Bean Fest, Episode 8: Really Good Lentil and Whole Grain Soup

photo by wollongonger

Welcome to Bean Fridays, our ongoing series highlighting the beautiful bean.

We had a brief hint of winter here this week, three days of chilly grey skies and lingering drizzle. I was in heaven–but it didn’t last, and we’re heading into another heat wave. But anyway, that taste of winter put me in the mood for soup.

So today I’m going to share my favorite soup recipe. I’m stretching the rules a bit to put it here, because it’s not a bean dish, but it does involve lentils. One of its great merits is that its what I call a pantry soup. If your pantry is well stocked, you’ll have what it takes to make it or improvise something similar and equally good. And needless to say, it’s easy to make, or I wouldn’t make it.

This recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, where it’s called Oliviers & Co’s Provencal Three-Grain Soup. With a provenance like that you know that even if it is packed with wholesome ingredients, this isn’t going to be one of those bland “healthy” soups.

You’ll need:

1/3 cup spelt
1/3 cup pearl barley
1/3 dark green lentils
3 leeks, white portion only — or an onion or two–finely chopped or sliced into thin rounds.
2 carrots, chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 t. of fresh or dry thyme
1 head of garlic, all the cloves peeled
1 28 oz. can of tomatoes/or your own canned tomatoes
Sea salt
Olive oil

  • Notes on the grains: Use whatever whole grains you have on hand, from wheat berries to quinoa, one type or a blend, as long as it measures 2/3 cup. I’ve used all spelt, all barley, even rice, I think– it all tastes the same once it’s in the soup. The variable is texture and eye appeal. The little dark (greenish black brown) lentils called lentilles de Puy are really the best for this, because they hold shape so well. You may find other small lentils, like those little black lentils, work too. But whatever you have will be fine–it’s just that some other types of lentils, like the pink ones, tend to dissolve in soup rather than staying firm. If you don’t have lentils, the soup could be all grain, or you could substitute with pre-cooked beans, adding them in toward the end.

Rinse your grains and lentils off in a fine colander, set aside.

Put about a tablespoon of olive oil, about 1 teaspoon of sea salt, the herbs, leeks or onions, and carrots in a heavy bottomed soup pot. Turn the heat on fairly low and cook them covered for about five minutes, so they soften but don’t brown. This is called sweating.

Add the whole can of tomatoes, juice and all, then add about 5 cups of water.  Bring this to a simmer.

Add the grains, lentils and all those garlic cloves (The garlic cloves are the secret weapon! If you or your family is garlic shy, don’t worry, the soup doesn’t taste very garlicky when it’s done.)

Simmer covered until the grains are tender, about 45 minutes, depending on the grains.  Add more water if necessary, to keep it at the thickness you prefer.

Test for seasoning. Add some fresh ground pepper, and serve in bowls drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Don’t skip the olive oil swirl. It really makes it, somehow.

It’s that easy, and that good. I usually double this recipe for leftovers.

Note re: leftovers: The grains soak up all the liquid when the soup is sitting in the fridge, leaving the soup a semi-solid mass–so you’ll have to add a good deal of water when you go to reheat. This doesn’t effect flavor at all. It’s an excellent leftover type soup.

Propagating herbs via cuttings

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Say you have one lavender plant, but you’d like to have more. Or your trusty sage plant is getting old and woody and needs to be pulled, but you wish you could save a bit of it and start fresh. One way to accomplish this is to grow new plants from cuttings taken from your existing plant. This is process called taking softwood cuttings. You cut small bits of plant, dip them in a rooting hormone, then baby the cuttings until they grow roots of their own. Basically, it’s cloning.

Herbs are particularly suited to this sort of propagation, since it’s better to have a fresh young herb plant than scraggy woody old herb plant, and this is a way to renew your herb plants. Also, it may be hard to collect seeds from your favorite herbs, particularly if you live somewhere cold.

It takes a good while for cuttings to root, so you don’t do this when you’re in a hurry to get plants in the ground. But if you plan it right, this is a cheap and satisfying way of propagating plants.

Erik and I are ripping up our back yard, basically taking it down to bare soil. I’m taking cuttings of many of the things I’m ripping out, so that I can replace them later.  I decided to document the process for the edification of all ya’lls.

A note on timing:

If you live in a cold winter climate, this will be the wrong time of year to take cuttings–wait til spring. But in a warm winter climate this is the ideal time. We plant perennials in the winter, so that they can use the rains to get established before the long, dry summer.

You’ll need:

–Something nice and sharp to take cuttings with, ideally a grafting knife, but really any very sharp cutting implement. What you don’t want is to take cuttings with something so dull it crushes the stem. Think like a surgeon.

–A seedling tray or a bunch of little plastic containers filled with good potting soil.
(Note: Don’t use peat pots or egg cartons or anything similar. In general I don’t think they’re good vessels for starting plants, but in this case in particular it would be disastrous because they’d disintegrate in the constant moisture, and/or attract mold.)

–A bottle of rooting hormone powder (available at nurseries)

–A glass of water

–A small dish or tray

–A plastic bag or two, or a plastic lid for your tray, or some plastic bottles. See below

–Maybe a spray bottle full of water–for watering later

How to to do it:

This is your set up:

On your worktable you’ll want a glass of water and a dish or tray with a bit of the rooting hormone in it. You don’t need much. You dip in the tray instead of the rooting hormone bottle to keep the contents of the bottle clean and dry. One jar of rooting hormone will serve for hundreds of cuttings.

You’ll also want your seedling tray or plastic pots or whatever you’re using full of soil and ready to go before you start.

Take some cuttings and trim them down:

Go forth ye into the garden and pluck a branch of herb. When choosing a branch to propagate, look for the freshest, plumpest, prettiest sprigs you can find. The ones that seem to be flushed with life force, not ones that seem mature, or worse, in decline. The stems should be pliant, not woody. Look for tiny leaves sprouting at the tips. That’s always a good sign.

Here’s a nice bit of lavender that will be used for this demo:

Next you’re going to strip your cutting down to just a little nubbin. You start by plucking off all but the very topmost leaves. Do this cleanly, try not to strip skin from the stem. The reason you do this is because leaves are a site of moisture loss during the rooting process. Excess leaves would die anyway, and too many will imperil the cutting. Pluck it down until there’s only a pair or two pairs at the top. Erik says I always leave too many. Consider what you see in the following photos a generous quantity.

The next photo is the same sprig stripped down. It’s not the clearest picture–I was having serious problems with the macro lens on the camera–but I hope if you look close at the bare stalk you can see the swelling in the stem in the places where the leaves used to emerge. These are called nodes.  There are three in that picture. The first a little bump just beneath the leaves, the second a kind of busy node, midway down, and the third just above the bottom of the picture. Ignore that tiny stray leaf between nodes 2 and 3. 

The next step is to make a cut at a node–make the cut just beneath the node, as cleanly as possible. Remember, you don’t want to crush the stem at all when you make the cut.

Which node you choose depends on what sort of herb you’re working with. It’s just a matter of common sense. The cutting will be planted in soil, so the stem needs to be long enough to bury–about an inch, more or less. The lavender cutting is large, relatively speaking, so in this case it was cut at the topmost node. But that day I was also rooting thyme cuttings. These were much smaller and more delicate, so I was cutting them three or four nodes down. I hope that makes sense.

Dip it, Dip it Good:

After you cut the stem, dip the cut end in the glass of water and then dip it in the rooting hormone. Dip only the tip of the stem–try not to get it on the leaves. So you end up with this:

Okay, again, not the best pic. The crap on the end of the cutting is the hormone powder. The pen is for scale. I should have/could have removed another set of leaves from this cutting.

Plant the Cutting:

Next, make a hole in the soil with you fingertip, plant the cutting up to its leaves and gently pat down the soil around it.  Here’s a portion of my tray, showing sage and thyme cuttings:

Now, here’s an important tip. Make lots and lots of cuttings of each plant you plan to propagate. Many more than you actually need because there is a high failure rate. Expect that a good number of them will wither up and die of various causes. I figure my failure rate will be 50%, so I make twice as many as I need.

Cover it in Plastic:

The cuttings are very delicate, so they need a moist, hothouse atmosphere. They must be completely covered in plastic. If your tray comes with a plastic lid, that’s great. If you don’t have one, put a plastic bag over your pot(s) or tray. It does not have to be clear. A regular plastic grocery bag or a white plastic bin liner is fine. Cut plastic bottles are good for pots, too.

If you’re using a bag, contrive a way to keep the plastic up,  so it doesn’t lay on the cuttings. Prop it up with sticks or plastic utensils or arcs of wire. Encase the entire pot or tray in the bag, so no air gets in. If they have ventilation, there won’t be enough moisture inside.

Aftercare:

The cutting part is the easy part. The hard part is waiting, and keeping these babies alive. They must always be moist, but not boggy. The plastic should make keeping them moist easy, but they will need a bit of water now and then. You might find it easiest to water them with a spray bottle, because if you water with any force before they root, you might dislodge them.

Every couple days take the plastic bag off and turn it inside out, so that there’s not too much condensation collecting on the underside of the plastic and splattering on the cuttings. It’s a delicate balance between nicely moist and too wet.

If you see any fungus or mold–anything suspicious at all– on one of your cuttings, pull it out. You don’t want that spreading.

If the cuttings are outdoors, you also have to protect them from heat and sun. Remember, the plastic could make your tray into a solar oven. We’ve come home after a day of unexpected heat to find our cuttings steam cooked in their trays. Move them to a shady spot if the weather is expected to be warm and sunny.  They like to be warm, but not too warm. The 65-70ºF zone is perfect.

You know your cuttings are succeeding when they put off new growth. They should be well rooted and ready for transplant in about 4 weeks.

Three Events Coming Up: Ciclovia, Huntington Plant Sale and Homegrown

This Sunday October 10th from 10 am to 3 pm, Los Angeles will host a bike/pedestrian festival “Ciclavia,” modeled on similar street festivals that originated in Bogata, Columbia. It’s a seven mile route from the Bicycle Kitchen to Boyle Heights with streets fully open to human powered transit (seems like a better way to put it than “closed to cars”). I’ll be there along with Homegrown Neighbor and Mrs. Homegrown More information at http://ciclavia.wordpress.com.

Also this weekend October 9th through the 11th the Huntington Library and Gardens will host their annual plant sale. More information here in their events listings. I’d like to go but Mrs. Homegrown is worried I’ll drag weird plants home that we have no space for. But that shouldn’t stop all of you from going!

On Saturday, October 23rd we’ll join fellow Process Media author Deborah Eden Tull and many other speakers and vendors at the Homegrown “seed to plate” festival (note: though we share the “homegrown” moniker we’re participants not organizers). According to the Homegrown website, it will be a “free event celebrating food, sustainable gardening and an ecological lifestyle.” We’ll be doing a workshop at 2pm on how you can make a self irrigating pot out of two five gallon buckets. At 12 pm Tull, author of The Natural Kitchen: Your Guide to the Sustainable Food Revolution will also do a workshop. The event will be held at Media Park in Culver City. More information at http://www.homegrownculvercity.com.

New Squash Baby Theory: Aliens

Photo courtesy Piero Fiocco

At the risk of becoming the “squash baby blog,” one final post on the subject. Reader Piero Fiocco sent some photo evidence that conflicts with Doug Harvey’s “Sass-squash” theory. Fiocco sent a brief, cryptic note:

“I from Italy once again.
I came in possession of this evidence….
Use it as you wish, but keep Erik cool :)

Ciao from Italy!”

It seems as though I “grew” an Internet meme rather than summer vegetables this year!

Squash sibling wants to send a text message but can’t due to outdated tech at Homegrown compound.

But at least I got “squash baby sibling,” which weighed in at a mere 17 pounds, shown above with a phone for scale .

Squash sibling was mercilessly chopped up and turned into four squash galettes, plus lots of leftovers.

Unfortunately squash sibling was harvested prematurely, to prevent theft, and tasted more like a zucchini (if it were ripe it would have pumpkin-style flesh). Because of this, the galettes were sub-standard.

Funny, writing this post reminded me that I had completely forgotten about the big, fat Greek pumpkin I grew last year. Read that post for a link to the galette recipe.

Grow a Fence

Image from Mother Earth News

Why build a fence when you can grow one? Permaculturalist Harvey Ussery has an article, “Living Fences How-to Advantages and Tips” in the latest Mother Earth News that describes several plants and strategies for creating living barriers that do more than just keep the livestock in. Hedges such as Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) provide fodder as well as fencing. Others, such as black locust fix nitrogen into the soil. For  USDA zones 8 to 9 Ussery suggests Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba). I’ll add that prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) also makes a nice edible fence in warm and dry climates.

Read this article and more on the voluminous Mother Earth News website.

Bean Fest, Episode 7: The Home-Ec Supper Club

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Welcome back to Bean Fridays! A change of pace this week: Instead of a recipe, an idea.

Our friend Ari was hanging out with us a while back, and we were talking about how its fun to eat at a friend’s house, even if they don’t serve up anything special, how a commonplace dish for one person is a novel thrill to another. And of course,  how just being together is what makes it fun.

The problem is that we too often think that having people over for dinner means throwing a dinner party, and that you have to really put on the dog: clean the house, cook a fancy multi-course meal, deploy table runners and wine charms and strange little forks and who knows what. Even throwing a backyard bbq can get pricey and involved.

Well, maybe some people are liberated enough to not think this way, but I have deep, even genetically programmed anxiety about hostessing that transforms me from my usually lazy self into a Martha Stewart demon at the mere mention of a dinner party. (Ask Erik.)

Well, good-bye to that and hello Home-Ec Supper Club, also called the Beans and Rice Party.

This is the deal that Ari, Erik and I came up with. We’d invite over a mixed group of friends with similar interests in home-ec, home arts, bikes, brewing, bees, homesteading, whatever you want to call it. Practical people, basically.  Erik and I, as hosts, would provide a simple, cheap big pot of something. Cheap being key, because we’re broke. We made rice and beans. The Bastardized Puerto Rican Bean recipe from few weeks ago, as a matter of fact. Stew or chili would be another good option.

Having that on hand, we know no one is going hungry, but for variety, we threw open the door to the guests to bring anything they want–or absolutely nothing at all—but not to spend more than 5 bucks on anything they did decide to bring. We didn’t want to cause those grim forced marches to the liquor store to buy a nice bottle of wine, or emergency trips to the deli case of Whole Foods. No. We wanted people’s surplus, or nothing at all. What did they have in the garden? What were they sick of eating? That’s a Home Ec Supper contribution.

It wasn’t hard to make some beans and rice, and it sure didn’t stress our budget. I didn’t clean the house up much beyond basic hygiene. There was zero tablescaping. We had 12 guests, more than Erik and I have ever had to dinner. It stretched our crockery to the limit. Some people had to eat out of bowls instead of plates. Others had to drink out of jam jars and novelty cocktail glasses. To seat them all, we had to bring our outside table inside and line it up with our usual table–and we borrowed 5 chairs from Homegrown Neighbor. Everyone had to squash up tight.

The guests arrived with amazing offerings from their yards and kitchens, everything from a bowl of sweet, ripe pineapple guavas to a salad with green tomatoes to homemade biscuits to an apple butter tart for dessert–and most excitingly (not to play favorites) a keg of homebrew. It pays to know brewers. We didn’t do any formal potluck organizing, but it worked out just perfectly anyway.

So we started with beans and rice, but ended up with a feast. But even if we’d only had beans and rice, we would have been happy. That’s the key to this. It’s not about the food, it’s about the company. Worry about food was just excised from the scheme. We all had a good time. No one was stressed, not even the hosts. We all pledged to do it again in a month at someone else’s house. And so–we hope–a tradition is born.

We invite you to start your own Home Ec Supper Club in your area. The weather is cooling, it’s harvest season, it’s a great time to come together with friends, make new ones, too, and share the bounty.

And if you do, please let us know how it went!

Squash Baby Reconsidered

An entertaining lecture by permaculturalist Larry Santoyo last night at Project Butterfly was the perfect place to reflect on the whole squash baby debacle. During the talk I thought about just how completely I had abandoned the principles of permaculture in my management of the publicly accessible parkway garden where squash baby once resided. Some thoughts:

1. Rather than try to keep people from taking vegetables in the parkway garden, why not encourage them instead? Put up a sign describing what’s growing and when it’s ready to pick. One problem I’ve had in the past has been folks pulling up unripe vegetables. So some education, in the form of signs, might help. Maybe a chalkboard could detail when things are ready to pick.

2. I could create an honor stand like the one at the organic farm I visited up in Bolinas, Gospel Flat Farm.  At Gospel Flat you drop your money in a box. Most of the time the stand is unstaffed. I could do the same and donate any (admittedly small) funds to a charity–perhaps a school garden.

3. In permaculture you value edges and marginal areas. It’s at these intersections where life and culture happen. The parkway is an edge space between the private and the public. Rather than fight this space and try to privatize it, perhaps I should celebrate its public nature. I could add a bench and a water fountain. I could also do a better job of keeping it looking good (my summer garden was hideously ugly and unkempt). A more public parkway garden might also have the paradoxical effect of making it more secure and self-policed, since it will have communal value to folks walking by.

Permaculture works better as social engineering rather than horticultural dogma. Permaculture is not about creating that stereotypical herb spiral. It’s about our relationships both to each other and the natural world. Squash baby provided a much greater lesson by being taken than ending up as gnocchi on our dinner plates.

Squash Baby Stolen!

Squash Baby’s empty cage


This morning we woke to find that Squash Baby had been taken during the night.

Erik just returned from searching the neighborhood, hoping to find traces, remanants or, heaven help us, the perp him or herself.  Needless to say, he is cursing. He’d planned on harvesting Squash Baby today, so it is particularly heartbreaking. It had stopped adding inches (I believe it held at 36″), and had started taking on golden tones.

I only hope that the people who took it plan on eating it. If it’s feeding a family (which it could do for several days), that’s fine. If some kids took it and smashed in an alley…well, that’s best not pondered. Forensic examination of the stem stump, however, reveals that the perp did not use a knife, but rather pried the squash* free. This speaks ominously to an impulse theft.

Once I saw a Buddhist monk on TV. He held up a pretty glass and said, “This glass is already broken.”  My attitude toward Squash Baby has always been, “This squash is already stolen.” But poor Erik was much attached to the squash, and his head was filled with images of squash galettes and squash gnocchi and squash soup.  He wanted to have a squash butchering party.  Now he’s hunched over his breakfast cereal, disconsolate, and muttering about never planting anything in the parkway again.

He harvested Squash Sibling this morning, though it could have grown some more, I believe.  We’re hoping it’s ripe enough for good eating. It’s no inconsiderable squash, despite being the runt of the litter. It measures 22 inches.

Next year we will plant Lunga di Napoli again, far from the street.

* N.B. Squash Baby was technically a pumpkin, as noted in a previous post.

Least Farvorite Plant:–Heavenly Bamboo–Neither Heavenly nor Bamboo

Chickens assist in heavenly bamboo removal.

About a year ago, while searching for a spot for our new and larger compost pile, Mrs. Homegrown suggested ripping out a stand of heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) that occupied a shady spot in a corner of our backyard. My reaction? I think I said something like, “No way, it’s been there for twelve years and it took forever to reach three feet.”

Some time later Homegrown Neighbor came over and took a look at the yard. She said, “Why don’t you rip out that awful heavenly bamboo.” Once again I ignored the suggestion.

Last week Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms came over to rethink the garden. Eying the heavenly bamboo she scowled and demanded, “rip it out,” noting that it was ugly, diseased and caked with Los Angeles smog dust.

A few hour later I ripped it out. Needless to say Mrs. Homegrown is dismayed that it takes two experts to confirm something before I’ll listen to her advice.

Marital landscaping disputes aside, it’s not that this plant is inherently evil, it’s just not that interesting. Heavenly bamboo is not a bamboo It’s a member of the Berberidaceae or Barberry family. All parts of the plant are poisonous except to birds who can ingest the berries.While it’s draught tolerant (we never watered it), I don’t miss it. Typically, you see it tucked into forlorn plantings alongside 1960s era bank buildings. I suppose it provides some fodder for the birds, but that’s about it. Perhaps in some Japanese fantasy garden it would fit in next to the tea house, but we ain’t got no tea house.

I guess the lesson here, in addition to listening to your wife, is that gardens change and you’ve got to change with them. As Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Gardens, especially, should celebrate that impermanence. Now I have the beginnings of a big compost pile where it once stood.

We’ll detail some of the other changes we’re making in future posts and put up some before pictures. Stay tuned.