Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Quickened Pulse

"After the sugar snow had gone, spring came." - Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

By the end of February the plum trees were twirling their skirts while the cherry trees ironed their frocks for an early March debut. The winds coming up from the south kicked up the Sound, and white-capped waves, a relative rarity, smashed themselves against the rocks lining the path where I walk the dog. The air, the water, and the plants filled with life and the birds were singing about nests and the joys of flying on windy days.

March was a long month of tumultuous weather, in like a lion, out like a, well, lion, but a really wet, sulky one. If I hadn't been outside every day, I would have missed those tiny signs the plants hang from their leaves, missed the sage-blue unfurling of the buds on the long red arms of the bushes by the water. The Passover Seder, the Easter Brunch, the birth of new babies were all social confirmations of the seasonal shift, and meals moved away from slow-roasts and long-braises to grilling outside and shivery picnics on the beach.

All this walking with the dog, all this watching the budding world stretch and yawn and wake around us, has given me time to think. Most of this thinking is about work, of course. And about the various “isms” I encounter daily in the kitchen – racism, sexism, and alcoholism are the Big Three, and each are perfectly juicy topics for a clog-blog.

But instead, I’m going to continue my legume thrill-ride with a few words about lentils.

I think I was reading a David Lodge novel the first time I came across the word “pulse” as a descriptor for a dried legume. He described the jars filled with pulses along a kitchen counter….this may have actually been in an Elizabeth George, and it’s possible that it was Inspector Lynley who noticed the jarred pulses…no matter. When I came across the word used in that sense, I figured it out based on context cues and a suspicion that the British were just using a different word. But it isn't just the British, and it isn't limited to lentils.

The list of pulses used by the Food and Agricultural Organization includes some of the usual suspects – black eyed peas, pigeon peas, lentils, kidney beans, to name a few – and the more obscure, like vetch. Vetch is one of those pulses used solely for forage and green manure these days as it isn't quite digestible for non-ruminants – basically, vetch comes to the table at the end of a very long winter, when every other extremity is exhausted. Should someone serve you a salad made with vetch and nettles, you should make sure you have water and batteries put by. 

Lentils and a few other legumes have been cultivated by humans for thousands and thousands of years. I've written before about the ways in which legumes and humans seem to have co-evolved, and lentils are a great example. Anyone who has read The Clan of the Cave Bear can imagine Ayla cooking up a pot of lentils du puy to go with her ash-roasted ptarmigan, foraged greens and rosehip compote. 

Another surprising fact about lentils is that the name comes from the shape of the pulse – a lentil looks like a lens. I would have guessed the name came from some derivative of Lent, as the legume is a humble food that supplies a lot of protein, perfect for the long haul between Fat Tuesday and Easter Sunday when some of those given to Lenten sacrifice forgo meat.  

When Escoffier writes about lentils in the Gastronomique, you can sense the exclamation points as he raves about the small legume’s big nutritional whallop, and his dry wit comes through when he goes on to say: 

“If lentils are soaked for too long, they begin to germinate, which renders them, if not actually poisonous, at least more difficult to digest.”

That guy. LMAO.

The different kinds of lentils around the world range from the red to the black, the yellow to green, but they all resemble pebbles and gravel, not seeds. Hard coats and bright colors, the shiny black beluga, the slightly mottled green lentil. It's easy to imagine the red and yellow lentils on the shelves in the aquarium section at the PetCo, easy to imagine the darker varieties pulled from the bed of a country stream.

We prepare black lentils at work, starting with tiny cubes of bacon, onion and carrot, adding the legumes, adding stock, and cooking over medium heat until tender. Salt, a splash of sherry vinegar, and a capful of Worcestershire™ sauce finish them off and they are served with either duck or salmon. One of the funny things about lentils, and I mean really hilarious, is their relatively short cooking time – white beans take half a year to cook, but lentils are a brisk fire – about 20 minutes or they turn into dimpled, muddy mush.

April in Seattle is still pretty chilly, so there’s room for a hot dish like lentils-n-kale in a repertoire of salads, tacos, and pastas. And, hey, let’s leave the bacon out, give the pig a break, and still feel satisfied.

Spring Sweater Lentils:
1 c small dice leeks, whites only, rinsed thoroughly
1 c small dice carrot
1 generous knuckle of butter
3 c black lentils
2 qt cooking liquid, maybe a little more
Salt, pepper, splash of vinegar

For the kale:
One bunch Lacinato kale, rinsed and chopped roughly, butter (or olive oil), garlic, a splash of white wine or whatever you’re drinking while you cook.

For the denouement:
Fried eggs, some large-crystal salt, perhaps a couple shavings of Parmesan or Reggiano. Also a hunk of warm crusty bread, some butter and the usual table accouterments: salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper.

In a large sauce pan, start the leeks and carrots in butter over medium-low heat. When the leeks are soft and beginning to caramelize, add the lentils and stir them around for a couple minutes before adding the stock. Add liquid and turn the heat up slightly. Cook very close to a boil for 20 minutes, test for doneness, add liquid as needed. Wait until the end before seasoning.

When the lentils are about six minutes out, sauté the kale with minced garlic, deglaze, set aside. In this sauté pan or another, start frying eggs. Get the table set, shave the cheese, warm the bowls, warm the bread. Get the eggs off the heat. Taste lentils, correct, taste. You want some liquid in the lentils.

In a warmed bowl, spoon up some lentils, nestle in some kale, top with a fried egg, finish with salt and cheese shavings. Serve immediately. Serves between four and six.

This dish is cozy and comforting, but also evocative of tiny hamlets in the northern Italian alps. 

Up here, we’re still three months away from the scorching summer days of 72 degrees, so bundle up, wear your sunscreen, and enjoy your meals in shared company. 

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