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Festival of Winter Protein

A belated reply to the Green Mountain College student or supporter who supposed that saying “soy isn’t in season in the winter” was some sort of argument for the superiority of animal flesh as a “sustainable” source of protein.

Black beans, red beans, pink beans, white beans. Chick peas. Green lentils, red lentils, yellow lentils. Navy beans, pinto beans, kidney beans. Lima beans. Great Northern Beans.  Green split peas, yellow split peas. Mung beans, adzuki beans.

Let’s not forget the heirloom varieties: Jacob’s Cattle beans,  Arikara Yellow beans, Hidatsa Red benas, Good Mother Stallard beans, Snow Cap beans, Ojo De Cabra beans, Saint-Esprit à Oeil beans, White Rice beans, Yellow China beans, Hutterite Soup beans and literally dozens and dozens more. When you grow heirloom beans, you not only treat yourself to new flavors and colors; you also help to preserve the diversity of our seed supply.

dried beans and lentils

All of these legumes are excellent sources of protein that can be dried. No, that’s making it sound too difficult. All of these legumes are excellent sources of protein that grow easily and dry themselves on the vine.

Any gardener with enough land and the will to do it can easily grow enough sources of concentrated protein to last the winter. Bean plants not only grow readily but enrich rather than deplete the soil, due to the nitrogen-fixing properties of the interaction between their roots and the Rhizobium bacteria found in most soil. (Do they not teach this at the Green Mountain College farm program? How can it be that home gardeners know more about growing crops than agriculture students?)

So, beans can be grown as a stand-alone crop in fields or garden areas in which heavy nitrogen users were grown the year before. Beans also can be grown within systems of plants, such as the corn-beans-squash system used by many Native American farmers. In that system, the corn stalks serve as supports for the vining beans. (Yes, there’s one of many reasons we chose the acronym VINE.)

But let’s not forget nuts: almonds, beech nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and more. Nut trees, once mature, provide plentifully, as anybody who has ever lived near a walnut tree knows. And, as every squirrel (but I guess not every college student) knows, nuts last all winter. Which nut you might be able to grow or buy locally will depend on your region, but most nuts are high in not only protein but also many other vital nutrients. Hazelnuts in particular (which do grow well here in New England) provide a whopping dose of vitamin E and are also good sources of thiamin, folate, and vitamin B6. Walnuts also can be grown in New England and are especially excellent sources of essential fatty acids.

But—wait!—there’s more: Quiet as it’s kept, protein lurks not only among the usual suspects but also in many unsuspected locales, including those dark leafy greens you’ve heard tell about. Kale packs a powerful protein punch, along with iron, calcium, fiber, and essential fatty acids. A cool-season crop, kale can be started early in the spring; a second crop can be sown in the summer for harvesting into late fall. Even better, you can knock together a cold-frame out of discarded windows or other found objects and grow cool-season greens almost all year long. Kale can even be dehydrated into crunchy winter snacks.

Speaking of cold-frames, let me remind you of the old-school root cellar, in which potatoes, turnips, and other root crops that aren’t in season in the winter can be kept edible well into the winter. And, of course, tomatoes, fruit, and other summertime treats can be canned for later consumption. So, seriously, it’s just silly to suggest that sustainability requires eating animals in the wintertime. Spring, summer, winter, or fall, eating an animal always means implicitly eating all of the plants (and drinking all of the water) that animal consumed over the course of her or her life. And that’s always more resource-intensive (and much less kind) than just eating plants directly.

Vegans! Pipe up! What are your favorite ways to prepare any of the sustainable protein sources mentioned here?

I’ll go first. I love to grow Santa Maria Piquento beans, which are heirloom plants producing a plenitude of small, round, light brown beans that require very little in the way of soaking before cooking. After doing a quick soak (bring to a boil, wait an hour, drain), I like to saute them with molasses, garlic, and ginger for a dish I call “stove-top baked beans.”

I discovered those beans when Miriam and I were living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. In that backyard urban garden, I managed to grow nearly a hundred varieties of vegetables and herbs by making efficient use of space (including vertical space–I do love those vines) and by using proven veganic gardening techniques. That’s why I feel so frustrated when folks who have even more land that I had to work with there claim that they somehow need animals or animal products to produce food sustainably.

11 comments to Festival of Winter Protein

  • Charlotte

    I make a pretty mean hummus, if I may say so myself. Thank you for this blog! I fear we are ALL partly responsible for forgetting about these “humble” (and cheap and tasty) sources of protein, so it’s always good to have a reminder.

  • pattrice

    Yum! Homemade hummus is so much more delicious than store-bought. There are so many ways you can tweak it!

    Before I started gardening, I had no idea how delicious chick peas (aka garbanzo beans) could be. As with so many other foods, the canned ones are more mushy and less tasty. Now, even if I haven’t grown them myself, I go with dried chick peas instead. It’s worth the extra effort, both in terms of flavor and sustainability.

  • Jo Ward

    Beans are great! Tasty and filling and good for you! Anyone who says they aren’t hasn’t tried em!

  • pattrice

    Quiet as it’s kept, beans and rice–or some variant on that legumes and grain theme–is the staple, and very sustainable, food worldwide. Traditionally, the vast majority of people have eaten a predominantly plant-based diet centered on pulses or legumes as the chief, and very healthy, source of protein. That’s why many social justice, hunger, and agriculture NGOs in the Global South see the globalization of the Western meat-based diet as a form of neocolonialism or dietary racism.

  • CQ

    pattrice, you’d make a great farm manager at any school that’s seriously into sustainable agriculture. :-) Seriously!

    Speaking of “dietary racism,” isn’t that what “give-an-animal-to-a-poor-person” projects like Heifer and Oxfam practice? Yes, neocolonialism, racism — and corporatism. That is, corporate profits. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if national associations of “beef,” pork,” “poultry,” “dairy,” sheep and goat farmers were behind these marketing-meat-and-milk schemes. (A number of articles have been written on the deleterious effects of Heifer et al; a brief one by vegan dietician Virginia Messina is here: http://www.examiner.com/article/donations-to-heifer-international-may-do-more-harm-than-good)

    Thanks for the intro to an array of beans I’ve never heard of. The heirloom varieties sound delicious and nutritious.

  • Marty

    I’d like to try growing my own beans someday! So many more varieties than what dried one finds at the store. It’s so easy to eat plant based, why there’s even a question amazes me. Tho I’ve only been vegan 5 years, I’ve followed macrobiotic, ayurvedic and vegetarian principles for over 25 years. Speaking of hummus: I make it not just with garbanzo beans and tahini, but any bean and walnuts or pecans (soaked) not adding any extra oil but adding extra bean cooking water, with the other traditional hummus ingredients. I love winter soups and stews, root veggies, squashes, and even frozen collards still left in the garden. I usually don’t follow recipes but cook to taste that day.

  • Marty

    I love this post, it helps me look forward to growing my own beans someday. Pattrice, do you have to dry them, and how do you keep them, just like regular store bought? Sorry, may sound like silly questions, but I’ve never had fresh grown beans but lima, not a favorite. Mung or split yellow mung beans are favorites to cook with too, easily digestible.

  • Rebecca Stucki

    I am constantly amazed at the enormous variety in a plant-based diet! I can’t keep up with all the recipes I want to try. So much food – so little time! :-)

  • victoria figurelli

    I make great black beans use back beans garlic vegrable broth oregano then after they are cooked I mash to like a refried beans they are great can make a good mexican meal and pair it with rice and vegan enchiladas

  • pattrice

    @Marty most beans will dry on the vine at the end of the season if you let them. The pods will become brown and papery, and the seeds will rattle inside. Just be sure to harvest the dry pods after a few days without rain (so that they’re not damp). Then just remove the beans and store them in repurposed glass jars or any other container in which you might store dried beans bought in bulk at the co-op. Put the pods shells in the compost or just drop them back into the garden to decompose. (They also make a nice mulch.) If you’re having an especially wet fall and want to harvest even though it’s rainy, you can either pull up the plants and drape them around to dry off or you can pick the pods and spread them or the enclosed beans on a screen to dry.

  • I love this post that reminds us all how truly abundant our plant-based food sources really are!

    I’m in Florida so most of my tomatoes were done by the end of July – The summer heat really stresses the plants… But I wound up with so many tomatoes that I sun-dried about 50 pounds of them. And now they are nicely preserved and contained in about 8 jars that will last me well into spring. They are delicious on sandwiches, mixed in rice or stir fry.

    Just a month ago I planted curly leaf kale, arugula, cauliflower, broccoli and brussel sprouts… The lemons are turning ripe. I usually get several bushels – much more than I could ever use and give them away. The tangelo is young still, but there’s fruit worthy of picking and eating… And I hope by this time next year the papaya trees get happy and give some goodies as well.

    Let’s face it – It’s wonderful to grow your own food… Even if you are in an urban area and can only manage some herbs on a window sill – Still – It connects you to a life giving force. How anyone (or “sustainable” college) could negate all the nourishing possibilities from plants to opt for dead foods instead is beyond me.

    “…Earth is generous, With her provision, and her sustenance, is very kind. She offers, for your table, food that requires no bloodshed and no slaughter.” Ovid

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