Saturday, September 13, 2008

These little earthy pearls

Recipe: Lentils and Onions

Beans are funny. I can’t say I really love beans - I find them interesting in certain dishes, tasty in others, but I never find myself thinking - ‘God, it’s been too long! I want some beans for dinner!!!’

My appreciation for beans runs more along the lines of:

‘We’ve been eating heavy foods for a few days now, let’s go for something lighter’. This is usually in my husband’s voice.

‘We’ve been spending lots of money on meals, let’s have a cheap one.’ Hmmm, this could be in my husband's voice, too.

‘I forgot to defrost the chicken/lamb/beef I’d wanted to have for dinner, lentils cook quick and easy.’

As I’m learning more about traditional diets, I’ve been fine tuning my approach to these little earthy pearls. I’m not fond of intestinal discomfort, but just figured it came with the territory. I’d tried soaking, adding Kombu (seaweed) to the cooking water, ginger, asafoetida - and honestly none of it really worked. I’ve tried all of the above at one time, and I can say that the results were better than cooking a pot of beans from raw without soaking, but it never completely got rid of the gas.

When I was first introduced to the new/old approach outlined in the cookbook ‘Nourishing Traditions’, I soaked beans overnight with a little lemon juice, added all the amendments listed above, and then cooked them long and slow, six to eight hours. The acid soak and long cooking helps convert anti-nutrients in the raw bean. (For more about the science of perfect bean cooking go to I’m not a scientist, and most of the details of why go in and out of my head fairly quickly.

But, honestly, it was a headache! Soak first in boiling water poured over the beans, add lemon juice. After soaking eight hours, drain, add fresh water, bring to a boil, skim off the scum, and simmer for six hours. Keep skimming off any scum that develops, make sure they don’t stick, make sure the liquid doesn’t boil away. Cook them longer if you can. Change the water a couple of times.

Who has time? I’m fine with learning to plan ahead, but having to be on hand for hours to make sure something doesn’t boil dry or stick to the bottom of the pot and burn is just a bit more ‘back to the old days’ than I’ve got in me. Unless you've got a slow cooker - but we're off the grid, so heating elements are anathema.

I tried a few times. I’d make big batches and freeze a few mason jars full to use in future dishes. I told myself it was workable, for the pleasure of not having to pay for hours after each meal with a bloated belly, and knowing that we were absorbing as much of the nutrients from our food as possible. And it really worked to reduce gas - unless I added a bunch of garlic - but that’s another topic.

I finally realized I was making things much more complicated than needed when I was again researching the science of why, and one of the articles I read casually mentioned that sprouting beans would get rid of the phytates, and create vitamin C and other desirable nutritional changes.

Well, duh. Why was I cooking these things for hours, when I could sprout them and cook them for about 15 minutes or less in most cases?

It works like a dream. Takes a little more planning than before - I soak beans in cold water in a mason jar beginning at least the morning of the day before I plan to cook them. Soak for 6 to 8 hours, then drain. It’s helpful to have a sprouting screen for your jar, but I’ve set them to drain in a colander with a flour sack cloth towel thrown over it, too. Rinse every six to eight hours. By the next afternoon you should see little sprouts poking out. Lentils take less time to sprout, I usually start them the night before rather than the morning before use. At this point they cook extremely quickly, compared to what you’d expect with ‘normal’ practices, and they don’t need the hours of simmering to take care of gas producing elements. You can cook them briefly in stir fries if you like a firmer texture, or cook them longer for a traditional softness, as you would use any bean in a recipe. Flavor’s great.

Funny thing, I’m more excited about eating these beans than before. There’s something about knowing they’re alive and growing before I cook them. A bit akin to the joy of cooking and eating produce fresh from the garden within minutes of picking. The connection to food’s vitality becomes more palpable. I can feel it’s aliveness when I’ve watched it sprout, coming to life before my very eyes.

I’m not sure why there’s so much written about the slower, more labor intensive method. And I’ve found that I don’t really have to plan ahead so precisely if I just put a jar of whatever bean or legume I haven’t cooked for a while to soak and sprout, and when they’re barely sprouted, pop the jar in the fridge, (making sure they go in the fridge after a period of draining rather than after just rinsing or they’ll get slimy). I usually have a couple or three days leeway to cook them, so I can still be bit spontaneous with my meal planning. I’ve prepared lentils, black beans, chick peas, and black eyed peas this way, with great results. And zero gas (unless I’ve put in garlic and onions....).

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the package of kombu, and couple bottles of ground asafoetida I have hanging around now. I’m sure there’s some other use for them.

The recipe is an adaptation (actually combines ideas from two different recipes) from Deborah Madison’s ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone’. For a decidedly non-vegetarian household, I cook from this book a lot. It’s a great resource, over 1400 recipes using vegetarian ingredients, with a lot of info about how to buy, what to look for, etc. I’m characterologically incapable of following a recipe, but I get lots of inspiration from cookbooks, and this is one well worth investing in. You can add meat on the side of almost anything if you like.

Lentils and Onions
gluten free, dairy free (if you don't use the ghee), egg free (if you omit the eggs) salicylate free. NOT low carb.

1 cup (dry measure) french green lentils, slightly sprouted (this will expand to nearly twice the dry measure. Use it all.)
1/4 cup or more extra virgin olive oil, or olive oil and ghee (dairy) mixed (Don’t try to reduce this amount of fat or you’ll lose a lot of the flavor.)
2 - 3 yellow onions, sliced in 1/4 inch thick rounds
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 large bunch chard, washed and sliced in 1/2 inch ribbons
choice of mineral salt and pepper to taste
4 organic, free range hard boiled eggs, (optional) chopped roughly

Boil sprouted lentils until just cooked, 10 - 15 minutes. Drain, reserving some of the cooking liquid.

While the lentils are cooking, fry the onion rounds with a little salt and pepper over medium heat in oil, or oil and ghee mix, until browned, in a wide, heavy bottomed, cast iron or good quality stainless steel pan. Reserve on the side, leaving whatever oil hasn’t been absorbed in the pan.

Adding more oil if needed, add garlic and fry for a minute. Add the chard. Cook until softened. Add lentils and cook briefly to incorporate the flavors, using some of the reserved liquid if necessary. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix half of the fried onions through the dish, and spread the remainder over the top. Scatter the boiled egg over it all.

Serve with basmati rice, preferably cooked with ghee and chicken stock. Nice with toasted sourdough bread, and salad.

Serves four.