starts out slow and quiet with a pot of simmering white beans. As they are turning soft and creamy, you take a soup pot and start to build your vegetable base, sautéing onions, garlic, carrot and celery in plenty of olive oil and bacon drippings, should you go for bacon, then adding more layers of flavour with zucchini, green beans and potatoes, cabbage, kale, tomatoes and broth. All this goodness simmers for awhile before the cooked beans go in, half of them puréed to give body to the soup. For the grande finale, the soup is served with plenty of Parmesan cheese.
Unless you were sleeping over the New Year, you will know that 2016 is International Year of Pulses. This piece of news might have struck you as slightly hilarious. With such serious issues facing humankind – climate change, the refugee crisis, Donald Trump – the United Nations dedicates an entire year to the celebration of lentils, chick peas, dried beans and peas?
It’s actually not so crazy. First off, these humble members of the legume family are nutritious – full of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals – and low in fat. They can help manage diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. They’re also inexpensive and contribute to environmental sustainability. According to Pulse Canada, the national industry association and a big player in this special year’s events, pulses have a low carbon footprint, they improve the sustainability of cropping systems, and they use half the non-renewable energy inputs of other crops.
I lived for awhile in Penang, Malaysia, where the mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian cuisines makes for some fantastic eating. The food at road-side stalls, known as hawker food, was so delicious, inexpensive and safe, we hardly ever cooked at home. Compared to our bland Western diet, it was hot, pungent, fragrant, sweet, salty, sour, tangy, an explosion of flavour in the mouth. I loved all that but loved it even more if there was coconut milk involved, its creamy sweetness balancing the heat. Fresh-pressed from the coconuts that grew all around, it took food from heavenly to sublime. Just thinking about it makes me want to go back.
Ok, we’ve had our fun with summer food. The weather is turning cool and it’s time to pay a bit more attention to what we eat. It’s time to talk lentils.
You’ve heard the drill: Whether brown, green or orange, lentils are full of vitamins and fibre, and contain high levels of iron and fat-free protein. They lower cholesterol, stabilize blood sugar, and contribute to heart health. We should be eating mountains of them, but let’s face it, unless they’re dressed up with lots of flavour, lentils can be a bit of a slog.