Tom Philpott - March 2012

Tom's Kitchen: French Lentils, Delicious (and Easy) Dinner

| Sat Mar. 3, 2012 7:00 AM EST

I love legumes of all kinds, but I'm not always together enough to soak, say, white beans the night before I want them. Many cooks address the soaking problem with a pressure cooker, which can take any bean from rock-hard to cooked in less than an hour. I don't have a pressure cooker, so I turn to the lentil, which cooks in less than an hour without soaking anyway.

Lentils may bear some of the baggage of people's bad college cooking. In my college days in the '80s, we were of that generation whose parents had raised us to demonize salt, so we had no idea how or even whether to use it. I remember eating too many grim bowls of mushy, gray, aggressively bland lentils at friends' houses. But those days are long gone. Now lentils are good!

These days, my two favorite varieties are red lentils, which I cook with plenty of caramelized onions and Indian spices, and the French kind, which are green. Unlike many other lentil varieties, the French ones stay firm when cooked. And they have a great rustic flavor on their own, so it doesn't take much to make them to taste delicious, and well, French. I just cook them with what the French call a mirepoix—a mixture of chopped onion, celery, and carrots. To jazz up my usual French lentil dish this time around, I made a quick arugula and red onion salad. Over rice, or with some crusty bread, it makes a good dinner.

French Lentils With Arugula-Red Onion Salad

Serves three
Ingredients:
3 carrots, chopped
3 celery stalks, chopped
1 medium-size onion, chopped
Olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 red-hot dried chili pepper, chopped (optional)
½ teaspoon hot Spanish smoked paprika (optional)
1 cup French (also called puy) lentils
½ (lengthwise) of a medium-size red onion, sliced into thin, short strips
1 good handful of arugula (Italian parsley will work too)
A lemon and some olive oil for dressing
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1) Add a good splash of olive oil to a heavy-bottomed pot, and turn heat to medium-low. When the oil shimmers, add the mirepoix vegetables and sauté, stirring occasionally, until they're soft. Add the garlic and the chili pepper and paprika (if using), and stir. Let it sizzle for a second, and then add the lentils. Stir them in, letting them sauté for a few seconds, and add enough water to cover them by an inch or so. Bring to a boil over high heat, then cover, turn heat to low, and let them simmer until they're tender but still pleasantly firm. Check occasionally, and be ready to add water if the lentils threaten to dry out.

2) After the lentils have simmered a while and are almost done, make the salad. Add the onion slices to a medium sized bowl and over them, tear the arugula leaves into bite-sizes pieces with your hands. Add a good pinch of sea salt, a grind of black pepper, a splash of olive oil, and a squeeze of lemon. Combine with your hands and taste, adding a little more of whatever in the dressing seems to faint.

3) When the lentils are done, season with sea salt, pepper, and lemon juice. (Actually, lentils are a great way to learn the genius of salt. First taste the cooked lentils unseasoned, then add salt a pinch at a time, tasting after each pinch. Note how the salt draws out the other flavors out as you add it bit by bit. Be careful not to over-salt—you want to taste the food, not the salt). Distribute them among three bowls, leaving a little behind for seconds, and garnish each bowl with the salad on top. Serve with bread.

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How Coca-Cola Squeezes Workers in Italy's Orange Groves

| Fri Mar. 2, 2012 3:15 PM EST

When I think of southern Italy, a kind of mental postcard comes to mind: a table laden with seafood, pasta, and wine, with Homer's "wine-dark sea" sparkling in the sun-drenched background.  

The reality, of course, is much more complicated. The food and sights can be glorious, but amid the region's base of small farms there exist industrialized, plantation-scale operations. And scale aside, working conditions on the region's farms are hardly idyllic. Last year, the UK-based Ecologist published a blistering exposé of working conditions in the region's tomato fields, which produce for the nation's vast canned-tomato export industry. Workers, mainly migrants from Africa, live in slave-like conditions, with meager pay and awful housing. As is too often the case in the United States, people who spend their time harvesting food live in dire poverty, often having to rely on charity for enough to eat.

Now the Ecologist is back, this time with a report on conditions in southern Italy's orange groves, which produce fruit to be juiced for the processed food industry, including Coca-Cola and its Fanta soft drink. It's not clear whether any of the Italian juice ends up in Fanta sold in the US. "The majority of the juice we procure from this area is used in products for our Italian market," the company wrote in a statement to the Ecologist. Honestly, I'm surprised there's any real juice in Fanta at all.

For the article, the Ecologist reporters visited a variety of work camps and talk to numerous workers, in the process sketching a hellish picture.

They typically earn 25 euros [about $33] for a day’s work in the Calabrian orange groves. They are often recruited by gangmasters acting on behalf of farm owners cashing in on the ready supply of cheap labour. The gangmasters, both Africans and Italians, can charge workers for transport to and from the orange farms—typically between 2.5 to 5 Euros—and sometimes make other deductions from wages paid by farmers. Many of the migrants in Rosarno and the surrounding countryside live in appalling conditions, in run down buildings or in makeshift slums on the edge of town. There's no electricity or running water. In many cases there's no functioning roof.

Diet Soda, the Silent Killer?

| Thu Mar. 1, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Vintage diet sodas from the '60s and '70s

What is this thing called diet soda? Here are the ingredients of one of the best-selling brands, Diet Pepsi:

CARBONATED WATER, CARAMEL COLOR, ASPARTAME, PHOSPHORIC ACID, POTASSIUM BENZOATE (PRESERVES FRESHNESS), CAFFEINE, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL FLAVOR

My favorite line on that list is the "preserves freshness" that follows potassium benzoate. The freshness of what, precisely? The caramel color? Not likely—caramel color for most colas comes from a chemical reaction between sugar, ammonia, and sulfites at high temperatures. Or maybe it's the phosphoric acid? Or the least plentiful ingredient of all, the unspecified "natural flavor"? In plain English, diet soda is artificially blackened water tarted up with synthetic chemicals. That anyone ponies up cash for such a thing surely counts as one of the food industry's greatest marketing triumphs.