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LEGUMES AND GRAINS: A HOMEGROWN CARNIVAL OF SURPRISES

by Dan Jason

 

I was an ordinary avid gardener when I learned I could grow a variety of soybean that was both delicious and digestible. I became so enthusiastic about Black Jet soybeans that I started a seed company, Salt Spring Seeds, to promote them. That was in 1988, and I had little notion then of further discoveries awaiting me in my pursuit of high-protein plants for the Canadian grower.;

My exploration of potential garden crops has included quite a few surprises. I’ve noticed that many garden seed catalogues list dozens of varieties of corn or tomatoes - but why are no lentils, fava beans or chick peas offered? Why no wheats or barleys? Although it’s been only four or five years, the process of convincing myself that I was indeed onto some new possibilities has seemed very long. For instance, it took many meals plus many letters of confirmation from fellow gardeners to truly convince me of the excellence of some of these plants. Information regarding the high-protein crops I now promote was mostly not available - either because it didn’t exist or because agricultural authorities in Canada tend not to disseminate such research to the general public.

What follows are some of my most basic and memorable revelations about the legumes and grains I’ve recently gotten to know and value.

As a general note first, I continue to be amazed by the ease of growing legumes and grains. Being field crops that have been domesticated for thousands of years, they require much less care and attention than refined vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes or cauliflower. They are direct-seeded and are pretty much pest- and disease-free. They don’t need as much watering or weeding and their fertility requirements are moderate. Saving their seed is a simple process. Some people might consider it a waste of garden space to grow beans and grains when they are so inexpensive to buy. But there are more rewards to homegrown beans and grains than the ease of growing them.

In the case of beans, I realized only last year that the reason homegrown dry ones are so digestible is because they haven’t oxidized and deteriorated with age. Most people don’t think of dry beans losing freshness the way tomatoes or broccoli do, but I think their aging process is just not so noticeable. Store-bought beans are often a couple of years old and rarely have the vibrant glow of homegrown ones. Your own beans will cook up in less time than that recommended in cookbooks. In almost all cases, 40 to 50 minutes of simmering after four hours of soaking is all that is required.

Bean varieties differ greatly in how they can be used. For example, the large and early-maturing Jacob’s Cattle, Soldier and Maine Yellow Eye have a mild flavor that absorbs wonderfully the essences of herbs and spices in soups and salads. Other beans, such as Black Coco or Nez Perce have such a rich flavor that they can stand on their own with little seasoning. My Grand Forks soybeans go well with a tomato and basil sauce whereas the Black soybeans are great with garlic and cumin. Small-seeded Natto soybeans are wonderful as sprouts while most other varieties are strong-flavored and tend to become mushy too quickly.

I’ve learned that seemingly identical varieties of beans can have quite different flavors. For instance, I had always enjoyed a bell bean (a small-seeded fava) that I had obtained from a Salt Spring Island friend. Cooked as a dry bean, its seedcoat has an enjoyable chewy texture and its insides are as delicious as new potatoes. Bell beans that were later given to me by Harvie Snow of the B.C. Department of Agriculture, however, had still better flavor. I’ve been comparing the two varieties for three years now and although I can find no difference in their appearance or growing habits, the difference in taste is still as pronounced.

On the other hand, I hadn’t expected to receive such consistent reports about the edibility of named bean varieties: the same ones are always the favorites. My own bean test is simply to taste them unadulterated after soaking and simmering them the appropriate amount of time.

Amaranth and quinoa are two South American crops that seem to me to have enormous potential for Canadian growers. When I first started growing them eight years ago, they appeared remarkably similar. Both grow as vigorously as their weedy relatives, red-rooted pigweed and lamb’s quarters, yielding copious quantities of high-protein seed in early fall. I now know that quinoa is a cooler weather crop and does well with an early spring sowing, whereas amaranth is best sown around the same time as corn.

Quinoa dries down completely in September, leaving only its seed head to strip into buckets or to cut down and screen. Amaranth doesn’t lose its leaves here in our B.C. Islands climate and the grower has to check the flowerhead to ascertain when most of the seeds have ripened. Both quinoa and amaranth have highly nutritious leaves but those of amaranth must be steamed to remove their bitterness. Nutritional analysis finds amaranth leaves to have a higher combination of calcium and iron than any other green.

From what I’d read, I had always thought that amaranth leaves had to be picked young. Late last summer I found the gumption to try steaming the leaves of all the amaranth varieties I was growing. They were easily as delicious as cooked chard or spinach. ’Twas a real find for me to discover such a rich, dependable and abundant source of greens that are available through the heat of summer and into fall.

Favas, lentils and garbanzos (chick peas) are legumes that have all surprised me with their cold-hardiness. Last summer, my crops from a mid-March planting had died down by mid-July, and I harvested them a few weeks later. I did not have to irrigate them. I’ve been testing dozens of varieties, but unlike regular dry beans, I’ve found only a few favas, lentils and chick peas that seem worth growing here on the coast. Those that really stand out for both edibility and yield are the previously mentioned bell bean, a lentil that is classified as horse lentil and a beige garbanzo called Chestnut Chick Pea. I had been prejudiced against fresh green favas by those I had obtained commercially but was given two sweet, buttery ones last year that I hope to make available soon.

As the owner of Salt Spring Seeds and a member of the executive of Canada’s Heritage Seed Program, I’ve certainly read and heard a lot about the importance of maintaining pure seed stock. Most of the crops that I grow aren’t readily cross-pollinated but I must admit I’m occasionally lax in maintaining minimum recommended distances between my bean varieties. Despite this, I’ve yet to see any bean crosses. I have found, though, occasional sports or genetic throwbacks where one plant in a patch had beans of a different color. I’m happy I overrode any inclination to reject these off-type beans because their offspring have proven to be most interesting and fruitful for me.

After six years of selection I now have some unique, high-quality varieties to offer through my seed company. Even the lines I chose not to pursue had no discernible diminishment in taste value. I’ve changed my mind about the possibility of crosses resulting in inferior beans and now I don’t worry as much about growing certain varieties too close together.

In the past two years, I’ve discovered that common Canadian grains have uncommon cousins. I had investigated wheat, oats and barley off and on previously but had always turned away from them because I didn’t want to get into the mechanics of hulling their seed. Then I found there were many hulless varieties that could be threshed easily by rubbing them between the hands. I obtained these through the U.S. Seed Savers Exchange and our own Heritage Seed Program. More recently, I’ve learned that the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan has been working on hulless barley varieties for twenty years.

So far, I’ve had immense enjoyment growing, observing, harvesting and preparing hulless grains, paralleling the enthusiasm I felt when I was first realizing the beauty and bounty of beans. As with beans, I’ve come to believe that grains have versatility and goodness we barely tap in this country. We could be doing better with wheat than mostly processing it into bread and pasta; oats can be utilized as more than a breakfast cereal; barley needn’t be thought of only in the context of soup or malt. These grains can be cooked as the whole seeds they are. They can be prepared by simply simmering them in the appropriate amount of water. They also can be eaten as vitamin-rich sprouts. Why process them and lose a lot of their nutritional benefits when they can so deliciously and more efficiently be prepared whole?

Grains are easy to grow, don’t have high fertility or moisture requirements, give high yields and can be planted as early as the ground can be worked. That there are hulless wheats, barleys and oats means that the home gardener can grow much more of his or her own food.

I’ve only touched upon some of the more salient features of legumes and grains. The overall picture however is one I find exhilarating and awesome. At a time when we desperately need to change the manner in which we consume our planet’s resources, we have the opportunity of appropriating a diet of highest quality and least environmental impact.

The popularization of whole foods would dramatically reduce the energy and resources now used in producing, processing, preserving, packaging, transporting and presenting food.

Whole grains and beans have admirably sustained people worldwide for thousands of years. Most cultures have relied on one or two grains and legumes, but we can now adopt many of them and gain a diet more diverse and exciting than ever.

Although readily available in Canadian markets, grains and beans are practically invisible to the average consumer. Growing them helps us to appreciate their quality in a way no other activity can. The enthusiasm of gardeners can create a ripple effect that will spread the surprising news. And soon Canadian farmers will find readily local markets for whole beans and grains.

 

 

Dan Jason, a longtime COG member, operates Salt Spring Seeds which specializes in beans, grains, garlic, tomatoes and lettuce. (Box 444, Ganges P.O., Salt Spring Island, B.C. V8K 2W1)

 

 

Copyright 1993. Dan Jason

Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


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