Pongal topped with Cranberry Pickle, surrounded by sun-dried limes (Limoo Omani)

First, the right method to soak whole grains, lentils and beans.

This is done to neutralise the anti-nutrients they contain – like phytates, lectins and enzyme inhibitors that block protein absorption, in addition to oligosaccharides, which make beans the “musical fruit”.

We generally docket these edibles in the comfort/junk food category and indulge in them maybe once a week in the form of either pongal or khichdi. Both are savory rice and lentil puddings, with slight regional variations. Pongal is from south India, khichdi is from the north and west, while the more elaborate veggie-studded eastern version from Bengal is called “khichuri“.

A good pongal is creamy enough to slide over the tongue, rollercoast down the gullet and hurtle straight to the belly without any chewing. The generous helpings of ghee (clarified butter) folded in at the end are meant to lubricate this process. Soaking the split, skinned mung beans before cooking them yields a creamy more digestible end result. Some recipes call for toasting the lentils until aromatic and most do not pre-soak them. Some call for roasting both the rice and the lentils. You can go that route if you prefer.

We avoid whole grains. Period. Our occasional forays into grain territory involve long-grained white rice. If you do want to consume whole grains, though, here’s how they need to be treated.

HOW TO SOAK NON-GLUTEN WHOLE GRAINS, LENTILS AND BEANS

Soaking brown rice and other whole grains:

– The Sally Fallon method (she’s the author of Nourishing Traditions): Soak whole grains for between 12 to 24 hours, with 1 tbsp of lactic acid in the form of fermented dairy (yogurt, whey, kefir, buttermilk) per cup of soaking liquid (coconut milk or water). If you don’t consume dairy, use apple cider vinegar or lemon juice instead of fermented dairy to acidify the water.

Twelve hours of soaking should suffice for brown rice and millets, but oats, which have the most phytates among whole grains would require about 24 hours. Discard the soaking liquid and cook.

Corn needs special treatment – called “nixtamalisaion” (from which the word “tamales” is derived). Traditonally, in central and south America, corn was soaked in al alkaline solution and hulled before consumption. Unprocessed maize is deficient in free niacin and its prolonged consumption as a staple can lead to vitamin deficiency (pellagra) and protein deficiency (kwashiorkor).

Put about one inch (1″) of dolomite powder in a 2 quart jar. Add non-chlorinated water, screw on the top, and shake it thoroughly. Let it stand overnight. The powder will settle to the bottom and the remaining clear liquid will contain the necessary lime water. Carefully pour the clear lime water into another jar without disturbing the powder at the bottom, and store it where it is cool, but it doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Soak the cornmeal in this liquid for 7 hours (more for whole corn kernels), then add an acid like vinegar or fermented dairy and soak for another 12 to 24 hours, then cook. (See this recipe for nixtamalised polenta).

- The Stephan Guyenet method:

Soak brown rice in dechlorinated water for 24 hours at room temperature without changing the water. Reserve 10% of the soaking liquid (should keep for a long time in the fridge). Discard the rest of the soaking liquid; cook the rice in fresh water.

The next time you make brown rice, use the same procedure as above, but add the soaking liquid you reserved from the last batch to the rest of the soaking water.
Repeat the cycle. The process will gradually improve until 96% or more of the phytic acid is degraded at 24 hours.

As for grains with gluten, stay away.

Soaking legumes (lentils, beans and pulses):

- The Sally Fallon method: Soak legumes in very warm, but not hot water (around 140F) for between 7 to 24 hours (seven hours for lentils and pulses, 12 hours for smaller beans, 24 hours for larger ones), adding 1 tbsp of acid (fermented dairy like whey or lemon juice/vinegar) per cup of legumes.

- The Stephan Guyenet method: He only talks about lentils (which have the skin on). Soak lentils in room temperature dechlorinated water for 12 hours, drain and add very warm water (not hot water) and soak for another 12 hours.

- Our method for pulses (or “dals”) that have been skinned and split and hence are naturally low in lectins and phytates, most of which reside in the skin. They do contain trypsin inhibitors and oligosaccharides. Soak overnight in very warm water with a tablespoon of fermented dairy (like kefir) or lemon juice/vinegar per cup of pulses.

Drain and cook.

TIPS TO IMPROVE THE NUTRITIONAL VALUE OF LEGUMES

- Add a piece of kombu (seaweed) to the pot while cooking lentils. It helps improve mineral absorption and digestibility.

- Pair lentils with grains to get the whole spectrum of amino acids. Sally Fallon cites a Latin American study on rats that found that vegetable protein was better assimilated when paired with a tiny amount of animal protein. Adding 2% of fish to the bean-corn mixture spectacularly increased the growth rate of the rodents (between 70% to 120%). If you eat meat, adding a bit of animal protein to your pot of rice and lentils may not be a bad idea.

- Add a source of vitamin C (like lemon juice, green mango or tomatoes) to your lentil dish or to accompany it during the meal to improve iron absorption. Eat your pongal/khichdi with a dollop of hot cranberry, green mango or lime pickle. Or follow it up with an orange or kiwi fruit.

Sun-dried limes or limoo omani (“limes of Oman”) do precisely this. I can see a madisaar maami approaching me menacingly with her rolling pin, but really, she ought to try this.

In Iran, Iraq and parts of south Asia, they are either pierced and used whole or powdered to render rice dishes, soups and stews mystically aromatic. These wizened orbs add subtle undertones that are enticingly sweet, tart and musky.

The way they are produced could not be more straightforward: Small limes are boiled briefly in salt brine, and then they are laid out in the sun to dry over the course of several weeks.

But the simplicity of the process belies the alchemy that takes place under that desert sun. Over the weeks, the limes turn black or dusky brown on the outside and lose so much weight that they feel hollow; inside, the juicy green flesh turns a glossy, maroon-tinged black.

And the flavor — complex enough even when the limes are fresh — becomes spectacular. The pleasantly sour, aromatic tang of citrus is still there. But thrumming underneath it is a deep layer of culinary funk reminiscent of fermentation. Holding one to your nose is a bit like sniffing freshly grated lime rind while standing in the center of a brewery. (New York Times)

If you cannot locate Limoo Omani in your Arabic or Persian store, try using a dash of lime rind instead.

PONGAL (Savoury Rice and Lentil Pudding) with Sun-Dried Limes

NOTES:
- Do not cook this in the pressure cooker. Stove-top pongal is much tastier.
- While milk (dairy) is traditionally used, coconut milk makes it even better.
- Curry leaves and cilantro are traditionally used, but we’ve tried various herbs (thyme, oregano basil) with good results.

(One meal for two)

half cup long-grained white rice
**or brown rice that has been soaked
1/4 cup mung dal (skinned, split mung beans) that has been soaked

Drain the lentils (and rice if it has been soaked) and place them in a big pot on the stovetop with

1.5 cups water
1 cup full-fat milk (we prefer coconut milk)
salt to taste
a pinch of turmeric
1 sun-dried lime (limoo omani) pierced with a knife in a few places
**or use half tsp organic lime zest

Cook on medium-high until the liquid boils and craters form at the top of the rice-lentil mixture, stir once, turn the heat to very low, cover with a lid and cook until done (about 10 minutes). If the mixture has dried out a bit, add another half cup of hot water/coconut milk and taste and adjust the seasoning.

When the rice is cooking, toast until aromatic
1/2 tsp each cumin seeds and peppercorns

Coarsely powder in a mortar and pestle (or a spice grinder).

Heat
3 tbsps ghee (clarified butter)

Add
the cumin-peppercorn powder
half tsp grated ginger
about ten curry leaves

After about 30 seconds, pour the mixture into the rice-lentil pudding.

Garnishes (we didn’t add them):
A handful of cashews fried in ghee
a handful of chopped cilantro (coriander leaves)

Remove the dried lime, split it open and squeeze the juices into the pot, stir everything together and serve. Adding some crisp bacon, scrambled eggs or cooked, flaked fish to the pot won’t hurt either.

Pongal with Stuffed Jalapenos

- b.

NEXT: Some photoessays.

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