The presentations begin. A woman takes the stage in the middle of the long, narrow, high-ceilinged room. Across from her, two slide shows project on the wall. On the left screen is a combine working in a large, flat field; on the right, gourmet food.
The room hushes as Allison Ammeter, chair of the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission, speaks. “I grow pulses, which makes me a rock star, right?” she asks. The crowd applauds.
Ammeter steps down and Michael Smith, the celebrity chef and cookbook author, takes the stage. Smith is standing in front of a larger-than-life picture of himself in a farm field, windblown hair, with a handful of young lentil plants.
“Hanging out in Toronto and talking about pulses. Who knew?” he says with a smile. He pauses. People cheer. He asks the farmers in the room to raise their hands, and then tells the audience that the 13 farmers in the room are the real stars.
A pulse enthusiast these days, Smith says he didn’t used to realize that pulses grew in Canada. He thought lentils were from somewhere like France. But now, the UN has designated 2016 the International Year of Pulses.
Some food trends come and go, Smith says, but the UN is far from trendy. He doesn’t think increased awareness of pulses will be a short-lived trend.
An image makeover
Consumers shop for beans or peas or lentils. Many don’t shop for “pulses.” Many don’t even know that the word has any sort of plant or botanical meaning. “It’s new to the sort of population we’re trying to reach,” Smith tells the crowd. One Twitter post about the event reads, “Pulses — it’s a new word to some, but you are probably eating them already: beans, chickpeas, peas and lentils.”
These aren’t new crops or new ingredients. It’s not even a new word. It’s an old word going to a new audience. It’s an image makeover.
Say lentils and shoppers might picture hipsters poring over a vegetarian cookbook — or delicious Indian-style daal. Say pulses and… it’s a blank slate.
I’ve only just stepped into the long, narrow room when someone with a tray of fluted glasses offers a drink. Then a server stops with an appetizer tray to offer kidney bean croquettes with spicy aioli.
A lot of pulse industry people in attendance wear name tags. And a few of them greet me. Jackie Tenuta, director of market development for Pulse Canada, says that the pulse industry is throwing this party to celebrate pulses, and they’ve invited chefs, bloggers, media, nutritionists, and people interested in food security and sustainability. “There are 111 events worldwide today,” she adds, explaining this is the kickoff to the International Year of Pulses.
Pulses have long been promoted as nutritious. Tonight they’re sustainable, affordable, environmentally friendly — and good tasting too.
A display explains what makes pulses an environmentally sensitive food choice. “Compared to other crops such as cereal and oilseeds, pulses have a smaller environmental footprint. Pulses need little to no nitrogen fertilizer, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Pulses also use less water than other cash crops and they improve soil health,” reads the sign.
I chat with farmer Lee Moats, a director with Saskatchewan Pulse Growers. He tells me why these days, red lentils make up most of his pulse acreage. He’s keen to point out that in addition to being part of a healthy diet, pulses are environmentally sustainable.
We talk about promoting pulses. “Our effort is threefold,” says Moats, explaining that first they need to help consumers understand what the word “pulses” means. Second is helping consumers understand the benefits of including pulses in the diet. Lastly, he talks about helping consumers fit pulses into their interest in food and their tastes. “It’s hearts and minds and stomachs of people we’re after,” Moats says.
By the time Ammeter has taken the stage and talks about the smaller environmental footprint of pulses, it’s already the third time I’ve heard that message this evening. Nor is it the last.
Varied and versatile
The gourmet food served tonight shows the versatility of pulses. Four cooking stations — chickpeas, beans, lentils, and dry peas — feature three different recipes each. Staff members dressed in chef apparel offer me split pea bacon quiche, and it is delicious. Braised beef short ribs with lentil mushroom stew are my favourite. And the Indian chickpea stuffed crepe with chicken curry salad is nice. There are lots of others. Most are very good.
A food writer next to me bites into a lentil burger, frowns, and then puts it on a tray. “Burgers should be made with meat,” she says, and then talks about how great lentils are in many dishes — but wonders why anyone would try to make a burger out of them.
“We are way past thinking about pea soup,” says Moats, adding, “There are so many fantastic ways of consuming pulses that are good for you… but they’re good!”
The Pulse Market, a display near the exit, reminds attendees of the variety of pulses. It’s very attractive: red lentils against yellow; great northern beans and black beans; chickpeas and yellow peas; and many more. The small cloth sacks and scoops are there so that attendees can take samples to cook at home.
Spreading the (new) word
The party tonight is all about spreading the word: Pulse. Staff work the crowd, taking pictures of attendees holding signs for the Pulse Pledge. This pledge is to eat pulses once a week for 10 weeks. I hold up the sign as someone shoots my picture: it goes out on Twitter and I’m given a sticker saying that I took the Pulse Pledge. (The website, pulsepledge.com, reminds consumers that eating pulses is a good way to decrease your carbon footprint.)
This event isn’t the only one in Canada this year. There will be other activities to raise awareness of pulses. Tenuta says that events to help food processors use pulses are scheduled for later this year.
As I get ready to leave, I see people taking selfies with Chef Michael. Later, on Ammeter’s Twitter feed, I see a picture of her, Chef Michael, and Canadian food writer Anita Stewart.
I walk up Bay Street, behind people carrying small cloth bags filled with pulses.
I hear the word more than I have in a long while. My father tells me about a new word he heard on the radio: pulses. My neighbour, Jim, emails to say that he saw a news segment about pulses (and emailed me because I’m in the background); and soon after that, my friend Bob in Vancouver emails to say he saw a segment on Pulse Feast on CBC’s “The National.”
A word. A feast. A blank palette.
The year 2016 has been declared the International Year of Pulses by the United Nations to celebrate one of the world’s most important foods: the edible seeds of the legume family. Beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils are packed with fibre, protein, nutrients, and flavour. Their nutritional intensity, inexpensive accessibility, and ease of cooking have made them indispensible staples to cooks all over the globe.
Wherever we live we all do our best to make healthy choices at home but it’s a lot easier when those choices are delicious. These meatless tacos are stuffed with so much sunny southwestern flavour that no one will notice anything missing. What a great way for your family to join families around the world in a global celebration of flavour and nutrition!
Makes 12 tacos. Serves 4 to 6.
For the pulse filling
- 2 tablespoons (30 ml) of canola oil
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 heaping tablespoon (18 ml) of chili powder
- 1 teaspoon (5 ml) of ground cumin
- 1 cup (250 ml) of green lentils
- A 19-ounce (540-ml) can of your favourite beans or chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 2 cups (500 ml) of water
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) of your favourite hot sauce
For the taco toppings
- A head of Bibb or iceberg lettuce
- 12 hard taco shells
- A few handfuls of grated cheddar or taco-blend cheese
- Your favourite salsa
- A large bunch of fresh cilantro
- 2 limes, cut into wedges
Make the lentil bean filling. Splash the canola oil into a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat. Toss in the onions, garlic, chili powder, and cumin. Sauté until the vegetables soften and the spice flavours brighten, 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in the lentils, beans, water, and salt. Bring the works to a slow, steady simmer. Cover tightly and continue slowly cooking until the lentils are tender, 35 minutes or so. Stir in the hot sauce.
Assemble the tacos. Fit a full leaf of lettuce into a hard taco shell. This will hold the fillings in when the hard shell inevitably breaks. Fill each taco with a heaping spoonful of the lentil bean filling. Pack with cheese, salsa, and cilantro. Serve with the lime wedges and share!
© Chef Michael Smith 2015