Local Lentils

rashleigh combine lentils

courtesy of the Peninsula News Review

Until recently, I had never cooked with lentils.  I’d eaten them a few times – travelling in Europe, at a local restaurant that specializes in Moroccan style food, in a casserole at a pot luck dinner once.  I associated them with Middle Eastern cooking, vegetarian food, and “healthy” diets.  I most certainly did not think of them as an option for a locavore in southern BC, nor for an enthusiastically omnivorous family.

So when a local farmer who I’ve known since high school put a sign on his road frontage advertising “Lentils – $2/lb”, I was taken aback, to say the least.  And not just for all the aforementioned reasons, but because Bryce, who I’ve known since high school, grew up on a conventional beef/dairy farm, large by local standards, and when he eventually took it over, phased out the dairy operation, bought a bunch of John Deeres and associated gadgets and got busy building a busy tractor service – hay, cultivating, brush cutting, whatever.  He was to my mind a classic meat eating big ag kind of guy.

There were clues that I might be type casting him too narrowly; the family farm, which he’d co-inherited with his siblings, had to be sold to pay out the non-farming ones, and he bought a 5 acre parcel with a nice house and a stunning view – but which was, after his 170 acre place, pretty small for a meat eating big ag kind of guy.  It didn’t take long for him to build a tractor servicing shed (green), and the big field that comprised most of his property seemed to function mainly as a tractor display case in the beginning.  But pretty soon a few A frame structures appeared, with electric netting around him, and it became obvious that he’d branched into pastured turkeys.  And then his son, away at ag college in Alberta, came home with a friend, excited about a combine harvester he thought the farm should buy.

Now, you have to understand that here on the Island, we have a tiny resurgence of grain growing going on, but I mean tiny.  Not the kind of producton level that I would have thought needs a Prairies sized piece of equipment.  But tractor equipment being for Bryce what motor cars were for Toad (Wind in the Willows), it didn’t take much to convince him to head back to Alberta with his son and friend to visit the friend’s family operation.  He was hooked.  He and Pete helped with the harvest there to learn how to operate the combine, and then they brought it home – an odyssey in itself as it barely conforms to the maximum width that can go on the road – the tunnels and passes through the Rockies were something else, I’m told.  They also packed some lentil seed inside the machine, safe from the snow and weather – a crop the Alberta family had convinced Bryce to try.

Bryce worked up his pasture and sowed some seed, which grew easily, and harvested it with his new combine. As part of the learning curve he had to invest in a cleaning and grading machine, but by then he was convinced this was a crop that could do well here, if he could develop a market for it.  He’s pretty business savvy, so it didn’t surprise me to know that he’d already lined up a few restaurants for regular orders, and that this roadside sign of his was just a way of making some gravy off the surplus.

It was hubby’s birthday a few weeks ago, and his main gift was a cookbook “Mediterranean Slow Cooker”.  As I was driving past Bryce’s small farm one day it occurred to me that the perfect add-on gift would be a pound of lentils, so I stopped in.  Bryce and his crew were on coffee break, so I joined the crowd in the tiny office and they all told me about how great lentils were and how easy they were to cook with, and how much they enjoyed them – apparently Bryce’s wife even put them in lasagne – though Bryce did allow that lentils once or twice a week was about his limit.  Bryce is passionate about local food.  He’s Island born and bred and he believes the Island should be far more self sustaining in terms of food than it currently is.  He is knowledgeable about virtually all aspects of food production here – and having been one himself, he’s not about to cast stones at how the conventional farmers do things, but rather focusses on the need for innovation, diversity, thinking outside the box.  From this guy who I had cast as big ag, I heard the words “I haven’t begun to tap the possibilities on my tiny five acres”.  He’s doing pastured eggs, pastured turkey, lentils,  and u-pick raspberries right now.  Through his custom combine work for a couple of people growing wheat and barley, he’s also selling straw, which believe it or not has been a rare commodity here – two years ago, it was selling at the feed store for $20/bale.  Bryce is making a nice profit this year on $5/bale, because unlike the feed store, he hasn’t shipped it in from Alberta.  I mentioned Joel Salatin and his stacking principles, and learned that Bryce is a huge fan and would have been at the same workshop as me last June but was ill.

Lentils were one of the first crops cultivated by humans.  They come in a variety of colours (Bryce grows red lentils), but are all similar.  According to Wikipedia, they are high in protein, and are used world wide for that reason.  If sprouted, they also provide all the essential amino acids. They are high in fibre, folate and vitamin B1.  All of which explains why I associated them with vegetarianism and healthy diets.  This made them sound like they would taste like Popeye’s spinach, but I was committed to buying them – if only because Bryce had mentioned that he’d sprouted some and fed them to his turkeys, who loved them.  I figured if we hated them, we could do the same and give them to our chickens.

There are lots of red lentil recipes on the web, you can google for one that meets your tastes.  We tried the Red Lentil Soup recipe from the new cookbook , which included tomatoes and a sweet potato and it was delicious, though we overcooked it slightly and it was more like porridge in consistency, which I have since learned is something red lentils in particular are prone to doing.  I do urge you to give them a try, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  And if you need any further recommendation, our teen girls, one of them pretty picky, both gave the porridgey soup we made a firm thumbs up. As Bryce himself is fond of saying – “it doesn’t get better than that”.

Was this post about lentils or my lentil growing farmer?  Well, that’s the thing about buying local.  You’re getting both a product and a relationship.  There are stories and faces behind all the food we eat, no matter where it comes from.  Buying that small bag of lentils from Bryce was a 20 minute stop.  I could have whipped in and out, but that’s not getting to know your food.  I’m not saying it takes that long to buy local food every time, but if this is a first visit or a new product, make sure you’re not rushing the process.  (of course, that can work two ways – if the farmer is hopping from foot to foot waiting for you to pay and go, so she can get back to weeding or something, take the hint).  In the case of my lentil purchase, I really felt I got my money’s worth, out of the conversation alone.  If you’d like to see the face behind my lentils, check out the videos on the Saanichton Farm website.

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The small, sweet stuff of life

You may remember that we had a big jam and jelly making session a few weeks ago.  One jar each of strawberry jam and raspberry jelly didn’t seal, so I put them in the fridge to be enjoyed right away.

In the summer, I usually eat my breakfast long before anyone else – I’m the official morning person of the family, and especially in good weather, actually enjoy the morning chores; the bonus of rising early, besides all the beauty, is the peace and quiet of some toast and tea with a book before the noise and hubbub of the day begin.  I hope you see how this might relate to the jam and jelly.

I had reached that part of the day in which I’ve tucked my bookmark into the pages, grabbed the laundry basket and got started.  The others had by then meandered in and out for their own breakfasts, and my husband brewed up a pot of coffee for us to share before he headed out for work.  We’re not at our conversational best in the mornings – I may say I’m a morning person, but this describes my ability to get up early consistently, not much else.  My husband is not a morning person, no matter how you define it.

So we idly discussed the weather, errands, and our preferences for raspberry jelly or strawberry jam.  And things got heated, right there.  Because though we tasted them both from a spoon when we first made them, I have only been eating the strawberry jam on my morning toast.  And he didn’t believe me.  The jar of raspberry was almost empty, I must have been eating it without noticing.  How could I NOT notice the difference, I protested?  I have definitely been eating the strawberry.  Besides, one is jam, with mashed fruit in it, the other is jelly, no fruit, though as I say that I realize that the fruit in the jam was all at the top, the bottom half is pretty much jelly.  He showed me the half empty jar from the fridge.  At this point, I’m thinking:  wow, married more than 20 years, and we can still have the dumbest discussions… “Fine. Whatever.  I guess I didn’t notice the difference” (I CANNOT believe I can’t tell the difference).  He’s practically euphoric – caught the locavore bluffing,  how great is that!  And we settle back with our coffee and chat about less controversial stuff like politics instead.

Then yesterday, he pulled both jars out of the fridge, and apologized.  Turns out he didn’t realize both jars were in there.  He thought we’d finished the strawberry a week ago.  I was gracious and nice about it.  I smiled, and enjoyed my coffee…and the moment.

This morning for breakfast, on my own as usual, I had bread and butter and jam for breakfast.  Actually jam AND jelly.  Just a little taste test.

Whew.  Yup, I can definitely tell the difference.  If he ever blindfolds me on this one, I’ll be fine.  Isn’t it great when you can let the small stuff go?

Can you tell the difference?

Summer supper

We’re getting some hot days at last up here in the PNW, and enjoying them (it’s the novelty :)).  While it’s been warm enough most nights for the past few weeks to eat outside, deciding what to cook in order to minimize the amount of heat generated in the house is still a pretty new thing this season.  Friday was one of those days.  I had a day off, but had a ton of stuff to do around the place, and didn’t want to spend half the day coming up with a good meal.  On the other hand, I had a day off, and I wanted to end it with…a good meal.  What to do?

Homemade pizza!  We had all the fixings easily to hand, so I threw the bread machine on at 4pm, and left it to do it’s stuff.  At 530, the dough was ready.  I chopped up the onion my neighbour passed over the fence the day before, sauteed the white part and chopped the green for garnish.  Sauteed the red pepper that came from the local greenhouse grower that sells at the farmers market.  Diced some leftover ham (from the last ham in my freezer from the side of pork we bought last year), chopped up some garlic scapes, added them to the sautee pan.  A few spoonfuls from the jar of tomato sauce were spread on the dough, we grated some cheddar and mozza (from BC companies, but not terribly local otherwise), threw it all together and put it in the oven.  Where, by the way, I had placed the frozen meat pie made by a friend who sells them at the market (this is her home business – she makes pies, meat and fruit, for you to bake at home) in the preheating oven to start baking.  Because I used a slightly cooler oven (about 375 F), I cooked the pizza about 20 min, so that I wouldn’t overbrown the pie, and left the pie in for another 20 min while we ate.  Thanks to this forethought, on Saturday, we didn’t have to turn the oven on at all, nor did anyone have to cook – win/win!

We have salad pretty much every night through the summer months, and this year have been having it entirely out of our garden.  This one has some baby chard, the last of the romaine lettuce, which is bolting, but which served me well for 2 months, some chopped cuke (ok, not out of my garden, but from my neighbour), radishes, and some chives.  And as a garnish, 6 baby carrots from the thinning I did while dinner was in the oven.

We learned in Europe last summer that the only dressing a good salad needs is olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Now, we often just place the two bottles on the table and add a bit of each to our salad as we did in Europe, but if there’s time, we’ll make up a small batch of vinaigrette, which is what you see here.  Making our own dressing has really cut down on junk in the fridge door, given us more space on the pantry shelves (this was something we used to buy on sale and store), and has a whole lot less additives.  Saves money, and stops plastic going in the landfill.  We feel OK buying really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar to use just for this purpose, since both have great shelf life compared to a bottle of prepared dressing.  I admit I do still hanker after a creamy caesar dressing occasionally, but those can be made too it turns out…

Dinner together is always a time when we chat and share our day.  While we might admonish one of the girls about some flagrant table manner misdemeanour, we avoid picking on the small stuff while at the table, and focus on just enjoying the time and the food together.  Especially in the summer, when we’re sitting outside like this, we tend to linger after we’ve eaten,  perhaps a second glass of wine on the go (for some of us!).  Even in the winter, we don’t usually rush through the meal, but take our time.  We do have activities that force us out the door right after dinner, but I would say 6 out of 7 nights will find all four of us at the table.  Stuck in my mind is the memory of a friend of ours who came to pick up eggs at dinner one night several months ago (we eat a bit later than most folks to accomodate our work schedules), and on seeing us all round the table, commented that it was something that never happened at their house.  With 4 kids, all in different activities, himself a competitive rower and his wife a Wolf Cub and Girl Guide leader, he said dinner was more like a race to ingest nutritious material than what he saw before him.

We all make lifestyle choices that suit ourselves and our families.  One style is not necessarily more right than another.  Our friends are active, fit (fitter than me, for sure), and healthy.  Sometimes I envy their energy levels and vitality, but when he made that comment, I saw the look in his eye, and I know he sometimes envied us too, and it made me realize that what we have is pretty great too.