When it comes to seasonal produce and ingredients, the months of late winter and early spring are sparse. This presents the perfect opportunity to comb through the pantry and use its goods.
Palouse lentils and garbanzo beans, also called chickpeas, are a year-round staple, an essential locally grown ingredient. Their tasty, quick-cooking, and high protein and fiber content are ideal for healthy weeknight meals and make an easy, hearty substitute for meat.
The Palouse, straddled over the Washington-Idaho border, is home to hundreds of family-run farms, many of which have been in operation for three or four generations. Not only have they been growing the fragrant grains we occasionally get a whiff of on hot summer nights, they have been increasingly growing the three pulses: lentils, chickpeas and green peas.
Lentils were first grown in the Palouse, near the town of Farmington, in 1916 by a Seventh-day Adventist farmer. J.J. Wagner, a vegetarian, had been given a 5-pound bag of lentils from a friend who had brought them over from Europe. Instead of eating them, cleverly, he planted them. And to his surprise, they flourished. Wagner began promoting and selling his lentils to a pre-established market: other vegetarian church members.
Growing lentils turned out to be a healthy practice for the Palouse itself. Lentils, as well as chickpeas and green peas, function as nitrogen producers, pulling nitrogen from the air and depositing it in the soil, ultimately making the soil more fertile. The additional nitrogen in the soil helps grain crops, which are typically grown in rotation, alternating every other year.
This rotation helps both crops by reducing weeds, pests and insects and keeping the soil rich in naturally produced nitrogen. Since 1916, the Palouse has become a huge lentil-producing area, and until recently was considered the nation’s lentil growing “capital” (Montana and North Dakota now share that title). Each August, Pullman hosts the National Lentil Festival, where thousands come together to celebrate with lentil cook-offs, cooking demos, live music and lots of family activities.
Chickpeas didn’t catch on until many years later. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they began to be farmed in the Palouse, and not until the 1990s that they took off. Today, there are more than 150,000 acres devoted to growing chickpeas, compared to 12,000 acres in 2000. This is due to primarily one thing: hummus.
A Middle Eastern dip traditionally made with pureed chickpeas, garlic, sesame paste (tahini), lemon juice and salt, this healthy snack has grown in popularity exponentially across America, and is predicted to continue on this present trajectory. When first I moved to the Inland Northwest 20 years ago, there was not a package of hummus to be found, unless you ordered it at a restaurant, or made it yourself. Now it has become a household staple, with many brands and flavors readily accessible.
Victor’s Hummus, based in Spokane, now three years old, has seen rapid, steady growth. The company offers seven flavors of hummus, with basil being the most popular, followed closely by jalapeño. The company buys all its chickpeas from Palouse growers.
According to owner Victor Azar, hummus has become the fastest-growing grocery item in the past five years. “This is due in part to the growing trend to eat healthier,” he said. “It’s also one of the best hypo-allergenic foods because it is gluten-free, soy-free, dairy-free and cholesterol-free and can replace a full meal when consumed with veggies or bread.”
At home, hummus is just one of many things you can make with chickpeas, but they are not the only legume you can use. Try black beans, pinto beans, white beans, edamame or even lentils. Add fresh herbs, flavored oils, spices, or whirl in feta cheese, anchovies, harissa paste, pesto, chipotle peppers or wasabi. Get crazy. Be wild. It’s kind of fun.
Locally grown lentils and chickpeas are readily available in Spokane in the bulk sections of Huckleberry’s, Rosauers, Super 1 Foods, Yoke’s and Main Market.
Caviar black lentils, with their deep color and earthy rich flavor, are one of my personal favorites. Simply boiled and seasoned with salt, pepper, olive oil and fresh herbs, they make a delicious wholesome bed for chicken or fish. The best part? They can be made in 20 minutes flat.
Shasta yellow and sunrise red, both of which are milder in flavor, hold their shape when cooked and don’t “muddy” the cooking liquid – a perfect choice for lentil newbies.
Tiny pedrosillano café chickpeas will surprise you. They double in size when soaked. Their slightly higher fat content also makes them an excellent choice for hummus because of their smooth, creamy texture.
If you’ve never tried dried chickpeas, you are in for a real treat. Their sprightly texture and nutty flavor will surpass any out of a can. I use dried chickpeas in soups, and I’ve found they are perfect for making falafels.
On the horizon, Jim Hermann, a third-generation farmer from RimRock Ranches in Idaho, is experimenting with something new and exciting: quinoa.
Six of Hermann’s acres were devoted to testing quinoa during the 2013 growing season – something to look forward to.
Chickpea, Chicken, Sausage and Kale Soup with Rosemary Croutons
1 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves
2 quarts flavorful chicken stock
1 cup dry garbanzo beans soaked overnight
2 bay leaves
2 to 4 cups chopped kale
1 to 2 cups cooked chicken, shredded or cut into bite-size pieces.
2 links andouille sausage, sliced and browned (optional)
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper
chili flakes (optional)
squeeze of lemon
1/2 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 loaf sourdough bread, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves
For soup: Sauté onion in olive oil on medium heat until tender, about 5 to7 minutes. Add garlic and rosemary. Sauté 2 minutes. Add chicken stock, garbanzo beans and bay leaves, bring to a boil. Cover and simmer on low heat until beans are tender, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, make croutons (see below). After beans are tender, add chicken, sausage and chopped kale. Simmer 10 more minutes. Add salt, cracked pepper, soy sauce and a light squeeze of lemon. (Remember, the sourdough rosemary croutons will add a lot of flavor.)
For croutons: Slice sourdough into 1/2-inch thick slices. Toss olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary in a small bowl. Brush oil mixture on both sides of bread and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 375-degree oven, bake until crisp and golden, 15 to 20 minutes.
Serve soup in bowls with a slice of the rosemary crouton.
Serves: 4 to 6
Lentil Tabouli Salad
1 1/2 cups dry Palouse Black Caviar lentils
4 cups water
4 medium vine-ripened tomatoes (2 cups finely diced)
1 large bunch Italian parsley, small stems OK, finely chopped, about 1 1/2 cups
1/3 cup finely diced red onion or shallot
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice and zest for garnish
Cracked pepper to taste
In medium pot bring lentils and water to a boil. Turn down heat, cover and let simmer on medium-low to low heat for 20 minutes, cook until just tender. Strain and rinse with very cold water until lentils run clear and are cold. Place in a medium bowl and toss gently with the rest of the ingredients. Refrigerate until serving.
Chickpea Falafels (or Fritters)
2 cups dried garbanzo beans, uncooked, soaked overnight, drained
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (add more to taste)
1 cup chopped cilantro (stems OK)
1/2 cup of small white onion, diced
2 garlic cloves
1 small chili, finely diced
1 tablespoon coriander
1 tablespoon cumin
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (add more to taste)
canola oil for frying
In a food processor, pulse uncooked, soaked chickpeas with salt until they are the consistency of very coarse sand. Add the rest of the ingredients, pulsing, scraping down sides, until it forms a bright green paste with a fine crumb. Don’t overwork it; it should not be smooth, but rather quite granular. Refrigerate for at least 20 minutes or overnight.
Form round, slightly smaller than golf ball-size rounds and flatten just slightly.
In a nonstick pan or cast-iron skillet, heat 1/4-inch of canola oil on medium high heat until it sizzles when a pea-size portion of falafel is dropped in. Turn heat to medium. Start with one tester falafel. Fry until all sides are a deep golden brown, about 6 to 7 minutes. If it browns too quickly, turn the heat down a bit. If the falafels stick to the pan, try dredging the falafel in a little flour. (Cast iron skillets really prevent sticking.)
Place falafels on a rack in a warm oven until ready. Serve with warm pita bread (or tortillas) with creamy tahini sauce, cucumber yogurt sauce, diced tomato, pickled turnips and fresh cilantro leaves.
Note: For recipes for homemade pita bread, tahini sauce and pickled turnips, visit my blog: www.feastingathome.com.
The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home, www.feastingathome.com.