Thursday, July 21, 2011

Feijão Guandu: or Pigeon Peas, aka the Biological Plow!

Wow wow wow! I bought these magic beans the other day from the sweet Japanese-Brazilian ladies at the Saturday organic farmers' market in my neighborhood (Glória) and was not disappointed. After my brief flirtation with monochromatic meals, I've returned to my usual programming of technicolor eating and these carnivalesque beauties caught my eye immediately.

They are called feijão guandu, or guandu beans, sometimes feijão andu, and seem to be some variant on what is known as the pigeon pea. These came fresh, a tiny bit sprouted, from a farm west of Rio, R$5 for a baggie. Dried, they fade to a light brown and pale green, but these ranged from wine-dark to red, vibrant brown, lime green, and mustard, like a handful of hearty jellybeans.

 Why are they magic? Well, this here legume is an old toughie with a heart of gold: drought-resistant, heat-resistant, and produces protein-rich beans even in poor soil conditions, breaks hard ground in search of water, thus opening the soil up for the more fragile roots of other plants, and is one of those special earth-workers known as "nitrogen fixers." This means it makes atmospheric nitrogen biologically available to other plants, causing it to be used as "green manure" (how I love this term!), or a cover crop, to regenerate nutrient-depleted soil.

This informative blog (in Portuguese) tells us feijão guandu is known as the "biological plow" (arado biológico). More scientific information is here (also in Portuguese, sorry). But, ah!, here is a thorough blog post on the guandu bean that I just found in English, with assorted recipes. Apparently, the English name, pigeon pea, comes from the legume's use as poultry feed in the U.S. during the 19th century.

It turns out you can eat them raw, but I cooked these guandus in the normal way I cook beans here, except I added some special wild tomatoes and beautifully twisted, tiny organic carrots (a rarity in Rio, where carrots are normally grotesquely gigantic, over-fertilized, stick-straight and rock-hard monstrosities). They struck me as somewhere between brown beans and lentils and have that deep, dense flavor of nutrient-rich foods (dark leafy greens also strike me as having this hard-to-describe taste, though beans and greens are flavor worlds apart), though with a certain lightness that I think had to do with their freshness. Below is more or less what I did.

BEANS, Weird Vegetables Brazilian Style*

*elaborations on the instructions printed on a bag of dried brown beans (feijão carioquinha) someone left in my kitchen in Rio

1 baggie or 1.5 cups of fresh beans (if dried, then soak overnight)
4 cloves of garlic, 2 peeled & crushed, 2 tiny dice
1 onion, diced
1 tomato, diced (or 2 large handfuls of wild or cherry tomatoes)
1-2 small carrots, diced (optional)
1 small bunch of cilantro

Rinse beans and dump into a pressure cooker pot. If no pressure cooker lives in your kitchen, then use a regular pot, but double the time. Fill with water to about 1.5 inches over the beans. Add the 2 cloves of crushed garlic. Pressure cook that baby for 30 minutes. Some people say that guandu beans can be bitter and they toss out the water after the first boil and refill it, but these fresh beans had no bitterness to them. While the beans are cooking, rinse and chop all that other stuff.

When the beans are soft enough to eat (or pressure cooked and you've let out all the steam by slipping a fork under the whistle-top blow hole thing and lifting), drain them but keep the liquid for later. Mash about a quarter to a third of the beans with a fork. This is what the supermarket bean bag told me to do, and I was really into this tactic of mixing of textures: mashy bean pulp with whole beans. I just mash them against the side of the sieve but you can do it in a bowl with a wooden spoon if that feels more civilized to you.

Heat up two teaspoons of olive oil in a large pan and sautee the rest of the garlic and the onions until the onions are almost transparent. Add the tomatoes and let their juices get nice and mixed up with the rest. And the carrots if you are adding carrots. Then add the beans. Little by little, add as much of the bean liquid as you need to make the whole concoction reach your ideal consistency. Add salt to taste (2-3 teaspoons perhaps) and mix well. Then add the spiciness vehicle of your choice. I've been using my homemade chili pepper oil, which has divine effects, but add a few whole or minced chili peppers would also be tasty.

Finally, sprinkle with cilantro. Sadly, the guandu beans are not so vibrantly varied after being cooked, but are very tasty all the same.  Uma delícia!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Monochromatic Mealtime

Sophie had already made a name for herself by turning aspects of her intimate life into art when Paul borrowed some of these aspects to construct the character Maria in his Leviathan of a novel. The two were friends, Paul and Sophie, and the latter thought she would turn the whole thing into a Double Game by bringing her own life closer to the parts Paul had invented for Maria. One of Maria's obsessions was eating monochromatic meals. The passage from the novel that describes these feasts for the eyes goes:

Some weeks, she would indulge in what she called "the chromatic diet," restricting herself to foods of a single color on any given day. Monday orange: carrots, cantaloupe, boiled shrimp. Tuesday red: tomatoes, persimmons, steak tartare. Wednesday white: flounder, potatoes, cottage cheese. Thursday green: cucumbers, broccoli, spinach—-and so on, all the way through the last meal on Sunday.

While Sophie had never before thought of this particular concept, she shared Maria's pleasure in setting herself certain rules to follow with severity until she tired of the game and moved onto another. Paul was correct in characterizing it as an indulgent restriction. But Sophie, more of a perfectionist than even Paul imagined for Maria, filled in the details for the rest of the days and made the elements adhere even more closely to each day's color scheme. Sophie writes:

To be like Maria, during the week of December 14, 1992, I ate Orange on Monday, Red on Tuesday, White on Wednesday, and Green Thursday. Since Paul Auster had given his character the other days off, I made Friday Yellow and Saturday Pink. As for Sunday, I decided to devote it to the full spectrum of colors, setting out for six guests the six menus tested over the week.

The act of eating involves such a chaotic complex of senses, feelings, memories, and meanings that it can sometimes be comforting to try to simplify the basic elements.

To what extent does eating become a conceptual act so that we care more about the idea of what we eat than the food itself?

In this case, one must imagine that the sense of order and visual harmony of these meals gave more pleasure than their actual taste. I myself would rather gaze at Orange than wash a mouthful of shrimp laced with cantaloupe down with orange juice.

When I was a child, I would often eat my meal in one section at a time, finishing one entire portion before moving clockwise on to the next: first green beans, then mashed potatoes, then the pork chop, and finishing with my apple juice. Other people would be upset by this unnatural method but could never quite give a convincing reason for what was wrong with it.

Nowadays, I find myself most obsessed with the richness of the color variations in my meals and worrying when they are overly monotone, so precisely the opposite of Sophie/Maria. I like multi-colored mosaic meals mainly for their aesthetic balance—my food makes me happy when many colors play together—but varied colors also suggest a fuller range of nutrients, giving me a practical alibi for this personal preference. Once in awhile I find myself suddenly faced with an accidentally monochromatic meal. Ever since I experienced Sophie Calle's Double Game, I am less apt to "fix" it with more color and instead eat these meals in homage to her, smiling to myself about the various games we consciously or unconsciously play in putting a meal together. My most recent monochromatic meal was Off-White: mashed potatoes, cauliflower puree, and mozarella melted on toast. I drank goat milk.

The other night, I decided to revisit my indulgent restriction from childhood of eating my meal in fractions but this time doing it in an even more extreme way, by eating each section separately in the same bowl that I would empty then refill with the next portion.


Green : Beans
        Red : Tomatoes
         Yellow : Batata Baroa

This last is my favorite kind of potato here in Brazil, batata baroa, also known as Peruvian parsnip, though it tastes like a lighter version of sweet potato.

I ate very slowly and did nothing else besides pay careful, yet leisurely, attention to each part of this meal in thirds.

The taste and texture of the green, crunchy, slightly salty;
the red, grainy-soft, watery, ripe;
the yellow, creamy, sunshine, hearty sweetness.

This is the practical alibi of these seemingly silly food games: to remind us of how to see and taste what we eat. We put down our books, forget our need to make conversation, stop thinking about what we are going to do afterward, and merely look, then taste and feel what has entered our mouths at that moment.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Dear vegetable lovers,

I do apologize for the extended pause in Weird Vegetable adventures. I've been traveling and working on other projects but continue to ponder the mysteries of the vegetable universe. Today, while scraping brown rice crust from the bottom of a pot with a small wooden spoon, I got emotional about how much I love small wooden spoons. That is to say, it's getting a little loopy around here. More reports from Rio as soon as I get my head together again and stop dreaming about fossilized geckos and snakes whose faces spell out the word O V O (egg in Portuguese).

Here is another photo of my beloved wooden spoon, with other objects for scale.

More soon,