Pulses are a Versatile and Delicious Staple in Alberta Food Blogger’s Recipes (PCN Spring 2015) MAR 25 2015 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News
In celebration of Nutrition Month in March, APG presents an interview with an Alberta-based food blogger who promotes pulses as an essential part of a healthy and delicious diet. Michelle Peters-Jones is an Edmonton-based food blogger, recipe developer and pulse advocate. Her blog can be read and interacted with at www.thetiffinbox.ca.
PCN: Please tell us a bit about yourself and your love of food.
MPJ: I grew up in India, with a grandfather who was a wedding chef and I was surrounded by chefs and people who love food all my life. I work as a recipe developer and a food writer, and this has helped me develop my skills in the kitchen. I enjoy cooking and coming up with new recipes, as well as sharing recipes from my childhood. We grow a lot of our own food and this has helped me understand and respect the process of knowing where our food comes from.
PCN: Can you tell me how you became interested in creating recipes and blogging about food? How did you go about starting www.thetiffinbox.ca?
MPJ: I started cooking seriously when I moved from India to the UK to pursue a graduate degree. I realized quickly that if I wanted to eat the food from my childhood, I would have to cook it myself. My mom and I had a lot of conversations about recipes, food and adding flavour on the phone, and I soon became pretty good at adapting my ethnic cuisine to locally sourced food. When I was living in England, I auditioned to be on Masterchef UK, and as a result of doing fairly well on the show, a lot of people contacted me asking for my recipes. A friend suggested I start a weblog, instead of emailing recipes to everyone, and this led to my writing about food. I soon realized that I had a passion for writing about food, and the response was amazing. When I moved to Canada, I was not able to work for a couple of years, so I concentrated on writing and creating recipes for my website, which led to many opportunities in the food writing and recipe development world. I’ve been very lucky that I am able to follow my passion and dreams and write and blog about food.
PCN: How did you become interested in cooking with pulses?
MPJ: I grew up in India and pulses were a huge part of our diet. Almost half of the Indian population is vegetarian, and pulses are a very important source of protein and nutrition. We almost always had a dal, kidney beans or chickpea dish as our main meal, and they were a flavourful alternative to meat, which could be expensive. I’ve continued to love pulses and they are now a really big part of our diet here in Canada too, especially considering that I am raising a vegetarian daughter. I love experimenting with different pulse recipes from several cuisines, and they’re always a big hit in our home.
PCN: What do you enjoy most about using pulses in recipes?
MPJ: Pulses are incredibly versatile and are great for adding bulk to dishes. I love using pulses in savoury dishes, especially ethnic style food, and they add not just heft to a dish, but also are incredibly nutritious. They take on flavours very easily and are great to adapt to local cuisines. I love that I can buy pulses in bulk, and have them for an easy to store cupboard meal at any time.
PCN: What are some of your favourite pulses to use in recipes?
MPJ: Chickpeas win hands down for me. They are great in Indian dishes, and are so convenient to use and store. Chickpeas are closely followed by kidney beans, then lentils. My mom makes a delicious sweet mung bean breakfast that I love too. Though I must admit, I like all pulses, so choosing is always hard for me.
PCN: Are there any pulses or pulse products that you wish were more widely available in Edmonton and how do you manage to find it or manage without it?
MPJ: Mung beans tend to be a little on the hard side to find, but a lot of Asian stores have them. Overall, I’ve never struggled to find any pulses in Edmonton, and I am grateful for that.
PCN: For whom do you usually cook?
MPJ: Mainly for my family. I also do Indian cooking classes, and pulses feature heavily in them. When developing recipes, I tend to have friends over so that they can taste and give me feedback on my dishes. I usually test recipes at least three times, so I can make sure that they come out perfectly all the time.
PCN: You have a full-time job outside of blogging and a family. What tips do you have to speed up meal prep?
MPJ: Organization is the key. I am a European style shopper (as in I shop for fresh ingredients every couple of days or so), so I make sure I know what dish I am going to cook in advance, and buy the ingredients for it the day before. I prep as much as I can the night before, so when I get back from work, I only have to throw something in the oven or prep minimally for the dish. The days I recipe test are very different though, as I think through each element of my recipe separately and prep in advance, so I can write down my thoughts and tweaks as I go along. I also freeze a lot of prepared dishes, so on the days we are late getting home, I can still make sure I have a home cooked meal on the table in time.
PCN: Do you have any tips about cooking with pulses that may interest other cooks?
MPJ: Pulses are easy to cook with, especially if you follow a few of these simple tips. If using dried beans or legumes, soak them in cold, salted water for at least four hours or overnight. The next day, discard the soaking water and cook the pulses in fresh water, under tender. You can add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to soften skins and reduce cooking time a little. Don’t add too much, or you’ll get mush. Lentils don’t need to be pre-soaked, but wash them well to get rid of as much starch as you can. Recent research has shown that you can brine pulses to make them more flavourful and tender. Not organized enough to soak? No problem, here’s another tip I learned. Place the dried pulses in a large pot, cover with cold water. Bring the water up to a boil and boil for five minutes. Turn off the heat, and let them sit in the water for about 45 minutes. Change the water and cook as normal. If using canned pulses, rinse them out first, before adding to a recipe.
PCN: What is your favourite recipe to make using pulses and why?
MPJ: Hummus is such an easy tapas style appetizer, and I love making a famous Indian chickpea dish called chhole bhature, spiced chickpeas served with a fluffy, fried bread. I also love rajmah, a simple Indian dish of red kidney beans in a spicy tomato sauce.
PCN: What is the process for creating and testing a new recipe?
MPJ: Complicated 🙂 I start with an idea or theme. Often, I get specific themes from the people I work with, so it makes it a little easier. So, for example, if the theme is soup, I start with an idea of what kind of soup I want to make – chunky, smooth, broth based… lots of ideas. Once I narrow down my ideas, I start by sketching out a rough recipe, which I will then use to make a first version of the dish. Once I’ve got an idea of the flavours that go together, I start adding tweaks to the recipe to make it different and unusual. I usually take a lot of inspiration from my ethnic roots, so I will use spices and herbs, for example. The second time, I test out my revised recipe. If the flavours are spot on, I write up the recipe, including all my additions, then make it a third time. If I’ve got everything right, third time is usually perfect.
PCN: What do you like most about sharing recipes that you’ve created on your blog?
MPJ: Sharing is such an important part of our culture. All cultures share knowledge and ideas, and for me, it’s what makes life so important. In India, a lot of recipes were passed down via oral tradition. I love that I share my memories along with the recipe, and so when readers are looking at a recipe, they are also learning about the history of the food, of my culture and my family. I love sharing ideas and thoughts about what I do, and it helps when I receive feedback that helps me make my writing and food better.
PCN: Where do you find inspiration for your blog posts?
MPJ: Inspiration is everywhere. I will be reading a book, and it will describe a food, and I want to go into the kitchen and make it. I have a huge number of cookbooks, and when I am feeling uninspired I read them, and I get so many ideas about what I can do. I love looking at travel websites, and leave feeling inspired by other cuisines. I have travelled the world quite a bit, and these travels are always a huge source of ideas of how to incorporate food into my everyday routine. I love wandering around markets, both here in Edmonton, and around the world, and pick up unusual food items, and it’s always inspiring to hear stories and read other people’s blogs and websites too.
PCN: What are your aspirations regarding the blog?
MPJ: Currently, my blog is what I do to keep me inspired and cooking. I use it as a springboard to work on projects and with companies and organizations that I am passionate about supporting. It also works as a portfolio, people come to me via my blog and it has been a good source of income, but also of creative expression. I love experimenting on it, and sharing my experiences with the world, and it’s gratifying that so many people all over the world read and enjoy it. I think for now, I am happy with how it is, but there is always room for improvement. I hope to make it more professional, and also improve the content and photography. Change is the only constant in life, anyway.
PCN: Why do you think blogging is so popular with bloggers and their followers?
MPJ: Bloggers started off as an alternative to traditional media, but people are quickly realizing the power of blogs. There are so many different blogs in the world today, and what makes them popular is that people can directly engage with the voice behind the blog. I have so many people come up to me and tell me that they feel like they know me because they’ve followed my blog for so long, and it’s now personal to them as well. We invest so much emotional energy into our blogs and it shows. Our readers are not customers, they turn into friends and confidantes and through this process of engagement, we share each other’s lives and ups and downs. We open ourselves up on our blogs and our readers respond to that openness. There is no room for falsity or fakeness on our blogs, readers will see through that straight away and disengage. The way we can keep our readers and gain more, is by being scrupulously honest and knowing what they want. For example, my blog is all about recipes and stories. If I suddenly start talking politics, most of my readers would turn away. However, it doesn’t mean I can’t talk about politics, it just means that I need to engage my readers in the way I always have, by being myself and open with everything.
PCN: Can you tell me about Food Bloggers of Canada and your involvement with the organization?
MPJ: Food Bloggers of Canada is a cool website and organization that brings together food bloggers from all over Canada. Currently we have over 1,600 members and more are being added every day. It’s a great space to share, engage and learn more about blogging and life in general. We are a supportive community, and we help each other out. We jokingly call ourselves the union for food bloggers across Canada. As their Alberta representative, I reach out to bloggers from Alberta and help keep them connected. I also serve as a representative for FBC and contact for Alberta. We are planning some cool sessions for bloggers here and we also connect brands to bloggers and vice versa.
PCN: As you know, part of the Alberta Pulse Growers Commission’s vision is to have Alberta pulses recognized by consumers as environmentally friendly, healthy and nutritional. What do you think needs to happen in order for more consumers to put pulses on their plates more often?
MPJ: There are many ways that we could make pulses popular. Personally, I believe that they are already popular, but there could be so much more information on their nutritional value, health benefits and their impact on the environment. A lot of people eat more consciously now, and pulses could really enhance this consciousness with great branding, recipes and promotions. People tend to be afraid of the unknown, by educating them more about pulses and making sure that they are kept approachable and fun, we could really spread the pulse love all over.
PCN: The United Nations has declared 2016 as International Year of Pulses. Do you have any plans to mark this special year on your blog or otherwise?
MPJ: Absolutely, I am hoping to work more with APG, but also will celebrate by posting innovative, cool recipes and stories on my blog. I have so many great ideas, and I can’t wait to share them all with you and my readers. 2016 can’t come soon enough for me!
PCN: Can you please share a delicious pulse recipe that you’ve created and explain the story of its development?
MPJ: I have tons of pulse recipes on the website, but these two versions of curried chickpeas are my favourite. They’re spicy, tangy and delicious with bhature, or a fluffy fried Indian bread.