Ask a child where their food comes from and they might say the grocery store. Or the fridge. But understanding where the food we eat really originated, where it's grown or raised, helps us appreciate on a deeper level the work of the people near and far who make it possible for home cooks to get dinner on the table.
Jamie Simpson knows lentils. Growing up on the family farm in rural Saskatchewan, he and his siblings were eating lentils at the family dinner table when none of their friends were, and they ate them often. Lentils were a new crop in the area back then and they were proving to be a smart, sustainable option for farmers. Lentil crops are moderately resistant to drought and high temperature and grow well in Saskatchewan, naturally replenishing the soil with nutrients. Soon other farmers in the region started growing lentils too and demand grew in domestic and international markets.
Today, Saskatchewan farmers produce 95 per cent of Canada's lentils and Canada is the world's largest lentil producer. There are 5,000 active lentil farmers in Canada and in 2014 they produced 1.84 million tonnes of lentils. That's a lot of lentils. They end up in ports and markets and restaurants and on family dinner tables around the world.
I had the opportunity recently to meet Jamie and his sister Elyce Simpson at their family's farm and processing plant, Simpson Seeds, near Moose Jaw. This fourth generation family farm has been putting lentils into the hands of home cooks since the early days of Canadian lentil farming in the 1970s. They grow them, they process them and they package them. They also process and package for other pulse and grain growers in the region.
As a home cook, I was curious to see how the lentils in my pantry started out in a prairie field, and not long after arriving at the farm I saw the beginnings of my coconut curry lentil apple soup and my mango black bean lentil salad first hand. I found myself standing there in the middle of vividly green rows almost ready for harvesting, and the warm air and big sky suddenly seemed the perfect place for anyone's dinner to begin.
Jamie explained how the plants have a shallow root system and that they are doing relatively well considering this year's dry conditions. He explained that each plant produces pods and in those pods are the lentils themselves. Typically, one to three lentils develop in each pod. Holding them up to the sunlight, the under-developed lentils are quite visible, almost like a tiny version of the runner beans and pea pods back home in my garden.
I guess I thought lentil crops were taller, but they are actually quite short, typically not growing more than 24-inches on average. But the resulting visual is stunning. The short plants wave close to the soil in the warm prairie breeze, allowing the eye to take in just how far the fields stretch toward the skyline.
Canadian Lentils, an official mark of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, invited this group of food writers out of the big cities and onto the prairies to experience lentil growing and processing and join one of Canada's best-knows chefs, Michael Smith, in the field and in the kitchen.
Smith's relationship with Canadian Lentils of several years now has helped to spread the word about the health benefits of lentils and the many delicious ways they can be used in the kitchen. High in protein and fibre, they are a smart choice for families who are trying to eat healthy, plus a little bit of lentils can go a long way in making you feel full and satisfied. Lentils are right at home in soups and salads, but lentils are appearing now in everything from burgers to pancakes and even cookies (get the recipe for Simpson Seed's delicious Kitchen Sink Cookies below).
No trip to Saskatchewan farm country is complete with a photo in a bright yellow canola field, of course, so we stopped and snapped some shots or ourselves and with each other, including me with Renée of sweetsugarbean and Aimée of Simple Bites, me with Annabelle Waugh of Canadian Living, and of course I took a goofy selfie with Chef Michael Smith.
Standing in the field, I soaked in every breath of that warm prairie air, and when Ethan from Food Bloggers of Canada jumped into the back of the farm truck to return to the processing plant, I did too. With the wind in our hair and the crops passing by in a blur around us, I smiled all the way back down that bumpy road.
Back at the plant, Jamie and Elyce explained how the lentil crops are received, processed, sorted and packaged. Red lentils, green lentils, black beluga lentils and more. Just imagining how many families will be fed by the work that goes on there is mind-boggling. Their slogan - nourishing the world - really says it all.
So, next time the kids wonder about where their food comes from you can tell them about how the lentil crops grow in rural Saskatchewan, low to the ground and resilient to the heat and the dry earth, row upon row under a great big sky. Tell them how Canada grows lentils best. And tell them how a guy named Jamie and his family are working hard to put them on our table.
Kitchen Sink Cookies
Reproduced with permission from Simpson Seeds
1 cup lentil puree (instructions below)
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 1/3 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 cups oats
1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup coconut
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup dried blueberries
Add 2 cups of red split lentils and 5 cups of water into a pot. Bring to a boil, simmer, and cook until tender. Drain off excess water and keep the water. Puree the lentils, adding about 2-3 tbsp of the water to make it smooth. Cool down before using, or package it and place in the freezer.
Cream together the butter, brown sugar and lentil puree. Add vanilla and eggs, one at a time.
Fold in flour, baking soda, salt, oats, chocolate chips, coconut, dried cranberries and dried blueberries.
Drop cookie batter using a teaspoon onto a greased or lined cookie sheet, and place into a 375°C preheated oven for 8-10 minutes.
How do you cook with lentils? Got any favourite dishes? Leave a comment and share your ideas.