"While essentially bland, , they soak up other flavours and form a lovely, starchy counterpoint to spices, salty meats or earthy greens."
Nikki Duffy - River Cottage A-Z
As part of my 'lurking in the back of the cupboard theme' I thought to write about beans, peas and lentils - legumes - which led me to ponder on why I don't eat more of them. In the back of my cupboard and in my 'reserve' drawer I have various packets of various dried legumes, not to mention the tins which are more to the front and therefore more often used. In fact, is it just that the dried ones are more out of sight - 'out of sight and out of mind'? Maybe I should have a smaller pantry?
Why don't I eat them though? I actually really quite like legumes, to use the blanket term for the apparently over 20,000 different species that exist in the world today. And no I don't have 20,000 varieties in my cupboard, but I do have maybe around ten. And some of them are expensive 'gourmet' puy lentils no less. So why don't I use them?
I guess it could be an image problem - dread-locked hippies, peasants and farting is an old image, that is now probably replaced by images of 'holier than thou' proselytising heath faddists. Although let it be said that their virtues are frequently pushed by the trendiest of celebrity chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi amongst them. And their virtues are huge. They re one of the most nutritious foods that you can eat, they don't go off, and let's face it, peasant food is fashionable - and has been since the days of Elizabeth David.
The old excuse of them being too much bother - you had to soak them overnight, and then cook them for ages is no longer really relevant either as there are so many varieties now available in tins or jars. Besides you don't really need to soak lentils at all. A quick rinse will do. And for both the soaking and the long cooking, it's really just a matter of planning. But then I guess, that most of us don't plan our meals much in advance do we? We think about what we're going to cook just before we go to cook it, which doesn't leave much room for long slow cooking. I suppose there are always pressure cookers, but I have never owned one and never intend to either.
So do you need to use the dried ones? One of the 'kings' of legumes, Yotam Ottolenghi, is practical.
"In the tinned versus dried beans debate, I go for the former to save time, but only when they are going to get a long cook with other ingredients – in a soup or stew, for example. But when flavour and texture are called for, I always go for dried." Yotam Ottolenghi
Generally speaking the foodies go for the dried version. Almost all of them think they have more flavour and texture and they also seem to think they are more versatile in a way:
"Principally, with a dried bean, you’re sticking your oar in more often, making more interventions at each stage of the cycle, and each one can, if that’s your game, make it more delicious." Zoe Williams - The Guardian
The older and larger the bean, the longer the soaking and cooking time required. But nobody says longer than overnight, and how hard is that? You just need to think about it. Ditto for the cooking - it's not more work than a quick stir-fry, it just needs you start earlier and then forget about it. There are tips and tricks out there to speed up the process - bring to the boil and then start again for one, with another version being to:
"quick-soak, freeze, thaw – that breaks down the tough wall that older beans develop, but here you have to ask yourself some questions about your bean footprint." Zoe Williams - The Guardian
Because that's the other thing about eating legumes - the ecological benefits - cheaper to produce, they do not produce greenhouse gases and moreover they are extremely beneficial to the soil when used in crop rotation as they put back nitrogen. Not to mention that if we all ate more legumes and less meat there would be fewer animals emitting those greenhouse gases, destroying the soil and consuming food that could otherwise feed people.
Indeed the other thing that started me on this post was that last night I had one of those few opportunities to watch a foodie program and there was the River Cottage guy about to kill some chickens. I couldn't watch - which shows what a hypocrite I am. Deep down I would like to be a vegetarian I think - for the ecological and humanitarian reasons mostly, but I do like meat and fish and really find it hard to leave it out altogether. I enjoy very much a few vegetarian dishes as a main dish, but many others seem to lack that certain something that meat gives to a meal. I'll find myself planning a vegetarian meal but at the last moment I'll add a bit of ham or bacon. So I think the best I can do, this late in my life is vow to have at least one vegetarian meal per week, and one legume based meal too. Plus one fish - which somehow seems better than eating meat from a sustainability and humanitarian point of view, although it isn't at all really.
And legumes are so very versatile. Anything you can do with meat you can sort of do with legumes. And they can certainly stand in for your carbohydrate quota of potatoes, rice or pasta, etc. But they have protein too, which is why if you are a vegetarian you will need to eat them on a very regular basis. Below are a few pictures to show how tempting they can be in a purely vegetarian sense. From left to right, top to bottom: Lebanese dirty rice, garlic and chilli baked beans, veggie burger, spicy red hummus, roasted tomato and chick pea curry with coconut and coriander, honey fennel carrots with chick peas, falafel, minestrone soup, pasta e fagioli and hummus.
The pictures are all of purely vegetarian dishes, but the dried legumes can also add to a myriad of meat and fish dishes too. There are literally thousands of recipes out there.
So why, why, why don't I eat them? I will seriously try to eat them at least once a week - but I'm willing to bet I don't keep that vow up. I'd feel really good if I did at last use some of those things lurking in the back of the cupboard though. Apparently if they are really, really, old - and some of mine are, no amount of soaking and slow cooking will make them tender, but really, really old actually means more years than you might think. Some say twenty! Or maybe even really old beans will sprout if you soak them and try to grow them in a sunny window? Maybe that's wishful thinking too but I could give it a go. Or maybe, if all else fails, you could grind them into flour?
"I think dried beans in general are a security blanket. They give you a veneer of self-sufficiency. Who needs manufacturing and cold storage when you have agrarian-era skills and a big bag of beans?" Zoe Williams - The Guardian
I'm adding this sort of recipe from Zoe Williams' article. It sounded really tempting as a way to cook chick peas and then have them as a sort of store cupboard - well freezer - item in themselves. First of all you soak your chick peas overnight with a teaspoon each of salt and bicarbonate of soda - well some anyway - you maybe don't need a whole teaspoon.
"Returning the next day to your Wolfert-soaking chickpeas, rinse them and put them in a clay pot with 60ml of olive oil, a bay leaf, a grated onion and water to cover. Something truly peculiar happens to the onion: it dissolves to make a thick sauce and, unless you had made it yourself, Rumpelstiltskin could lock you in a room for a year and you wouldn’t be able to say what it was. Seal the pot with flour and water. Cook on a very low heat (130C/110C fan/250F/gas mark ½) for three hours. You could eat these for ever. You could add different things (chilli sauce in the morning, feta in the afternoon, a poached egg at night) and have them for every meal, then also as snacks."