Spicing up the mid-winter blahs without spending a fortune on plane fares to exotic locales or other expensive forms of self-medication is something my husband and I specialize in this time of year.
We both love to travel and, mercifully, we both love to cook. So what with the holidays over, meaning no time off and no money, one of our favourite things to do is cook up something exotic.
Even the small act of digging through Linette Creen's A Taste of Cuba for the best recipe ever for Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians or, in straight talk, black beans and white rice) or the beat-up Better Homes and Gardens' Mexican Cook Book (circa 1977) from my years in San Diego and subsequent addiction to good Mexican food triggers 1,001 memories and sets up some good vibes.
But my all-time favourite for global cooking trips is New Internationalist's Vegetarian Main Dishes from Around the World. I'm not a vegetarian but this little baby — and it is a baby measuring a mere 4.5 by 5.5 inches — consolidates super-inexpensive, super-delicious recipes from all over the world.
Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Thailand, Nepal, India, Thailand, Haiti and more are represented in authentic local dishes a good street vendor on the ground would deliver. Most of the recipes centre on beans.
Beans, legumes, pulses. What would the world do without them? In fact, it seems like the whole world, both in time and space, have relied on them in one form or another.
Scientists have found clear evidence that beans, lentils and chick peas (or garbanzo beans) were gathered in the wild in Central America, the Near East and parts of Europe since prehistoric, pre-agricultural times, 8,000, 9,000, 10,000 BCE.
Wild ancestors of runner beans provided food for the peoples around Tamaulipas on the extreme north east coast of Mexico — Olmecs, Chichimecs, Huastecs — for thousands of years. Evidence of what were likely cultivated beans has been found in ancient caves in Thailand. Then we have the many soy bean dishes and the fermented black bean pastes of the peoples of China going back thousands of years; likewise the lentils and dals of India.
Sumerians depended on lentils, chick peas and beans. And raw beans, says Reay Tannahill in her endlessly fascinating Food in History, were a mainstay of the lower classes that could be had from the grimy cook stalls in ancient Rome. (Take-out food was more popular then than it is today.)
Something else that we can thank the Romans for, says Tanahill, is a concept that's unfortunately stuck with us to this day: if something, anything, but especially food is rare or expensive it's got to be good. Even if it isn't.
Take peacock meat, for instance, and if you ever tried it you'd say, "take it!" It was hard and dry but upper class Romans purported to love it while they choked on it at the same time.
Beans are the flip side of the coin. They're plentiful. They're cheap. And they're a wonderful protein booster as their amino acids combine with those of grains and rice to form complete proteins, boosting the proteins they already provide.
Given their first two properties — plentiful and cheap — beans are often overlooked, at least by certain, ahem, people.
But given their role in history, we should all regard beans as heroes.
After we humans dropped the hunting/gathering thing in favour of agriculture, beans played a hugely important role. First, early farmers realized that by rotating a planting of legumes like beans or peas in to their grain crop rotations, they increased soil productivity, plus they had an extra nutritional crop. Beans could also be kept and fed to cattle to keep them over winter for cheap.
More meat and more protein through beans literally meant more stamina and more power for people, who became stronger and healthier, leading to the outrageously strong, healthy, long-living humans we are today.
The other heroic thing about beans is the way they can carry a savoury sauce. Curries and piquant salsas were invented to spice up dull old grains, rice and beans.
So if you fancy an exotic pick-me-up with a subtext of sunny places, grab yourself a good bean recipe.
Here are a couple of my favourites from the little New Internationalist cookbook. It used to be available at New Internationalist and Ten Thousand Villages but since has been replaced by their Small Planet Vegetarian Cookbook.
From Ecuador: Menestra de lentejas (lentil stew)
Heat the oil and sauté the onions for a minute or two before adding the cumin, bell pepper, parley and cilantro. When they are soft and integrated, add the cooked lentils and canned tomatoes and their liquid. Stir well. Bring the mixture to a boil and simmer very gently until the stew is thick. Stir occasionally so the lentils don't stick. Add the extra tomatoes, liquid, and/or water as needed. Serves 4 to 6.
From East Africa: Maharagwe (Spiced beans in coconut milk)
Using a deep heavy pan, heat the oil. Cook the onion until it's soft and golden. Partially mash the beans with a fork and then spoon them into the onion. Add tomatoes. Mix well. Add turmeric, chili powder and seasoning and half the cilantro. Add coconut milk, stirring to blend the mixture. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes before garnishing with the remaining cilantro. Delicious with rice. Serves 4 to 6.
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who's full of beans.
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