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Homemade Mixtures Can Spice Up Beans and Lentils

January 14, 2013

staghorn sumac berries

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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Eating low(er) on the hog? Or maybe no hog at all?

When I hear the common statement, “When  people can’t afford pork or beef, they move to chicken.” I always wonder, “But what about the folks who’ve already moved down from chicken to beans?”

Well, many people have moved to eating more beans and lentils for reasons that may or may not include financial distress, including the health and environmental benefits of eating more plant foods, as well as ethical concerns over eating animals.
 

Who’s eating beans?

Gallup polling reveals that only about 5 percent of Americans consider themselves true vegetarians, a percentage that’s remained stable since 1999 and that crosses age, gender, and cultural groups. 

However, a much larger group of Americans consider themselves “vegetarian-leaning,” or participants in the global “meatless Mondays” campaign, a trend borne out by the fact that meat consumption in the U.S. has fallen 12 percent since 2007. 
 

Build a repertoire of spice blends

As far as I’m concerned, you can’t go wrong with dry beans, peas, and lentils. Legumes are cheap and nutritious. They improve the soils they grow in. They store well for long periods without refrigeration. They’re incredibly versatile; we use them in soups, casseroles, loaves, and burgers.

And for people who find legume dishes bland and boring, grinding up a few spice or herb mixtures to sprinkle on them may change your mind. Here are a few of the thousands of traditional spice combinations from around the world you can adopt for your own use.

I’d suggest investing in a supply of whole rather than powdered spices (visit ethnic groceries and health-food stores, or buy them online) and an inexpensive spice mill or dedicated coffee grinder. Most authentic recipes suggest dry-roasting whole spices (or sometimes frying them in a little oil), then grinding them for the most flavorful mixtures. And most mixtures will keep for several months if stored in airtight glass or metal containers.

  • Baharat  A middle-eastern/north African mixture of sweet, warm, and resinous spices and herbs that comes in many regional variations and goes with everything. We especially love it in a lentil stew that incorporates a lot of chopped fresh Swiss chard.
  • Za’atar  The sumac listed as a major za’atar ingredient is none other than the dried, red berries of the staghorn sumac that grows in dry waste places around here as a weed. (See accompanying photo.) Although there are as many “recipes” for za'atar as households using the spicy mixture, here’s an easy one to get you started.
  • Harissa A North African staple, harissa is generally prepared as a thick paste, by soaking the dried chilis and blending them with a little olive oil. Control the heat by selecting milder or hotter chilis for your blend.
  • Quatre epices Despite its name, which means four spices, and its ubiquity in classic French cuisine, recipes for this mix often contain more than four ingredients and often include allspice and cinnamon.
  • Garam masala Masala is a Hindi word meaning “spice mixture,” and each of the diverse Indian cuisines contains various masalas. Garam (meaning “warm”) masala is one of the best-known. Delicious with red-lentil stew.
  • Berbere Temper or increase the heat in this classic Ethiopian spice mixture by reducing or adding to the number of dried chilis you use.
  • Ras El Hanout This warm and complex spice mixture is a fixture in North African cuisines. Don’t worry about getting the proportions exact or eliminating an ingredient you don’t have handy.
  • Jerk A staple of Caribbean cooking, jerk seasonings come in many varieties. This one goes well with any of the black-bean dishes that are favorites in my household.

By the way, most spice or herb mixtures work well as salt substitutes for people on low or no-salt diets, and as flavor enhancers for people trying to cut down on saturated fats. And any of them can season a vegetable, meat, poultry, or seafood dish. You can also use them as dry rubs or add them to marinades or sauces.

It's worth noting that all aromatic spices contain numerous health-promoting phytocompounds. Most culinary spices have been used by traditional healers for centuries, and many are under investigation in modern medical research

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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