Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ruth Reichl's revisions: "For You, Mom, Finally"

In April when I reviewed Ruth Reichl's Not Becoming My Mother, I didn't realize it had just been reissued in paperback under a different name: For You, Mom, Finally. With Mother's Day coming up, the publisher may have noticed that the original title was not going to get the book featured in any gift displays.

The new title is more appropriate, really. Reichl often did not understand her flamboyant, troubled mother and sometimes nearly cut off contact with her, but without a doubt she loved her. Especially after she finally got up the courage to read through a dusty old box of her mother's letters and journals.

I won't say any more about the book since I thoroughly reviewed it here, except to  note that Reichl has written a new Afterword about readers' responses to the hardcover edition. Apparently a lot of women, like her, don't want to become their mothers. Most striking, however, was a comment from a woman young enough to be Reichl's daughter: "Ms. Reichl, I don't want to become you."

Reichl and I are about the same age. I can't speak for her, but I'm guessing she might agree: I don't want to become my mother (though that would not be a bad thing), and I don't want my daughters to become me. It's challenging enough just to become ourselves.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

10 vegetarian meals in pictures

A healthful diet is usually colorful. A good meal always is. Eating vegetarian does not need to be dull. And in case you were wondering, Adam did not trade Paradise for an apple. It was an avocado.

Breakfast (or lunch or dinner, for that matter)

1. Whole wheat waffles topped with slightly sweetened plain yogurt and fresh raspberries

Lunch (or dinner)

2. Salad with arugula, black beans (hidden), queso fresco, tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, and avocado

3. Avocado, cheese, tomato, and lettuce sandwiches

4. Insalata caprese: basil leaves, tomato slices, fresh mozzarella, pine nuts, salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil; even better with homemade bread

Dinner (or lunch)

5. Chestnut soufflé with lamb's lettuce, apple, and pine nut salad

6. Gnocchi with tomato sauce and parmesan, white beans with caramelized onions, and - to add the necessary color - a strip of chopped spinach

7. Cheese and artichoke quiche with arugula and tomato salad

8. Orecchiette pasta with fava beans, ricotta, and mint (serve a colorful salad separately)

9. Risotto, asparagus, and tomato slices

10. Vegetarian salade niçoise: red leaf lettuce, tiny boiled onions, asparagus, green beans, boiled eggs, tomato, avocado, capers - all cold, in a vinaigrette dressing

Saturday, May 22, 2010

10 spring vegetables and what to do with them

Most farmers' markets in our area (northeastern Illinois) open in June, but the one in our town brings produce from southern Illinois and southwestern Michigan in early May, and we are feasting. Here are 10 treats for vegans, vegetarians, omnivores, locavores, and everyone who likes unbelievably fresh food, even though it's still May.

1. baby lettuce leaves - no wonder the rabbits love them. The green and red leaf lettuce I've been buying is utterly delectable, dressed with just a little olive oil, a squirt of fresh lemon, and a tiny sprinkle of salt.
2. rhubarb - Barbara Kingsolver, craving fruit in April, discovered rhubarb, which Alice Waters called "the vegetable bridge between the tree fruits of winter and summer."
3. asparagus - steam* or simmer lightly, but be sure it stays crisp. Serve with a little butter and lemon juice in a separate dish for dipping. Emily Post approved of eating short, crisp stalks with your fingers.
4. baby potatoes -steam* for a few minutes, then sauté in olive oil and/or butter. Best with coarse salt and freshly ground course pepper. Add garlic during last minute of cooking, if you like. Remove from heat and stir in fresh parsley.
5. spinach - heat a splash of olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Soften some garlic or green onions or shallots in the oil, if you like. Add spinach and stir until all the leaves are wilted. Immediately remove from heat. Good as is, or add a small squirt of lemon juice.
6. chard - spinach's more colorful cousin. Stalks are delicious. Chop them and cook them separately in olive oil with a little onion and/or garlic. Sprinkle with lemon juice. Leaves can be cooked however you cook spinach.
7. beets - cook the greens however you cook spinach. Stab the red bulbs several times with a fork, wrap them in aluminum foil, and bake for 30-60 minutes, depending on how big they are. Good hot, good in soup, very nice cold, sliced thin, in salad with crumbled goat cheese and orange slices.
8. carrots - steam,* boil, add to soup, grate for salad, turn into juice, or give to small dogs as treats. My dog Muffin often says "Why?" when I ask her to come back in the house, but if I say "Carrot?" she comes immediately.
9. radishes - I have never seen much reason to eat these, which is why I did not renew my C.S.A. subscription - my farmer, a wonderful lady, seemed to have a radish fetish. But you can slice the little ones on salad and stir fry the big ones, and I'm sure God made them for a reason.
10. broccoli - bring a big pot of water to a rapid boil. Drop the broccoli into it. I usually eat just the florets and a small amount of the stem. If you want to eat lots of stem, chop it up, drop it in the water first, and let it bubble for a couple of minutes before adding the florets. Then turn the heat to medium and cook for just a minute or two. You don't want it to turn sickly green. Drain and serve with melted butter, vinaigrette, or a drizzle of olive oil. Alternately, you can steam broccoli, but by the time it's tender enough, it may lose its color.

*I steam many vegetables in my Tupperware microsteamer, usually until they are about half done (this often takes only a couple of minutes). I then finish them by sautéing them in a little olive oil or roasting them in a hot oven. This is not a commercial. The steamer was a gift from my daughter Molly, who also has one and uses it all the time.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Review of "Eaarth" by Bill McKibben

A couple of weeks ago I read Paul Greenberg's excellent review, "Hot Planet, Cold Facts," of Bill McKibben's newest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. I immediately put a hold on it at the public library. It arrived yesterday, and I read it after dinner last night. I'm not an especially fast reader, but this is an especially readable book. McKibben is more than a prophet of doom; he is also a clear and witty writer who often made me laugh out loud.

Yes, there are supposed to be two a's in Eaarth - McKibben's point is that over the last four decades, "the earth has changed in profound ways, ways that have already taken us out of the sweet spot where humans so long thrived." It is so different, in fact, that "it needs a new name." And we Eaarthlings are in such denial about the differences that we probably need a global AA-style intervention, though McKibben nowhere suggests that the double-A is a pun.

Note that word already. It has become customary for the environmentally conscious to bewail the legacy we are leaving our grandchildren. "If you've got a spare month some time, google global warming and grandchildren," McKibben suggests, giving examples of "essentially identical and anodyne responses" from Ted Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joe Lieberman, David Attenborough, Bill Clinton, and Roger Ebert, among others. As Barack Obama said in 2008, "This is our generation's moment to save future generations from global catastrophe."

Sorry, says McKibben - global catastrophe is already here. The earth bumped along quite nicely for 10,000 years with 275 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and then we started burning fossil fuels and the level started to rise. We'll be in big trouble when the level hits 550ppm, scientists used to say. Then they brought the number down to 450ppm - "still 15 percent above our current levels," so people continued to think in terms of future generations. In December 2007, however,
James Hansen, still the planet's leading climatologist, ... summarized both the real-world data that had emerged in recent years, including the ice-melt, and also the large body of research on paleoclimate - basically, the attempt to understand what had happened in the distant past when carbon dioxide levels climbed and fell. Taken together, he said, these two lines of inquiry made it clear that the safe number was, at most, 350 parts per million.
According to McKibben's website,, we're now at 387ppm.

The results are already devastating parts of the world. If we were magically able to turn back the clock and bring CO2 levels down to 350ppm or lower, we would still be living with the effects of a thawed Arctic, acidified oceans, changed rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, and so on. About half of Eaarth describes these effects, and they are far more serious than most of us comfortable Americans can imagine. "We're not ... going to get back the planet we used to have, the one on which our civilization developed," McKibben writes. "We're like the guy who ate steak for dinner every night and let his cholesterol top 300 and had the heart attack. Now he dines on Lipitor and walks on the treadmill, but half his heart is dead tissue."

So do we just lie down in our hammocks and wait for the end? Not if we're anything like Bill McKibben. In the last half of the book, he tells us how we need to live in this new and terrifying earth we have created.

Unlike Thomas Friedman, who "serves as a kind of political GPS unit, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they're in the know, but never beyond the comforting bounds of conventional wisdom," McKibben does not think our salvation lies in great global projects that will allow us to maintain our faith in economic growth. Some large-scale projects -  providing alternative energy sources, for example - are necessary and good - but there's no way we can afford the number of such projects we would need in order to continue our rush to Bigger and Better.

McKibben's solution, by contrast, is Small and Local. Instead of hauling food around the world, we need to foster family farms. Instead of constant flying and driving, we need to keep in touch with the rest of the world through the Internet. Instead of building giant centralized power plants, we need to develop many local power sources. Instead of relying on the federal government for everything, we need to take back our communities.

Suddenly the left-leaning activist of the book's first half is sounding like a Tea Party libertarian, or a nostalgic flower child. As Greenberg wryly commented, "Many of these proposed solutions inadvertently resemble the list of things Christian Lander lampooned in his 2008 best seller Stuff White People Like: 'farmer’s markets,' 'awareness,' 'making you feel bad about not going outside,' 'vegan/vegetarianism.'"

True, but that doesn't distract from McKibben's message: The earth has already changed. Many of the changes are permanent. In order to thrive in this new earth - Eaarth - we are going to have to change too. Not cosmetically, not temporarily, but fundamentally.

Click to read Jed Lipinski's Salon interview with Bill McKibben, "'Eaarth': Earth is over."

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Today's special - second-hand poop!

"You want chicken poop with that steak?"

Want it or not, says Animal Factory author David Kirby in an April 9, 2010, Huffington Post article - you're likely to get it. "Poultry excrement is loaded with urea, which bovine stomachs are adept at converting into lean, ready-to-grill protein," he writes. "We feed chicken manure to cattle because it's cheap; and because we produce far too much of it to properly dispose of as fertilizer."

In the 1960s and 70s, writes Nicolette Hahn Niman in Righteous Porkchop,  “agribusiness researchers came to regard all kinds of poop as acceptable cattle feed (and poultry and pig feed too)." The Food and Drug Administration was not especially bothered by this. Check out chapter 2 of their 1980 document Feed from Animal Wastes for a complete run-down on how to feed chicken poop to cows, cow dung to chickens, etc.

Ah, but that was 30 years ago. In the meantime we've had all kinds of scares: BSE ("mad cow disease"), salmonella and campylobacter, e coli ... surely the FDA has tightened its rules since then?

No, actually, the FDA and the USDA don't see anything wrong with second-hand poop. And if you think government regulators work hard and earn their salaries (think banking, Wall Street, oil spills, etc.), you probably feel quite confident that our food is safe. It won't turn your stomach to learn that many imported Chinese shrimp dine on chicken feces dropped from cages hanging above their ponds (see this L.A. Times article), or that after a temporary U.S. ban on feeding poop to cattle (2003-2005), the FDA concluded that the practice is perfectly safe and allowed it to continue (see  instructions, "Feeding Poultry Litter to Cattle," on the University of Missouri Extension website).

You won't be troubled by the fact that the rendering industry - the business that provides all that delectable manure to the animal feed companies - disliked the ban on bottom feeding and filed these comments with the FDA, arguing that there's no reason to lock the barn door if the horse hasn't been stolen,  providing laughable arithmetic computations to try to prove that BSE is not a danger, and engaging in a little jingoism: "It is our firm conviction that we must refrain from erroneously emulating the European legislation and instead pursue policies, which closely reflect the true state of affairs in this country." And you won't worry over the fact that the FDA listened to them.

Kirby describes the FDA response to agribusiness in 2004, and the government's lackadaisical attitude then and now:
In 2004, the FDA proposed banning poultry litter in cattle feed, to avoid the spread of BSE. It was already outlawed in Canada. But days later, the agency postponed its change, citing "troubling feedback" from the agricultural sector. Some foreign countries balked at buying US beef, but the Bush Administration held firm, refusing to commit to a deadline... 
I imagined that the Obama Administration would complete the work left undone by Bush and enact a universal ban on feeding beef products to cattle. Instead, I discovered that Obama's FDA had ratified what his predecessor proposed: Doing nothing.
You might want to check out the stats on agribusiness influence and lobbying. It doesn't look like we'll have an abundance of poop-free meat anytime soon.

Meanwhile, if you don't like the idea of eating second-hand poop, all you have to do is avoid shit-eating factory-farmed animals. The ascetically inclined may choose veganism. The rest of us can look for meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, and eggs at the farmers' market, or that bear at least one of these labels:
  • 100% organic
  • vegetarian-fed
  • wild-caught
  • 100% grass fed
  • animal welfare approved

Monday, May 17, 2010

Voting with your fork -- Review of "Righteous Porkchop" by Nicolette Hahn Niman

"Are you trying to convert us?" asked one of my daughters after reading my recent posts on vegetarianism. Not to vegetarianism, I emailed back - just to mindful eating.

I like Michael Pollan's creed : "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

I also like Nicolette Hahn Niman's advice at the end of her 2009 book, Righteous Porkchop:
Do not thoughtlessly eat foods from animals. Know the source. Question the methods. There is great power in posing the following simple question to grocery stores, restaurants and farmers: “How was this raised?” Then shift your buying toward those meats, fish, eggs, and dairy products that come from animals raised in a way that you like.... It’s voting with your fork.
Voting with your fork seems like such a pathetically tiny response to the worldwide scourge of factory farms, which Niman describes in heartbreaking detail : Ecological devastation, such as the 1995 lagoon break that spilled “more than twenty-five million gallons of liquefied hog manure into the New River (more than twice the volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez).” Increased poverty in areas where agribusiness, with the help of public subsidies, tax exemptions, and favored treatment, has driven small farmers off the land. Endangered public health from antiobiotic-resistant infections and poisoned air and water. And, of course, unspeakable cruelty to animals who never see the sun, eat manure-rich feed, and are dismembered while still alive.

Model farms
Fortunately, in Righteous Porkchop Niman goes well beyond exposing the evils of factory farming. As her delightful title suggests, a small but rapidly growing movement is challenging industrial food production - not only by throwing well-deserved stones, but also by modeling animal husbandry as it should be practiced. Just as Pollan praises Joel Salatin's Virginia chicken farm in The Omnivore's Dilemma and Jonathan Safran Foer extols Frank Reese's Kansas turkey farm in Eating Animals, Niman writes glowingly about farmers who treat their animals and the environment with respect: the Klessig family, who own a Wisconsin dairy farm, for example, and Rob and Michelle Stokes, who raise goats in Oregon.

Niman herself is now a rancher. Formerly a senior attorney with Robert Kennedy Jr.'s environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, she married Niman Ranch founder Bill Niman in 2003 and got personally involved with raising cattle, an odd vocation for a woman who has been a vegetarian since college. Ms. Niman, however, is by no means opposed to righteous porkchops. Having learned that milk cows and egg-laying hens are kept in conditions as abysmal as their meat-animal cousins, she "simply couldn't continue consuming eggs and dairy products and maintain any sense of moral superiority." All foods of animal origin can be farmed cruelly or responsibly. Those who eat such foods can ignore the problems - or they can vote for change with their forks.

But does voting with my fork do any good? What is one person against the Goliath agribusiness?

Change in the air
The thing is, it isn't just one person. It isn't even just a few activists or extremists. Michael Pollan's books regularly hit the best-seller lists. David Kirby's new book, Animal Factory, is getting rave reviews (watch this interview on the Fox Business channel). Movies like King Corn and Food Inc. are making the rounds. Farmers' markets have never been more popular.

Businesses are listening. Trader Joe's and Whole Foods markets are springing up everywhere, and major supermarkets are adding an abundance of organic products.

Policies are changing, too. “To qualify as ‘organic,’ dairies have not been required by USDA to truly keep their cows on pasture,” Niman wrote last year. Beginning next month, this will no longer be true. According to a February 12 New York Times article, Department of Agriculture rules go into effect in June requiring that dairy cows be allowed to "graze on pasture for the full length of the local grazing season. The season will be determined by local conditions and agriculture authorities, like organic certifiers or county conservation officials, not by the dairy alone. While the grazing season must last at least 120 days, in many areas it will be much longer."

In the meantime
Meanwhile, of course, factory farms flourish, and their public relations and marketing departments work overtime to persuade the public that their approach is ethical, healthful, and necessary. One of Niman's best chapters, "Answering Obstacles to Reform," no doubt has its roots in the legal battles she waged - and won - against industrial agriculturalists when she worked for Waterkeeper. Read it whenever you're tempted to believe that large operations are more efficient than small ones, or that industrially raised meat is necessary in order to feed the world.

And whenever you think it's just too hard to save the world one fork at a time, read the preceding chapter, "Finding the Right Foods." Even though interest in responsibly farmed food is growing, it can still be difficult to find 100% grass-fed beef, or milk from cows who graze in pastures, or eggs from hens who breathe fresh air. Niman offer many pointers and websites to make the search less daunting.

Righteous Porkchop covers a lot of ground. It's a memoir and an exposé, a call to action and a buying guide, a good read packed with information. If I'd been Niman's editor, I might have tried to get her to narrow her focus and smooth out her style  - but I might have been wrong. She's not as well-organized as Pollan or as literary as Safran Foer, but she makes an excellent case. She's going to convert a lot of us.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

How to cook for your vegetarian friends - 10 ideas

"Help! I just discovered one of my dinner guests is a vegetarian! What can I do?"

Take a deep breath. If your friend has been a vegetarian for more than a few weeks, she is already quite used to fending for herself at meals where meat is served. A new convert to vegetarianism, on the other hand (like a new convert to almost anything), may go all righteous and preachy on you. Don't argue with her. Ask questions, listen, and resolve to give her a few months to settle in before inviting her back.

We have quite a few vegetarian* friends, and they are, without exception, gracious and appreciative guests.
*Note: It helps to find out what your friends mean by vegetarian. Many vegetarians happily eat dairy products and eggs, while some (vegans) eat nothing that comes from animals, not even honey. A few people who call themselves vegetarians are actually pescetarians - they eat fish, but not meat. And some are selective meat eaters - they will eat meat only if they know it comes from a family farm that treats its animals humanely.
Here are 10 ideas for feeding vegetarians and meat-eaters together.
 1.   Do nothing. Serve whatever you were planning to serve before you knew your guest's eating habits. Just be sure to provide, alongside your steaks, plenty of side dishes that the vegetarian can eat.
 2.   Provide a selection of sandwiches, soups, and/or salads and let everybody take what they want.
 3.   Serve buffet or family style to maximize choice.
 4.   Serve pasta with a choice of sauces.
 5.   Serve pizza with a choice of toppings.
 6.   Serve tapas or meze - a wide selection of appetizers that make up an entire meal.
 7.   Ask your vegetarian friend to contribute a hot dish.
 8.   Host a potluck.
 9.   Cook a vegetarian meal for everybody (see suggestions here, here, and here).
10.  Meet your friends at a restaurant.

Friday, May 14, 2010

10 vegetarian foods from other countries

To most meat-eaters, a plate piled high with vegetables is missing something. It is no doubt beautiful with its red tomatoes and light green avocados and dark green spinach and white cauliflower and orange yams - but where's the beef?

Get past the expectation of meat, two vegetables, and a starch. Try something entirely different tonight. Eat food that is neither North American nor Northern European. Go south, or west, or east.

If you want easy and familiar: Eat Italian or Mexican. You know the foods. It's easy to find vegetarian options. There's probably a suitable restaurant just down the street.

If you want to expand your horizons: Find a restaurant from a country you've never visited, serving food you've never tried. Tell the server you want to eat vegetarian, and let him or her guide you to typical dishes.

If you like to experiment: Forget the restaurant. Cook at home

Though everybody is eating more meat nowadays, many countries have traditional dishes that use meat sparingly or not at all. Here's a list of 10 such countries in alphabetical order, with links to vegetarian recipes you might enjoy. ( If a recipe calls for chicken broth, use vegetable broth.) To find countless more recipes, Google [name of country] vegetarian recipes.

1.    China: Szechuan eggplant
2.    Ethiopia: Mesir wat (red lentil puree)
3.    Greece: spanakotyropita (spinach pie)
4.    India: gujarati dal (spicy red lentils)
5.    Italy: eggplant parmigiana
6.    Lebanon: falafel (bean patties)
7.    Mexico: spinach enchiladas verde
8.    Spain: tortilla (Spanish omelet)
9.    Thailand: pan seared tofu in orange peanut sauce
10. Turkey: cauliflower with bechamel sauce

Cautionary note to would-be vegetarians: Maybe you'd like to get healthier or save the environment or boycott factory farms. Should you become a vegetarian? Perhaps - but probably not overnight. Start by eating meat-free meals at least once a week. Try new foods, whether you prepare them yourself or order them in restaurants. By cutting back on meat consumption, you're already helping your body and the earth. And when you find plant-based meals you truly enjoy, you may decide to cut back - and help - even more.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

10 vegetarian main dishes for busy people

Sometimes I like to make recipes that begin, "Four days before serving, ..." Most of the time, I'd rather pull stuff out of the refrigerator and be eating in less than 30 minutes. Here are some vegetarian ways to get a meal together quickly - with options for days when you have more time and inspiration. A few require more than half an hour's cooking time, but you can throw the ingredients together, pour yourself a tall one, put your feet up, and let the oven do its work.

1. Black bean soup. Trader Joe's sells good organic black bean soup in cans. Add maybe just a little kosher salt and garnish with cilantro or sour cream or Greek yogurt or chives, or some combination. If you'd rather prepare your soup from scratch, has a killer recipe for black bean soup with cumin and jalapeños. Bush beans give excellent results.

2. Lentil stew/soup. Trader Joe's also has this in cans, though if you're serving a crowd, it's much cheaper to make it yourself, and the hands-on time is minimal. Your basic ingredients are dry lentils, vegetables (bell peppers, carrots, onions, celery, tomatoes, garlic), liquid (water or vegetable broth), and seasonings (salt, basil, oregano, black pepper, parsley). You can simmer this on the stove or in a crockpot. You can make it thick or thin. If you like actual recipes, click here for a bunch to choose from.

3. Tostadas. On each plate, lay out a tortilla (raw or crisped, corn or flour). Then add the following layers, or layers of your choice: Chopped lettuce (iceberg or romaine). Beans (pinto or black, refried or whole). Cheese (queso fresco or cheddar or Mexican blend). Chopped fresh tomato. Salsa. Those are the essential ingredients, but you can jazz it up a lot of ways. Fry some onions and then warm up the beans with them. Add chopped bell peppers - yellow and orange are nice - or chili peppers if you prefer. Top with diced avocado and cilantro. Sour cream is good. Or ... what do you have in your refrigerator that might work?

4. Noodles and cheese. No, not the boxed kind unless your kids insist. My kids liked noodles fixed like this: Cook 8 oz. egg noodles, drain. Mix with 1/2 stick melted butter, 8 oz. cottage cheese or ricotta cheese, 8 oz. sour cream or sour half and half, 1 egg, a little salt and pepper, and a couple of shakes of dried basil. Bake in covered casserole dish at 350˚ for 30-45 minutes.

5. Spinach and artichoke casserole. This recipe comes from Jeff Smith's 1984 cookbook. I have never met anyone who didn't like it.

6. Lentil loaf. A bit esoteric, though a staple of my vegetarian ancestors. Don't expect it to taste like meatloaf. Let it be its own thing, for good or for ill. Mix 1 cup lentils (canned and drained - or dried and cooked), 1 cup canned milk (or cream or milk or plain yogurt), 1/2 cup oil (olive is best), 1/2 cup chopped nuts (walnuts or pecans), 1 1/2 cups bread crumbs (or crushed crackers or shredded wheat or corn flakes), 1 small onion, minced, 1/2 teaspoon sage, 1 egg, salt and pepper to taste. Put it in a lightly oiled loaf pan. Bake at 350˚ for about an hour. You may want to serve it with a little gravy or tomato sauce. The second time you make it, play with the seasonings.

7. Eggplant casserole. The only way to get some people to eat eggplant. Mix 1 large eggplant (peeled, diced, cooked, mashed), 1/4 cup milk, 1/2 loaf bread (cubed or torn into little bits), 3/4 teaspoon salt, 1 small onion (diced, sautéed in butter), 1 egg, and 1 cup grated cheddar cheese (I like sharp), plus more milk or eggplant cooking liquid if mixture is too dry to hold together. Pack into casserole and bake at 350˚ for about 45 minutes.

8. Faux meatballs. Easy method: buy them frozen at Trader Joe's or at your grocery store. They are excellent with spaghetti and tomato sauce. If you want to slave over a hot stove, you can mix (by hand or in your food processor) 1 1/2 cups saltine crumbs, 1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts or pecans, 16 oz. low-fat cottage cheese or farmers' cheese, 1 onion (chopped fine), 6 eggs. Roll the mixture into dozens of walnut-sized balls and fry over medium flame until golden brown. Soak overnight in tomato sauce or packaged au jus gravy.

9. Cheese quiche. Buy a prepared crust, make your own, or skip the crust entirely. For the filling, you'll need grated cheese, which you'll place in the crust, and an egg-milk custard that you will pour over it. Here's a good basic recipe with lots of ideas for ways to play with it. Or you can probably pick up a ready-made quiche - or something equally interesting - in the Whole Foods deli.

10. Insalata caprese (pictured at top of this article). One of the easiest meals of all, and there is nothing tastier. Arrange whole basil leaves on a plate. Arrange sliced or quartered ripe tomatoes (heirloom or home grown are especially good) on top of the basil. Put chunks or balls of mozzarella cheese (the ultra-fresh kind that comes packed in water, either cow or buffalo) atop the tomatoes. Lightly sprinkle with kosher salt and freshly grated black pepper. Drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over all. Serve with crusty Italian bread.

Bon appétit!

Cautionary note to would-be vegetarians: Maybe you'd like to get healthier or save the environment or boycott factory farms. Should you become a vegetarian? Perhaps - but probably not overnight. Start by eating meat-free meals at least once a week. Try new foods, whether you prepare them yourself or order them in restaurants. By cutting back on meat consumption, you're already helping your body and the earth. And when you find plant-based meals you truly enjoy, you may decide to cut back - and help - even more.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

10 ways to eat vegetarian at fast-food restaurants

More and more fast-food joints are offering vegetarian fast-food options - it's just good business. I've listed 10; there are many others.

The best: Mexican restaurants like Chipotle and Qdoba offer a fully customizable menu with a wide range of vegetarian ingredients.  
The good: Many restaurants, such as Panda Express and Panera, offer a selection of plant-based items.  
The tolerable: Most fast-food places have at least one menu item without meat.  
The ugly: Watch out for places with words like "beef" or "chicken" in their name. If you eat at one of them, you'll probably have to take your sandwich apart and remove the parts you don't want.

The list in alphabetical order:
  1. Burger King: veggie burger 
  2. Chipotle Mexican Grill: choose your own ingredients
  3. McDonald's: premium southwest salad
  4. Panda Express: eggplant tofu, mixed veggies, veggie spring roll, fried rice, chow mein, 2 soups
  5. Panera Bread: 2 sandwiches, several soups, several salads
  6. Qdoba Mexican Grill: choose your own ingredients
  7. Steak 'n Shake: grilled cheese sandwich with small garden salad
  8. Subway: 6" or 12" veggie delite
  9. Taco Bell: 7-layer bean/cheese burrito
  10. Wendy’s: broccoli and cheese potato
Cautionary note to would-be vegetarians: Maybe you'd like to get healthier or save the environment or boycott factory farms. Should you become a vegetarian? Perhaps - but probably not overnight. Start by eating meat-free meals at least once a week. Try new foods, whether you prepare them yourself or order them in restaurants. By cutting back on meat consumption, you're already helping your body and the earth. And when you find plant-based meals you truly enjoy, you may decide to cut back - and help - even more.

Monday, May 10, 2010

10 vegetarian meals your kids will love

OK, maybe your kids won't love all 10 of these meals. But there's bound to be something here that will work...

1.      Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, apple
2.     Cheese pizza, salad or fruit
3.     Egg salad (or fried egg) sandwich, tomato soup
4.     Macaroni and cheese, peas
5.     Vegetarian chili, cornbread
6.     Baked potato topped with broccoli, tomato, and cheese
7.     Waffles topped with vanilla yogurt and fresh berries
8.     Veggie lasagna, green beans
9.     Scrambled eggs, toast, hash browns
10. Bean and cheese burrito, salad or fruit
Cautionary note to would-be vegetarians: Maybe you'd like to get healthier or save the environment or boycott factory farms. Should you become a vegetarian? Perhaps - but probably not overnight. Start by eating meat-free meals at least once a week. Try new foods, whether you prepare them yourself or order them in restaurants. By cutting back on meat consumption, you're already helping your body and the earth. And when you find plant-based meals you truly enjoy, you may decide to cut back - and help - even more.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

10 vegetarian protein sources (for a long life)

Meat makes us happy. It must, or we wouldn't eat so much of it - 222 pounds a year per capita, not counting seafood. We are convinced it makes us healthy, too. Self-styled nutritionists (and the meat industry) urge us to ingest more protein in order to increase our strength, lose weight, cure cancer, manage diabetes ... well, you can find anything through Google.

But in real life, are meat-eaters healthier than people to follow a plant-based diet? For several years Dan Buettner has been researching the world's Blue Zones - areas where people "reach age 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the United States, [and] where people suffer a fraction of the rate of heart disease and cancer than we do." Besides long lives, what do Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Icaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California have in common? In all five places, the local diet is heavy on plants, light on meats.

Clearly we don't need a lot of meat in order to be healthy. Perhaps we don't need any at all. For more than 60 years researchers have been studying Seventh-day Adventists (many of whom live in Loma Linda, America's bluest zone). Roughly half eat some meat; the other half eat none. The light meat-eaters, it turns out, live significantly longer than the general population, and the vegetarians live significantly longer than the light meat-eaters. In his June 25, 2009, summary article, "Adventist Health Studies: Past, Present, and Future," lead researcher Gary E. Fraser included charts showing that not only did less meat equal more years, it also equaled less diabetes and lower body weight.

But meat is an excellent source of protein. A 6-ounce steak, for example, may have more than 50 grams of it (check out the USDA chart that gives protein content for almost everything imaginable), while a block of tofu - a whole block! - has only 26. So what do Adventists (and Sardinians, Okinawans, Icarians, and residents of the Nicoya Peninsula) do for protein?

Well, they don't eat as much of it as American carnivores do. The thing is, they don't need to. That 6-ounce steak has more protein than an adult woman requires in an entire day, never mind the other foods she eats (you can figure out how much protein you need by using your own calculator and the information at WebMD). Almost everything we eat contains some protein. Some foods contain quite a lot.

Here's a list of protein sources for vegetarians and for people who just want to cut back on meat. I ate many of these - and no meat - when I was growing up. Yup, I was born in Loma Linda. I hope it helps.

10 vegetarian protein sources

1.    dairy: milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese
2.    eggs: preferably from a family farm
3.    bread: preferably whole wheat
4.    beans: garbanzos, pinto, lima, kidney
5.    other legumes: lentils, peas, peanuts, peanut butter, soybeans
6.    nuts: almonds, walnuts, pecans
7.    seeds: sunflower, sesame, cashews (yes!)
8.    grains: rice, quinoa, oats
9.    pasta: spaghetti, rice noodles, couscous
10.  plant-based meat substitutes: seitan, tempeh, tofu

Friday, May 7, 2010

10 good things about being vegetarian

Having just read Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, I'm in a vegetarian mood. This is not too difficult for me, since I was a vegetarian until I was 16. Since then, I've probably eaten less than 20 pounds of meat a year (the national average is 222 pounds), plus fish once or twice a week.

Several years ago I decided that St. Benedict's advice, "Abstain entirely from the eating of the flesh of quadrupeds," was sound. Earlier this week Safran Foer's damning chapters on the poultry industry inspired me to pitch my half-eaten package of Trader Joe chicken tenders. (Call me heartless, but the information that pushed me over the edge wasn't the horrible abuse of the 99.9% of U.S. chickens that are raised in factory farms. It was the composition of what the chicken package describes as "7% water." After graphically describing the source of that water, Safran Foer labels it "shit soup".)

I haven't made up my mind yet about fish. Seafood Watch offers recommendations for "ocean friendly seafood," and Whole Foods claims to "build partnerships with farmers and fishermen that are committed to your health, the environment and the integrity of our ocean." Trouble is, the lovely frozen salmon we had for dinner last night, though bought at Whole Foods, is on Seafood Watch's "avoid" list. What's a girl to do?

Well, this girl makes lists. Here are 10 good things about being vegetarian.

Personal: what vegetarianism could do for you

1. Introduce you to fascinating ethnic cuisines
2. Lower your risk of ischemic heart disease
3. Lower your risk of various cancers
4. Reduce your spending on food
5. Help you lose weight
6. Eliminate most attacks of “stomach flu” or food poisoning

Global: what reduced meat consumption could do for the world

7. Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
8. Reduce the risk of epidemics
9. Reduce the risk of antibiotic-resistant infections
10. Reduce cruelty to animals

The list is just a start. Feel free to add to it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review of "Eating Animals" - Jonathan Safran Foer on factory farms

"On average," writes Jonathan Safran Foer, "Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 animals in a lifetime." Alas, most of these animals came from factory farms, now the source of "99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle.”

Is this a problem? Safran Foer, best known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated  and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, thinks so. American factory farms, sometimes called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), have made meat readily available and cheaper than ever before or anywhere else. In his 2009 exposé, Eating Animals, Safran Foer argues that our cheap meat has come with huge hidden costs to public health and to the environment.

Here are 10 reasons you might not want to buy factory-farmed meat, poultry, or fish. The quotations are from Eating Animals:

Factory farms
1. use antibiotics to raise sick genetic mutants in crowded, filthy conditions
In the typical cage for egg-laying hens, each bird has 67 square inches of [floor] space [or less than ¾ the size of a sheet of typing paper]. Nearly all cage-free birds have approximately the same amount of space. 79
2. send animals to slaughterhouses where cruelty and even sadism are routine
Animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious. It happens all the time, and the industry and the government know it. Several plants cited for bleeding or skinning or dismembering live animals have defended their actions as common in the industry and asked, perhaps rightly, why they were being singled out. 230
3. produce highly infected animals
Scientific studies and government records suggest that virtually all (upwards of 95 percent of) chickens become infected with E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8 percent of birds become infected with salmonella.... Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter. Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove slime, odor, and bacteria. 131
4. contribute to the creation and spread of new viruses (think influenza)
Breeding genetically uniform and sickness-prone birds in the overcrowded, stressful, feces-infested, and artificially lit conditions of factory farms promotes the growth and mutation of pathogens. The “cost of increased efficiency,” the report [by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, which brought together industry experts and experts from the WHO, OIE, and USDA] concludes, is increased global risk for diseases.142
5. contribute to antibiotic resistance (think MRSA)
In the United States, about 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but a whopping 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock—at least that is what the industry claims. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has shown that the industry underreported its antibiotic use by at least 40 percent.... Study after study has shown that antimicrobial resistance follows quickly on the heels of the introduction of new drugs on factory farms.140
6. destroy species
For every ten tuna, sharks, and other large predatory fish that were in our oceans fifty to a hundred years ago, only one is left.33

[Shrimp] trawlers sweep up fish, sharks, rays, crabs, squid, scallops—typically about a hundred different fish and other species. Virtually all die.... The average trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures as bycatch overboard.191
7. pollute
Farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population—roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage. And yet there is almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals. 174

Conservative estimates by the EPA indicate that chicken, hog, and cattle excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two states.179
8. contribute to climate change
According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector—cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships—combined. 58
9. violate the human rights of their employees
Illegal aliens are often preferred, but poor recent immigrants who do not speak English are also desirable employees. By the standards of the international human rights community, the typical working conditions in America’s slaughterhouses constitute human rights violations. 131-32
10. change or ignore regulations in order to make more money
High-speed machines commonly rip open intestines, releasing feces into the birds’ body cavities. Once upon a time, USDA inspectors had to condemn any bird with such fecal contamination. But about thirty years ago, the poultry industry convinced the USDA to reclassify feces so that it could continue to use these automatic eviscerators. Once a dangerous contaminant, feces are now classified as a “cosmetic blemish.” As a result inspectors condemn half the number of birds. 134
 Though Safran Foer is a vegetarian, he does not argue that everyone should quit eating meat. His complaint is not with omnivores per se but with the way nearly all U.S. meat is produced. "Farming is shaped not only by food choices, but by political ones," he writes. Factory farms are profitable, and agribusiness spends a lot of money in Washington to keep them that way. Individual vegetarians are not, by themselves, going to clean up rivers, diminish greenhouse gases, prevent epidemics, or open the barn doors and let calves frolic in sunlit pastures. Only strict government regulations, seriously enforced, could do that, and the certain result would be a dramatic increase in meat prices.

But is this any reason to let things continue as they are? "Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?" Safran Foer asks - or, I would add, before we demand that our meat producers adhere to high standards?
If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t motivating, what would be? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn’t enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?

For more information by one of Safran Foer's sources, see Nicolette Hahn Niman, "Avoiding Factory Farm Foods: An Eater's Guide."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why we love Mma Ramotswe

In The Double Comfort Safari Club, the 11th installment in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the suspense level is low. There are no murders, grisly or otherwise, and Mma Ramotswe's investigations have fairly predictable outcomes, though she sometimes engineers win-win situations that defy the laws of probability. But suspense is not the reason to read one of McCall Smith's detective stories. Mma Ramotswe herself is.

"Traditionally built" in moral values as well as physical appearance, Mma Ramotswe believes in honesty, fidelity, and hard work. At the same time, she affirms family, friendship, courtesy, and red bush tea. She's the kind of woman you'd like to have as a best friend or a mother - unless you're planning to misbehave. You know she'll see right through you.

In Double Comfort, nobody outwits Mma Ramotswe for long. An adulterer's secret is revealed. An angry aunt is foiled. An evil schemer gets her comeuppance. Villains in the No. 1 Ladies series are rarely murderers or rapists. They are ordinary people who are extraordinarily selfish, who are willing to hurt others in order to get their own way.

Heroes, by contrast, are kind.

Kindness, in fact, is what Double Comfort is all about. An American tourist, Mrs. Grant, is so impressed by the kindness of strangers that she decides to send a generous gift. Mma Felo, a philanthropist, is known for her kindness, even if she mentions it herself. Mma Ramotswe's husband and Mma Makutsi's fiancé are both kind men.

Kindness may not be evident on the surface. Mma Potokwane, for instance, does not look kind - indeed, she can look "severe, or strict, or even bossy" - but inside her "there was a big dam of kindness, as there is inside so many people, like the great dam to the south of Gaborone, ready to release its healing waters."

The kindest person of all is, of course, Mma Ramotswe. In a deliciously vengeful scene, Mma Ramotswe is even able to have sympathy for the terrible Violet Sephotho. This amazes her assistant detective, Mma Makutsi, until she remembers that "this woman, this traditionally built woman, this understanding, tolerant employer, this detective, was composed of kindness, just of kindness."

One Sunday Mma Ramotswe goes to the Anglican cathedral, letting her mind wander until the visiting priest begins to speak. McCall Smith generally avoids preaching; instead, his characters ruminate until they come up with bits of wisdom. But in this case he lets us listen in on the whole homily, which pretty much sums up this book's theme and Mma Ramotswe's character:
My brothers and sisters, ... we are seated here with those we know and those we do not know. But even those we do not know are not strangers. We are united with them in a community which is brought together by one thing, and that one thing is love....

There are people who say that what we are doing here has no meaning. That it is superstition, that it is wishful thinking. Wishful thinking? It is not that; it is not. Is it wishful thinking to say to yourself and to others that we must love one another? Is it wishful thinking to say that we must forgive others, so that love might grow within our hearts? Is it wishful thinking to imagine that it is only through an effort to love others that a hard and unhappy world may be transformed into a world of kindness and compassion? I do not think that it is.
The No. 1 Ladies books are the visual equivalent of comfort food - double comfort, even - but they are not sentimental or treacly. Mma Ramotswe knows that the world is hard and unhappy, and that loving others is often more effort than emotion. Still, instead of reacting with bitterness or cynicism, she is kind. And little by little the world is transformed, and that is why we love her.