I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the way we eat now, the history of the food revolution, and how it has transformed our lives, our bodies, and our world. It’s complicated. In my lifetime, our food choices have become overwhelming. When I take a trip down the supermarket aisle, there are so many unrecognizable items; boxes with scientific sounding ingredients and contents, foreign produce I’ve never sampled, and flashy beverage cans loaded with sugar.
The world has undergone a massive shift from traditional diets based on local, seasonally available foods to globalized cuisines and fast, ready-to-eat type foods. Today you can get pizza in Tokyo, Dunkin in Paris and sushi in Rome. Diets have become truly international in reach.
For supper, I can feed my family Smokin Backyard Barbeque, Rice and Beans, Veggie Loaf, Fried Chicken and Chicken Nuggets, Beef Lo Mein, Cuban Style Citrus Garlic Bowl, Cheese Enchiladas, Vegetarian Lasagna, Chicken Stir Fry or Tikka Masala, and Salisbury Steak. Just heat and serve. These “foods” are convenient, easy to prepare, and seemingly economical.
But is this really food? And is this “food” really healthy for our people and our planet?
In a study intended to provide data about how to feed the world’s growing population, it was found that the number of plant species upon which humans depend on for food has declined in the past 50 years to just 52. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has found that only nine plant species account for 66 percent of total crop production.
This sharp decline in the biodiversity of our food supply has a huge impact on the ability of people to feed themselves. Plus it has wide-ranging negative impacts on soil and animals and reduces the resiliency of farms to navigate extreme weather conditions during this climatic change. Most importantly, for wicked-good eaters, and us foodies this loss in biodiversity means nutrient-poor options and boring flavors.
To invigorate our winter eating, instead of roaming the supermarket, I always default to beans. This season, my favorite is lentils, the oldest cultivated legume. Originating in southwestern Asia, the humble lentil traveled to the rest of the Middle East and to northeastern Africa more than 7000 years ago. Then onward, this seed of a small shrub migrated to India and eastern Europe. Lentils were eaten by the Egyptians, Greeks and the Romans, and are still enjoyed around the world.
An excellent source of protein, lentils, and other legumes, play an important health role in helping the human body avoid heart disease and cancer. “Better than red meat”, lentils are 25% protein, high in iron, Vitamin B, folate and fiber. Enormously important in many North African and Asian diets, lentils are a key component of vegan and vegetarian cuisines.
In the kitchen, lentils need no soaking and cook quickly. Red lentils have a wonderful texture when pureed in a soup, my favorite is tomato. Brown lentils are extremely flavorful, often served simply with butter or olive oil. Green lentils have a light, fresh taste that is minerally, nutty and not starchy at all. Many chefs and home cooks consider dark green French lentilles de Puy or Italian lenticcie Caselluccio to be the finest.
The recipe for Warm Lentil and Potato Salad was inspired by an adaptation from the Smitten Kitchen. Small green lentils and Maine potatoes are cooked until just tender, then tossed with garlic-mustard vinaigrette. Delicious when served warm, this salad can also be enjoyed at room temperature. Warm Lentil and Potato Salad is filling enough for a meal, tasty when topped with an egg, and a hearty accompaniment to sausage, roast or burgers.
There is an amazing range of foods around the world, like over 10,000 varieties of different tomatoes, and hundreds of varieties of apples. Humans have cultivated these food varieties over generations to maximize nutrients, delight taste buds, and thrive in specific climates. I encourage you to find the joy in this biodiversity, and seek out new food varieties from your local farmer, and in your own backyard garden before they disappear. A great place to start is with the humble and powerful lentil.
Warm Lentil & Potato Salad
- 2 small onions 1 chopped and 1cut in half
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme or rosemary
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 cup small green lentils French lentilles de Puy best
- Sea salt and fresh pepper
- 1 pound potatoes small size like fingerling or new
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 garlic clove finely minced
- 1- tablespoon mustard
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon capers rinsed and chopped
- 2 tablespoons chopped sour pickles
- 2 scallions thinly sliced
- ½ cup chopped parsley
- Assemble ingredients and tools.
- Pick over lentils, removing any small stones. Rinse. Add to a small saucepan with 1 onion, cut in half, the bay leaf, fresh herbs and 4 cups of water.
- Simmer until the lentils over medium heat until firm-tender, about 25 minutes. Drain; remove the herbs and onion, set aside.
- Scrub the potatoes, and cut them into pieces the size of fingers. Add to a saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil, and simmer until they are just tender, about 15 – 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- While the lentils and potatoes are cooking, finely chop the second small onion, set aside. Finely chop the garlic and parsley, set aside. Slice the scallions, drain and chop the capers and pickles, set aside.
- To prepare the dressing, add the chopped onion and vinegar to a small bowl. Let the mixture sit for 5 minutes.
- Whisk in the minced garlic, mustard, pinch of salt, some fresh pepper, and ¼ cup olive oil. Stir in the capers, pickles and scallions.
- Drain the cooked potatoes and slice them into ½ inch pieces.
- Add the potatoes to a large serving bowl. Add the lentils, dressing, and all but 1-tablespoon of chopped parsley. Combine well. Taste and correct the seasonings if needed with sea salt and fresh pepper. Sprinkle the salad with the remaining chopped parsley and serve. This salad with keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.