Meatless Monday: Singing Out in the Kitchen

I am in the kitchen, singing. I am in the kitchen, singing for Pete Seeger, who died last week at the age of 94. Seeger was a folk music hero who wanted to get everyone to sing along. He called it his cultural guerrilla tactic, and he had a gift for it. My parents went to hear him when I was a little girl, and Seeger even managed to get my father -- whom I have never heard sing, ever -- to join in the chorus of, "If I Had a Hammer."

It wasn't Seeger's voice or banjo-playing that inspired Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen or even my dad, it was the man himself. He believed every voice should be heard. He believed in speaking out, in singing out. And in hootenanny.

The word hootenanny has Scottish origins and means party. For Seeger, a party always included music, its ability to transform. As he said in an NPR interview, "A real hootenanny was a bunch of people who hoped that music could bring people together to bring a peaceful world, a world without racism, a world where you had a right to join a union, a world without sexism."

How can singing do all that? The same way making dinner can. Sourcing and preparing your meals, sharing them with the people you love changes something in you -- it empowers you, it makes you responsible. And it creates a connection. You realize what you eat, what you feed your family comes from a plant, an animal or a factory. Maybe you never thought about it that way before. But now you have and now you care. You realize your choices matter. Seeger, a vegetarian, by the way, realized that, too. That's why he wrote the songs he did, to give you something to think about that lingers long after a catchy tune.

Seeger sang at Obama's inauguration, but he also sang at colleges and at migrant camps. He was a folk singer, playing music by and for the people. I am a folk cook --I believe in food grown and made by and for the people, food that's nourishing and accessible, made with whole ingredients and compassion. I believe in culinary hootenanny (if only it wasn't so hard to say), in cooking as a basic life skill as well as its own cultural guerrilla tactic.

My unmusical father sang out that night because he felt moved by Seeger's music and its sense we can create a better world. We can. Activism can be as elemental as a home-cooked meal, as simple as a song. "There's a lot of good music in this world," Seeger said. "If used right it may help to save the planet." So can a meal made with mindfulness, not meat.

Hobo Stew for Pete Seeger

As a guy who hopped trains with Woody Guthrie and hung out at migrant camps, Seeger would have known -- and probably ate -- a fair amount of Hobo Stew. Also called Mulligan stew, it was canned beans and cadged vegetables heated over an open fire. It has a million variations, including some with canned meat, but it's always cheap and improvised. This version is more elaborate, still cheap and, of course, meatless. Make it at a campsite, in a kitchen or on a hotplate. Sing when you're cooking. It'll taste even better.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika (smoked is especially nice)
1 cup red lentils
1 cup water or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups tomatoes, chopped or 1 15-ounce can chopped fire-roasted tomatoes
1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional, but I like it)
1 big handful fresh mint leaves, chopped
1 big handful fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 bunch kale, spinach, arugula, chard, any kind of fresh leafy green, chopped
juice of 1 lemon

sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens slightly, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and pepper and stir in the cumin and paprika. Stir together and continue cooking for another 3-5 minutes.
Pour in lentils and stir for a minute or so, until they get a nice luster from the oil. Add the water and tomato paste and the chopped tomatoes. Stir so everyone is happy together.
Reduce heat to low, cover the pot and leave everyone to get acquainted for about 12-15 minutes. This is all the time red lentils need to cook.

Check the pot and make sure all the liquid has been absorbed and lentils are paler and tender.

Then add the mint, parsley and fresh greens by the handful, stirring gently to combine. Watch how the greens become "cooked" by the heat of the lentils and onion. Squeeze in the lemon juice and season generously with sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Enjoy hot or at room temperature. It keeps covered for several days, and the flavor improves.

Serves 4-6 or double it and feed a crowd.