It all started with chickpeas... and the influence of a crotchety, old farmer.
Janna Bishop's stepfather owns a grain farm in Saskatchewan. During his trips to Vancouver, he would often remark on the quality of grains one would find in grocery stores and bulk bin stores. "These are terrible in quality!" "The prices are outrageous!" "There are grasshoppers in that bin!" It was this kind of fiery dedication to transparency and quality that led Janna to think about the kind of dry goods - specifically grains - that need to exist in the Canadian market.
When she could, Janna would bring over chickpeas from her farm over to Shira McDermott, a self-confessed passionate food-lover and vegetarian. Over time, this bloomed into the beginnings of a business wherein they would maintain the transparency and the quality they so often dreamed of having access to. It was during a night out at Rain City Chronicles where GRAIN started to take form, and like every successful, passion-driven enterprise, dreams and multiple discussions between friends suddenly turned into something tangible.
In the fall of 2013, the foundations of the business started taking form; the planning, the securing of domains, the naming, and the nurturing of their relationships with various farmers all happened around this time. Shira's background in the food industry came in handy; by the summer of 2014, they have secured their first wholesale client. Cafe Medina had just re-opened with a brand new space right in the heart of Vancouver's Library District, and their style of food under the guidance of the then-executive chef, Jonathan Chovancek, proved to be a worthy starting point for GRAIN to establish their roots within the independent and thriving food scene in Vancouver. Shira and Janna both laughed as they both recalled the very first time they launched the product to their first wholesale client. "From a manufacturing standpoint - packaging - we weren't ready," Janna laughingly recalls. "I sewed cloth bags - 10 kilogram bags." "In fact, one of our very first Instagram posts was of Janna's bags being delivered to our first wholesale client," Shira notes. "I have a design background - apparel design - so I can work my way around Illustrator. We just figured it all out," Janna adds. The duo still has the two prototypes for their early packaging experiments. The handwriting font that they have chosen closely resembles Janna's own handwriting. It all fell into place, logistically, and pretty soon, their wholesale clientele grew. "We started supplying restaurants - well, that one restaurant at first - but then the grains we have supplied Cafe Medina started getting some exposure in the Globe & Mail, which forced us to get our website up and live... Thankfully we already had the basis of what we wanted to do and how we wanted it to look like and we haven't looked back since!" Janna pipes in, "I will never forget when it got to - Oh! We have ten restaurant accounts now!"
In addition to Cafe Medina, Vancouver restaurants like Campagnolo, Farmer's Apprentice, Fable, Royal Dinette, Burdock and Co., and the brand new cafe and eatery, Birds and the Beets use their grains. Shira and Janna add, "We have been really fortunate to have the support of the local bread-baking community too. Our plan, in addition to the unprocessed grains - is to get our flours and our flour mill up and running. As soon as we started talking about this business, it became evident that this is a part of what we really wanted to do. We are really lucky to get to work with people like Annabelle Choi, and Jesse McCleery (Pilgrimme Restaurant, Galiano Island), who is a really progressive chef. They trade secrets back and forth... and really... the food community here has been really amazing. Everyone here shares their resources, and looking after each other that way."
"They say that we should create a business that we wish already existed," Shira reflects. "As food lovers, we could not find the quality we wanted, nor the transparency we wanted, and we certainly could not find anything that would look decent on our shelves." "Or the stories," Janna adds, "We can just get excited about the stories! There are so many stories to products like these and no one was telling it..."
To find out more about GRAIN and their philosophy, visit their website here. Currently stocked on our shelves are the four GRAIN retail offerings: Laird Lentils, Golden Quinoa, Wheatberries, and Kabuli Chickpeas. You can find a bevy of recipes on GRAIN's site to get your culinary juices flowing, but we have devised a recipe of our own below, using Laird Lentils. The Laird Lentil Dal is the perfect Indian Summer dish and the perfect comfort food for when the colder, gloomy, rainy months arrive.
Laird Lentil Dal
Preparation Time: approximately 40 minutes | Serves 4-6
This recipe was adapted from a Barefoot Contessa episode, 'Off Duty'. In this segment, Ina Garten approaches some of her favourite chefs and asks them what they like to eat on their day off. This dal is loosely based off of Kevin Penner's lentil dal. I added some more aromatics that closely resemble my own memories of eating dal in some of the mom-and-pop Indian restaurants around Toronto, my hometown.
The addition of dried fenugreek leaves gives this dal an earthy green colour and punch, and adds another dimension of flavour to all the toasted aromatics that make this dal so flavourful and comforting. This dish is both vegan and gluten-free.
2 tsp. coriander seeds
3 tsp. cumin seeds
2 tsp. tellicherry peppercorns
1 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1/2 tsp. cardamom seeds
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tbsp. fenugreek leaves
1 tsp. dried chili flakes
1 tsp. turmeric powder
1 cup Eat Grain Laird Lentils
5 cups water
1 tsp. sea salt
1 can coconut milk
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 - 2 thumb-sized pieces ginger, finely minced
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 tbsp. grapeseed oil
Mise-en-place and Method
1) Toast the spices: coriander, cumin, tellicherry peppercorns, fenugreek seeds, and cardamom seeds. Set aside to cool.
2) In a large soup pot or dutch oven: pour in lentils, turmeric powder, salt, and the 5 cups of water. Bring to a simmer - about 30 minutes - to let the lentils soften. I tend to like my lentils with a little bite, so I never allow it to soften to a porridge-consistency.
3) Grind the cooled, toasted spices with a mortar and pestle. Personally, I use a cheap coffee grinder that I use specifically for grinding spices.
4) Crumble the fenugreek leaves with your hands and mix in the chili flakes and ground cinnamon. Set aside.
5) Mince the garlic and ginger and dice the onion.
6) In a sauté pan, heat grape seed oil and soften the onion before adding in the ginger and garlic. When fragrant, add in the crumbled fenugreek leaves, chill flakes, and ground cinnamon. Stir to incorporate, then add in the toasted ground spices. Sauté again until fragrant, then slowly pour in the coconut milk. Turn the heat down to just below a simmer, to let the spices marry into the coconut milk slurry.
6) Pour the spiced coconut milk slurry into the softened lentils and water mixture and stir. I leave this to simmer for about five minutes to allow the flavours to fully incorporate before turning the heat off.
Serve this dal on its own as a rich and filling soup or with toasted naan bread. To stretch this meal, I sometimes like to serve this as a stew over wild rice flavoured with toasted cumin and coriander seeds. Garnish with chopped green scallions, coriander leaves, and a lemon slice, should you wish to bring some acid into the mix. Greek yogurt will also do the trick, and add another dimension of flavour, though it will turn this vegan dish into a vegetarian dish. The possibilities are almost limitless; I found myself with about a cup-full of leftover dal once, and I ended up spooning it over pan-roasted, Indian-spiced chicken breasts, thereby treating it like a flavourful sauce rather than eating it on its own.
Story, Photographs, and Recipe Development: Issha Marie