The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Food / Drink ...

When I was a kid, I ate a typical suburban 1960’s breakfast — i.e., cereal and milk. What kind of cereal? Oh, whatever I saw advertised on TV. Maybe Frosted Flakes, maybe Crispy Critters, maybe Captain Crunch, maybe Cocoa Puffs. My mother was nice enough to stock the kitchen with a variety of popular cereals, so my brother and I had the luxury every morning of deciding whether it would be Kixx, Trix or Apple Jacks. As we got a bit older (say into the teen years), our tastes matured a bit — we would sometimes forgo the pre-sweetened stuff and go with Special K or Rice Chex or even Shredded Wheat (but actually, we still added our own sugar).

A lot of people gave up on breakfast as they got into college and then into the early adult years, but I never did. At some point, however, maybe in my mid 30’s or so, I gave up on milk and (soggy) processed grain in a bowl, and went over to yogurt, usually mixed with fruit or oatmeal. This wasn’t all that different from my earlier breakfast days (it still combined dairy product and grain), just a bit more cultured and fibered and whole-grained. That would get my day going for many years.

But in late 2000, start of a new century, I was trying to re-boot my career by going through a 4-month all-day computer programming crash course (Chubb Institute’s long-gone “Top Gun” program for mid-career professionals), and I decided that I needed to kick my breakfast up a notch. By then I was a committed vegetarian, so pancakes and bacon and sausage patties weren’t going to do it for me. I decided on a fairly unconventional breakfast item — cooked lentils. I have cooked for myself since I got out of college, and I was quite familiar with making lentil soup. Lentils cook up fairly easily, so it wouldn’t be a big deal to cook up a pot on a Saturday and dish out a bowl from the refrigerator for the next week or two (taking the time to heat it up a bit, of course).

I’m not sure if having lentils for breakfast made me into a better computer programmer, but I did get through the Top Gun program. Unfortunately, Chubb couldn’t find me a starting job in the field due to an economic downturn (nor most of the class). Things were touch and go for almost a year, but I finally got a job which combined my previous experience in government grant management with database design and programming, even a little bit of website work. And I kept on eating those lentils each morning.

Over time I tweeked my breakfast lentil recipe, as to make it more interesting and healthy. I added grated carrots, then some chopped onion (not too much, this is still a morning food). Next, I wanted to increase my consumption of anti-inflammatory foods, so I took a chance and added some grated ginger and turmeric to the lentil mix. That took some getting used to, but eventually I started putting a small spoonful of blackstrap molasses on my lentils, and the ginger and turmeric went down just fine.

Still, ginger and turmeric are strong flavors, not something most people could appreciate while or before the sun comes up (and remember that onions are also in the mix). The trick is to make sure that the lentils are cooked properly once these spices are added. Lentils have a substantial “mouth presence”, and can absorb and tone down a lot of wild flavors. In the past 5 years or so I’ve mixed in a bit of wheat germ, which also helps to mellow out the recipe.

Recently, I ran out of my lentil mix on a weekday, and I decided after work to cook up a small pot of my breakfast lentil mix, just enough to get me through the week (then make a bigger batch during the weekend). My time “passes swiftly by” on weeknights (a phrase from the “Evening Gatha”), so I only cooked the lentils to the point where they were just soft enough to swallow, instead of letting the mix simmer for 40 minutes or so as I usually do. The next morning I spooned out a bowl and heated it up, poured a dash of molasses on top along with a tablespoon of ground flax, and then sat down to my allocated 8 minutes for morning food consumption while getting ready for work. And, yuck! This wasn’t good at all. Too many different flavors not getting along very well. There wasn’t time to fix it, so I shoveled it down my throat and got on with the rest of my workday morning routine.

After I got home that night, I realized that the final 20 minutes or so of simmering the lentil mix after it first gets soft was essential to bringing out the lentil taste. The problem with the under-cooked mix was that although the lentils were soft enough to be swallowed and digested, they hadn’t really “opened up” and could barely be tasted. Lentils need enough cooking time to “blossom” in a soup or stew mix. Once they do, they add a rich body and texture, but also a certain taste, one that can accommodate and reconcile all the contradictory flavor directions of the various stuff in my special breakfast mix. The lentils (once they are ready) are like an adult who comes into a room of quarreling children and makes them stop fighting and play nice with one another.

But what is the taste of lentil? (And no, that’s not intended as one of those paradoxical Zen questions, like ‘what is the one taste of life . . . ‘ ) When I was a kid slurping down those Froot Loops, we were taught that the tongue has four basic tastes, and everything is a combination of the big four. And those were: sweet (like Froot Loops), sour, bitter (like turmeric) and salty (ah, potato chips!). In recent times, researchers realized that there were actually more than four basic flavors. The new kid on the block was called “umami“, and it reflects a “savory” taste sense having something to do with glutamate. The tongue was found to have specific receptors for glutamate, and thus the “umami” taste was given the blessing of the scientific community. Umami is said to be “brothy” or “meaty” . . . or maybe “lentil-ly”. Yes, lentils have a classic umami taste. That’s what makes them so versatile and satisfying, why they are used in a lot of different dishes.

And hey, maybe there is something of a Zen connection after all. Zen clearly has Japanese roots, and so does the idea behind umami (soy sauce is said to be very “umami”). So, now that I’m something of a Zen practitioner (a very half-baked one, admittedly), my umami bowl of lentils is perhaps a very appropriate way of getting the day started. It’s a good way to set out on the journey for the one taste of life.

Well, at least on weekdays; on weekends it’s back to good old oatmeal and fruit for me. The one taste of umami can wait until Monday.

PS, I did a quick search and found one site which recommends something like my morning lentil mix. This blogger suggests cooked lentils and carrots with red vinegar and soy sauce — a bit sour and salty, versus my bitter and sweet admixture; but the umami nature of lentils can probably also deal with that combination just fine. But here’s another one suggesting a mix of cooked lentils, raisins, apples, cashews and coconut milk. I’m sure that works well too.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 9:38 am      

  1. Jim, Seems you’ve eaten a lot of lentils in your day. On checking, I find, to my surprise, that lentils are part of the pea family; and peas I thoroughly enjoy. But somehow I’ve always tho’t of lentils as part of the bean family which are something I can thoroughly do without. Now that tells one right there that it’s not so much what the thing really *is* but what one *thinks* it is. I’m happy to admit it, but I still will not eat lentils.

    For breakfast, I think I’ve gone from coffee with milk and sugar to water and a piece of bread with cheese on it (and everything in between) over my lifetime. (I can barely remember what I ate for lunch this afternoon; I don’t make too much of food and what I’m eating. Is that good or bad? I have no clue.)

    Somehow or other over my lifetime I’ve had people cook for me; an odd thing as it’s usually the woman who cooks for the man. Life tends to be odd; so I’ll just take it as it is and has been. Perhaps my cooking is such that the men would rather they do the cooking than I do it.

    There are *two* things I tend not to eat: onions (which as far as I am concerned are good for taste in something but that’s about it; I refuse to eat onions as a vegetable. The 2nd thing I refuse to eat is beans, the “lentil” type. Green beans are OK; however, the “lentil” type beans that are really peas somehow or other have never made it to my eating list, unless they are somehow hidden within a casserole or soup; even then they may get put to the side.

    Enjoy your lentils; I read it’s a very old and ancient food. It must be very good for humans. I congratulate all who are happy to eat lentils, and I’ll leave it at that. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — December 15, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

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