I quietly endured the voluptuous flowery scent of Nag Champa which wafted into every crevice high and low, tuned out the constant hypnotic drone of kirtan, and made do with a living room converted into an intentional-yoga-meditation space. For awhile I even avoided the kitchen, cowering away a shivering culinary wimp. But over time I pushed back, albeit in a passive aggressive kind of way. Whenever I had enough of her insolence I would pressure cook rice, seaweed, dried shrimp, and astragalus root and allow the roiling bubbling stew to rattle and hiss; to let the low tide aroma do the talking. While my remembrance of our devolving relationship was something akin to an on-off game of Whac-a-Mole, it is fair to also say that in spite of our growing battle of the wills, Anna was an excellent cook with a genuine desire to nourish the soul and body. All was not lost on me.
With one eye, an ear, and an antenna or possibly two fixed upon her stove pot it was there that I sensed a slower rhythm to cooking. At the stage in life where I fabricated furniture out of milk crates, spare boards and cement blocks, I could barely commit to home accessories let alone spice-in-whole-form. Our kitchen cupboards were a charming mishmash of tins, pods, tinctures, and dark brews. The countertops alive with the necessary instruments required to beat, mash, and sieve reluctant seeds, teas, and pastes. It soon became apparent that much attention and reverence was lavished by her upon that which I simply regarded as the funny yet forgettable bean. Beans, the subject of low brow jokes, shaken from a can, and pushed aside in a meat filled chili bowl. Other than hasty greeting cast towards a quickly devoured burrito or bowl of lentil soup, the lowly legume remained second hand filler.
Out of Annapurna’s hands, I ate my first black eyed peas simply simmered in water, perfumed with the floral green of marjoram and the delicate crunch of coriander. I had my first warming spoonfuls of dal, observing as she dropped whole seeds into hot oil, intensifying the flavors of already fragrant seasonings. This was stirred into that- the kitchen marvelously alive with layers of noise and exotic delicious smells. Those moments and probably many others that I couldn’t comprehend served as backdrop to the contrasting beat of Beastie Boys and the melodrama which characterized my own fledgling life.
Now whenever I eat beans I am humbled just a bit thinking of these nutritional powerhouses which give so much, without much fanfare. Inexpensive yet high in protein, calcium, fiber, and other vitamins and minerals, “poor man’s meat” also enriches the soil in which it grows with essential life giving nitrogen. Their beauty and flavor subtly modulated does not shout out, “look at me” but rather patiently awaits often being overlooked. Gratefully the noise in my life is tempered and by dint, spaces opened up to see the obvious. Things like beans, the sky, dirt-- and inextricably teachers who show us the way.
Black-eyed Beans with Mushrooms or Lobhia aur khumbi, serves 6
Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking
These beans are cheery little fellows who seem to want nothing more than to make one smile. Thin skinned, sweet, a tad smoky, and almost succulent they are good choice for an avid bean hater. It is tempting to skip steps with Indian cooking. I do it all the time and then reprimand myself later. I also tend to reduce the oil and salt when following Jaffrey’s recipes and regret this as well. Time, oil, and proper seasoning give the appropriate depth. The proportions below reflect my choices and still offer satisfying results.
8 oz. dried black-eyed peas
2 pints water
6 oz sliced crimini mushrooms
1 tsp. cumin seeds
4 garlic cloves chopped fine
14 oz. diced tomatoes
1 ½ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground turmeric
¼ tsp cayenne pepper
1 ½ tsp salt
Fresh ground pepper
Directions: Put peas and water into a heavy pot and bring to a boil. Cover and turn the temperature low to bring the beans to a simmer. Turn off the heat after 2 minutes and leave covered for an hour (I didn’t wait the full hour). In a large skillet on medium high fire heat some oil (I believe she asked for 3 Tblsp) and then toss in the cumin seeds and cinnamon stick to toast for a few seconds. Then put in the onions and garlic and brown. Stir in the mushrooms and cook until they begin to wilt, add in the tomatoes with its juice, ground coriander, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne pepper. Cook for about ten minutes to allow the flavors to come together and then turn off. In the meantime bring the beans to a boil again and then lower the flame to bring the beans to a simmer. Cook until the beans are tender which should take 20-30 minutes. Add the mushroom mixture, salt and pepper to the mix and cook on low for an additional 25 minutes. Add the cilantro towards the end and serve over rice with some yogurt on the side.