Grainews: First We Eat – I am a runner

Grainews

I am a runner. When the weather allows, I run with my friend, Amy Jo Ehman, along the riversides and bridges of Saskatoon when I’m not scudding through the sand and gravel of our rural roads. Last fall, I ran my first ten-k trail race as a family event, with my youngest son and his partner, and in May, while those two run the marathon, I’ll run in the Vancouver Marathon’s 20-k half-marathon race.

I like the endorphins, that runner’s high, and running is good for me. It keeps my brain focussed, my lungs and muscles toned, my emotions on an even keel, and my heart healthy. It’s also supposed to keep my cholesterol levels manageable. I don’t worry obsessively about those numbers tracking “good fat” versus “bad fat” – data from reputable sources such as the Weston A. Price Foundation cites the vital role of cholesterol, and of fat and meat from grassfed animals. But it is disputed whether cholesterol contributes to the accumulation of plaque along the path to the heart; too much plaque can clog blood flow and trigger a heart attack. So I do fret about my heart and its arteries and valves. But my weight is right for my frame, I play hard and I’m choosy about what I eat; I’ve been a locavore for most of my life, and mostly cook with locally sourced and home-grown ingredients – although I do drink coffee and eat oranges and chocolate – but no processed foods, no junk, nothing fast.

So I thought I was safe. But a recent visit to my MD revealed that my cholesterol levels have not dropped “enough” from previous readings – regardless of my running and my healthy diet. Should I be worried? I did some reading, and I don’t like the side effects of the statins that are usually prescribed to manage cholesterol – statins inhibit the production of an enzyme needed to produce cholesterol in the liver, and that enzyme’s absence can cause severe muscle pain and memory loss. I’m fond of my wits – and my muscles! – as they are. So I’ve decided to eat more beans instead.

This dietary change doesn’t strike me as onerous. I was a vegetarian for thirteen years, and my favourite cuisine is India’s, the most sophisticated vegetarian cuisine in the world. So it won’t be a deprivation to eat more lentils, chickpeas, great northern or pinto beans – many of which are grown on the prairies.

It never has been a deprivation for me to run on beans: on a trip to the Languedoc region of France a few years back, I made it my mission to find the best cassoulet, the peasant classic that has nurtured generations of French farmers; in northern Spain a simpler dish is called porchas; and to Canadian Air Force kids like I was, it’s pork and beans.

So, interspersed with strolls to the Carcassonne market, to Minerve to admire the high Roman aqueduct, past the barges moored on the Canal du Midi, I visited Toulouse. I searched out the city’s old quarter, and ate bowls of white beans studded with every edible part of the pig. A high-toned version included confit, duck legs crisped in duck fat, and a cap of buttered bread crumbs; others were garnished with sausage, pork hock, pancetta, bacon. On a later trip to northern Spain, I ate porchas, beans with shreds of leftover jamon, air-cured pork leg, in a traditional comidas, and recalled the molasses-soaked Boston-baked beans my mom had cooked when I was a kid. But beneath all those disguises, the heart of the bowls remained the same: white beans with pork. So here it is, simple, healthy and delicious. I have another story to tell you later on, but first, let’s eat.

Porchas

This modest dish works just fine if you eliminate the meat entirely, or substitute cooked and shredded chicken thighs or drumsticks. Leftovers work well in quesadillas or soup. Serves 8

2 cups dried Emergo or Great Northern beans

4 cloves garlic

2 onions, minced

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 tsp. anise seed

2 bay leaves

1-2 cups shredded cooked smoked pork hock, ham, pancetta or prosciutto

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

sherry vinegar to taste

olive oil to taste

a drizzle of pomegranate molasses, maple syrup or honey (optional)

Cook the beans slowly in generous amounts of water, covered with a lid, until tender. Sautee the garlic and onion in olive oil with the anise seed and bay. Stir this mixture into the beans when they are half-cooked, after about 2 hours. Add the pork and cook for another hour, or until tender and thick. Season with salt, pepper, vinegar, oil and sweetener. Serve hot.

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