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Archive for the ‘Vegetarian Experiment’ Category

On Roast Chicken and Moral Failings

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Around this time last year I was wrapping up a month-long vegetarian experiment.  Its purpose was not only to challenge my dietary boundaries, but to learn about the nature of our food supply, so I augmented my vegetarian practices with some educational reading.  By the end of the month I had determined that I would reintroduce meat into my diet, but that I would be more selective about the sources of the meat.  And for a long time I lived up to that commitment.  But I’m here to confess to you today that lately I have backslid.

See that roast chicken?  The one right up there?  It looks delicious, doesn’t it?  Well, I can assure you it was.  That very chicken was served for supper in our house last night.  I served it with orzo pasta and roasted vegetables.  Yum yum.  However, in spite of its deliciousness, I have some major ambivalence about it.

You see, that chicken – the delicious one up there – represents a moral failing on my part.  When I purchased that chicken I stood in the butcher section of my grocery store and looked at it.  Then I looked at the free range, organic, air chilled one next to it.  The second one truly did look better.  Then I looked at the price tags.  My chicken (about 4.6 pounds, for those who keep track of such things) cost $3.23.  The guilt-free bird (of comparable size)?  It was a little more than $16.  Sixteen dollars!  For one chicken!  I just couldn’t do it.  So I picked up the cheaper chicken (or, the “chipper chicken” for those who have watched Father of the Bride too many times), and slinked away.

People like Michael Pollan would tell me that a chicken should cost about $16; that factory farming has artificially created an economy that allows me to purchase a chicken for $3.23; and that while I may not be paying for my chicken at the cash register I am paying for it in other ways (such as filth in our food system, environmental damage, and the moral degradation that results from supporting shameful animal husbandry practices).  And they would be right.

So why, then, do I find it so hard to pay what Pollan types would argue is a fair price for a chicken?  And why am I still worrying about it days later?  And why am I fessing up here in this blog post?

I guess I’m here writing these words because I feel like it’s the honest thing to do.  This?  Having integrity about the source of the food we eat?  It’s hard.  Factory-farmed food is easy.  It’s cheap.  And it’s highly convenient.  I’ve read books and newspaper columns and magazine articles and blog posts about our food system.  Most of it sickens me.  And yet, in spite of all my knowledge, when faced with two chickens and a $13 price difference, I made a choice I’m not proud of.

During my vegetarian experiment last March I never did watch Food, Inc.  I think my conscience could use a jump start in this department, so I’m vowing here to watch it soon.  In the meantime, I’m hoping that by coming clean in this post I’ll be able to shame myself into being more conscientious in my shopping habits.

I’m not perfect.  And while I’ve never claimed to be, there for a while I had some pride about my dietary morality.  So I’m here confessing my shortcomings, and hoping that a dose of humility will serve its purpose.

A Nation of Gluttons

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

News flash: Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables

We are a nation of gluttons.  We read it every day.  We hear stories on food deserts.  There are “special reports” about our addictions to convenience foods.  There is a whole movement called Meatless Mondays sweeping health- and eco-conscious consumers who aim to reduce their carbon footprint and up their vegetable intake.  And yet, as a nation, we still fail.

I am no vegetable saint.  I get a decent amount of produce in my diet, but on many days I still don’t meet the federal guidelines.  (Like many people, I’m better with fruit.)  Nevertheless, I have some go-to vegetable recipes that keep me from turning into a French fry, and in an effort to serve the greater good (I’m so charitable!) I’m going to share them with you today.

My Favorite Salad Dressing
This is from Ina Garten’s Barefoot in Paris cookbook.  It is our regular salad dressing and is also quite good drizzled over steamed veggies.  It keeps in the fridge for 4 or 5 days, although you may need to stir it if the oil has begun to separate. 

1 egg yolk
½ tsp spicy brown mustard (Grey Poupon or similar)
½ tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
2-3 Tbs white wine vinegar (depending on how much zing you like)
½ C extra virgin olive oil

Whisk all ingredients except the oil in a small bowl.  Then, while whisking rapidly, add the olive oil in a slow, steady stream.  Adjust seasonings to taste.  (And don’t eat this if you’re pregnant.)

My Favorite Broccoli
Super easy and so much better than steamed broccoli.  It’s not a pretty dish, but trust me, the flavor is great and this is really cozy in the winter.  (You can also use this preparation for cauliflower, which actually is pretty when roasted.)

2 heads broccoli, cut into large florets
¼ to ½ C olive oil
Kosher salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 400.  Spread broccoli florets onto a large baking sheet.  (I use a half-sheet pan.)  Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Using your hands, toss to coat.  Roast for 10 minutes.  Then pull the pan out and flip each floret over with tongs.  Put back in the oven for another 10 minutes.  Ta Da!  (To do sweet potatoes, cut them into thick slices and extend your roasting time to 15 minutes per side.)

My Favorite Brussels Sprouts
Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen is frequently a genius.  This recipe is evidence of that.  I won’t re-type it here because if you go over to the SK site you’ll get all of Deb’s witty banter and stunning photos.  But I will sing its praises saying that the rich, deep flavor provided by the combination of the pancetta and balsamic vinegar is just to die for.  But, if you’re a vegetarian you can easily omit the pancetta and the dish won’t suffer too much.  Be forewarned, though, that if you don’t like the flavor of balsamic vinegar to begin with, this recipe isn’t for you!

My Favorite Sautéed Spinach
This is more of what my grandmother would have called “a procedure” so don’t get hung up on measurements.  It’s hard to mess this up.  The quantities below will make about two servings.

½ bag prewashed spinach
½ small yellow onion, cut into half moons
1 clove garlic, minced
olive oil
salt and pepper

Drizzle about 3 Tbs of olive oil into a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat.  Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the spinach and turn it frequently with tongs so that it cooks evenly, about 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  You could also top with some grated parmesan if you’re feeling fancy.

My Favorite Pumpkin Soup
This week I finally had to put on a fleece for my morning outing with our dogs.  That means soup weather is just around the corner.  Pumpkin is packed with beta carotene and other stuff which I’m told is good for me but I don’t really know why.  So I eat it.  It’s delicious in pies, but I actually like this soup better.  (I prefer to eat my autumnal pie calories in the pecan format.)

2 shallots, minced
2 Tbs unsalted butter
1 can pumpkin puree
1 can low sodium chicken broth
1 Tbs brown sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
¼ to ½ cup cream

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.  Sauté the shallots until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add pumpkin puree and sauté for about one minute before stirring in the chicken broth.  Bring to a gentle simmer and add brown sugar, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  Simmer, uncovered for about 5 minutes until thickened slightly.  Add cream and adjust seasonings to taste.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #4

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

My vegetarian experiment concluded a couple of weeks ago, but I have a couple of straggler recipes that I wanted to post.  You can link to the quinoa recipe by clicking on the name.  Hope you enjoy these!

Corn and Black Bean Quinoa Salad
Source
: Gimme Some Oven
Difficulty
: Easy.  Just your basic chopping and stirring.
Labor: Low.  This came together in about 20 minutes with very little fuss.
Overall Results:  Very good.  I increased all the veggies.  I used a whole bell pepper, 4 or 5 scallions, ½ cup cilantrio, and two ears of corn.  I stuck with the single can of beans called for.  The veggies didn’t overpower the grain at all, so I’ll make it this way again.  I also thought the dressing needed a little sweetening, so I added a tablespoon or so of honey.  This kept well for 4 or 5 days in the fridge. 

Black Bean Soup
Source: My own head
Difficulty: Super Easy.  If you can slice a shallot and open two cans, you’re all set.
Labor: Low
Overall Results:  I was really happy with this.  I had some leftover beans and broth and decided not to waste them for a change.  I didn’t have any at the time, but this would be great served with a dollop of sour cream on top. 

Ingredients
2 shallots, thinly sliced
1 Tbs vegetable oil
½ tsp cumin
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
Salt and pepper
Sour cream and cilantro (optional)

Directions

  1. Sauté shallots in vegetable oil over medium high heat until translucent, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add beans and cumin and continue to sauté one minute more.  Add broth and bring to a simmer. 
  3. Transfer to a blender or food processor (I used an immersion blender which worked great) and puree until smooth.  Return to pot and simmer until soup has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Serve with sour cream and chopped cilantro on top.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #3

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

Confession time.  My energy for new recipes waned in the final days of my vegetarian experiment.  Here’s the thing about new reipces: they are work.  Not that the dish itself is that much more work.  It’s the learning curve.  There’s something about cooking something for the first time that is more draining than each subsequent preparation.  Pre-Veggie Month, I tried to make one new thing each week.  I didn’t always succeed, but I tried.  Anyway, I kicked this month off with a bang – many new recipes.  Things slowed down though and I’ve shot from the hip a little bit during the last couple of weeks.  Today I come to you with only two recipes, both of which I made up, but both of which were pretty good. 

Orichiette with Goat Cheese Sauce
Source: My own head
Difficulty: Easy.  Nothing major here.  I made this up as I went along one evening.
Labor: Low.  The only real work is the chopping, which doesn’t take much time. 
Overall Results:  For it being an experiment, I was really pleased with the way this turned out.  Light but flavorful.  The sauce was creamy without being heavy, and the veggies perked it up quite a bit.  The only drawback was that it was a little dry when reheated.  This one is best the first time around.

Ingredients
½ lb orichiette pasta (could also use small or medium shells, penne, etc)
1 Tbs olive oil and unsalted butter
½ cup yellow onion, small dice
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ red bell pepper, small dice
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
4 oz. bleu cheese crumbles
6 scallions, white and light green parts, coarsely chopped

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook pasta until al dente, according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile in a large skillet over medium high heat, melt the butter and olive oil.  Add the onion, garlic and bell pepper and sauté until translucent – about 5 minutes.  Add the broth and wine and simmer until reduced by half – 6 or 7 minutes.  Stir in goat cheese crumbles and mix until cheese has melted throughout the sauce.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. 
  3. Add the pasta to the sauce and toss to coat.  Top each serving with a sprinkling of the chopped scallions.

 

Gnocchi with Greens and Mushrooms
Source: Inspired by a meal I had in a restaurant recently
Difficulty: Easy.  Making gnocchi from scratch is not actually all that hard.  It’s actually kind of fun; you should try it sometime.  Here, though, I use the packaged stuff which isn’t quite as fluffy as homemade, but much less work.
Labor: Low.  Very similar in method to the recipe above. 
Overall Results: I think this could have benefitted from some fresh herbs – dill maybe? – but overall I was really happy with it.  I ate it while watching the sneak preview of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC and felt quite good about myself in the face of so much pizza…  Also, it reheated quite nicely.

Ingredients
1, 16-oz package gnocchi (on pasta aisle)
1 large shallot, thinly sliced
½ lb shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced
¼ lb Brussels sprouts, base cut off and outer leaves discarded
1 can low sodium vegetable or chicken broth
1 cup dry white wine
Salt and pepper
½ cup roasted red peppers, finely chopped
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Drop in gnocchi and cook according to package directions.  Drain, cover, and set aside.
  2. Meanwhile in a large skillet over medium high heat sauté the shallots until slightly softened, about 2 minutes.  Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté until most liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes more. 
  3. While the shallots and mushrooms are cooking peel the inner leaves off of each Brussels sprout.  At some point you’ll get close enough to the heart that no more leaves will peel away.  Discard the hearts.  Add the Brussels sprouts leaves to the shallot and mushroom mixture and sauté 1 to 2 minutes more. 
  4. Add the wine and broth, bring to a simmer and cook until reduced by half.  Season with salt and pepper according to taste.  Stir in chopped roasted red peppers.  Add gnocchi to sauce and stir to combine.  Top each serving with a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese.    

Vegetarian Update: The New Normal

Wednesday, March 31st, 2010

I did it.

Well, almost.  Provided I make it through today without caving, then I can say I did it.  But given that I’ve made it this far I think I can count on myself to complete the day without wrecking my vegetarian experiment in its final hours.

When I last reported on the status of this project I was hitting some proverbial bumps in the road.  I was drooling over the smell of meat on grills, and puzzling over the nearly immeasurable role that food plays in our cultural landscape.  Since then I’ve bounced back a bit, thankfully.

My second book of the month, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals was an interesting read.  If Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma felt like a fascinating lecture from your best college professor, then Eating Animals feels like a freakishly well-sourced rant from your smartest activist friend.  But all of the propaganda was studded with incontrovertible facts that I couldn’t have dismissed even in the context of the most vitriolic rhetoric.  Nevertheless I think the strength of Foer’s bias ultimately proved counterproductive for me.  Not that it undermined his premise altogether, but I think I would have found his positions more compelling if presented in a more objective way.  He draws comparisons between people and animals that I believe are quite a stretch.  Many of his arguments ultimately rest on the assertion that animals are entitled to the same rights as humans, which I don’t believe.  I believe they are entitled to a respectable degree of welfare and a life free of suffering.  But I do not believe they are equal to humans.

One thing I did appreciate about Eating Animals was that Foer included passages from other stakeholders in the food industry.  In their own words he represented the arguments of a factory farmer, two family farmers, an agribusiness man, a PETA worker, and others.  These voices, alongside Foer’s own, painted a more complete picture of the competing perspectives in the larger food source landscape.  These are complicated problems and while Foer certainly pushed a particular agenda, I appreciated that he turned a few of his pages over to the voices of others.

So, where does this month leave me?  The short answer is, I’m not entirely sure yet.  Inasmuch as this experience has affected me throughout its course, I’ve tried very hard to prevent myself from drawing long-term conclusions prior to its close.  Now that I am here I have some mulling over to do.

There are some things I know for certain, and other things I haven’t yet worked out.  As for the things I know for certain:

  • The old maxim about 21 days to break a habit is true.  I hit a rough patch around two and a half weeks, and then things got much easier.
  • It is quite a challenge to get enough protein without meat.  Meat is a highly convenient protein source.
  • I will not forego meat altogether.
  • I will be much more selective in the meat I choose to eat.  I will try to find locally raised organic meat that was not subjected to factory farming methods.
  • I will select vegetarian options in most restaurants.
  • I will cook more (but not exclusively) vegetarian meals at home.
  • I sort of agree with Michael Pollan’s quote of the old French custom that any dietary restriction is bad manners, and will graciously eat any meal that is prepared for me by someone else without quibbling over its source.
  • I will not beat myself up if I occasionally slip and purchase/eat food that I can reasonably suspect was raised in a factory farming environment.
  • I will also pay more attention to the produce I eat, choosing regional or locally grown organic fruits and vegetables when possible.

As for the things I haven’t quite worked out yet:

  • How much am I willing to inflict my new beliefs system on my husband and son?
  • What impact would be brought to bear on our budget if I tried to buy only organic food?
  • How inconvenient will it be to change my shopping habits?  Is this a change I’m willing to make all of the time, some of the time?
  • How can I convey the importance of this issue to other people without sounding like a goody-two-shoes or a pushy evangelist?

So, yes, I have some thinking to do.  The last thing that I know, though, is that I’m glad I did this experiment.  I’m glad I know that I can go a month without meat and not feel too burdened by it.  I’m glad I’ve explored the dark side of the food industry and can make my decisions based on greater information than I did in the past.  And I’m glad that I’ve seen this project through and can feel satisfied with my (albeit minor) accomplishment.

I’d love to leave you with some pearl of wisdom; something poignant that will make you want to explore this topic for yourself.  But there are a couple of problems with that.  1) I have a very low tolerance for evangelism and I believe that what we put into our bodies is a highly personal decision.  What I’ve learned this month makes me believe that we are facing a system-wide problem that calls for broad attention and action.  But my little voice in the blogosphere is all I’m willing to offer.  You must decide for yourself what your beliefs are and how to comport your life accordingly.  2)  I’m still working much of this out myself and I don’t feel qualified to close this post with any statement so definitive when my own thoughts are still in their nascent form.

So I will close this post by saying, I’m glad to have learned what I learned.  I’m honored that you’ve followed along with me.  I hope I’ve sparked your curiosity on this topic.  And I hope you’ll explore it further on your own.

Vegetarian Update: Cultural Connotations

Friday, March 19th, 2010

I won’t lie to you.  Wednesday night was rough.  It was a beautiful day – 60 degrees and sunny.  I got home from work a little earlier than usual, so IEP and I took the dogs for a walk.  We were chatting with each other, pointing out leaves, trees, and squirrels.  It was a perfect spring evening… until the halfway point of our two-mile loop.  It was faint at first, but with each step it became more distinct.  Someone was cooking out.  You know that smell: the first savory waft of meat on a grill after a long winter of propane and charcoal hibernation.  (If you don’t know that smell, woe is you.)  I usually cheer that smell.  It means that winter is officially behind us.  We’ve taken to our backyards with tongs in hand.  Hooray!!

Not so much for me, though.  For me that smell was just a tease; a nanny-nanny-boo-boo to my current vegetarian imperative.  Rather than slowing my pace to bask in the scent of sizzling hamburgers I hastened to move into neutral air space as quickly as possible.  Instead of being excited I was sad; sad that I couldn’t participate in one of my favorite springtime rites of passage.

This whole little episode, while brief and anecdotal, was a strong reminder to me of why so many of us have willingly turned a blind eye to the dark side of our food supply.  Meat tastes good.  Not only does it make us full gastronomically, but it makes us whole culturally.  Consider the extent to which meals are the lynchpin of our biggest cultural moments.  And consider the extent to which meat is the centerpiece of those meals.  The Thanksgiving turkey.  The Christmas ham or rib roast.  The ballpark hot dog.  The backyard barbecue.  Without meat these events would hinge on stuffing, Brussels sprouts, peanuts, and potato salad, respectively.  And while I love each of those things, they hardly get me excited enough to loosen my belt a notch to make extra room.

This, for me, is the biggest conundrum of my vegetarian experiment.  I want to be an informed consumer whose actions reflect her understanding and beliefs.  But I do not want to sever myself from the culinary components of my culture which make me feel a part of something significant and enduring. 

In a moment of blogging kismet, one of my commenters alerted me last week to an upcoming episode of Oprah that would feature my author du jour, Michael Pollan.  I set my DVR and watched it later that evening.  Mr. Pollan said a number of things I found valuable, many of which were also included in his book.  But one point I heard him make for the first time was the following (I’m paraphrasing).  “The great thing about this issue is that we get to vote.  And we don’t vote just once.  We vote with our forks three times a day.  And you don’t have to get every one of those votes right.  But if you get even one of those votes right each day, it will eventually amount to real change in the way our food supply is managed.”

Sweet relief!  I don’t have to be perfect!  I can pop into a McDonald’s on a road trip without dismantling my entire values system.  I can go to a cookout at a friend’s house without nitpicking over the source of the meat they’re grilling.  I can live a normal life and still uphold my beliefs to a reasonable level.  Pardon me a moment while I exhale. …  Whew.  Okay.  I’m back now.

As for my reading assignments, I have finished (mostly) The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  (Full disclosure:  I skimmed the second half of the third section.  To take his intellectual premise to its logical extreme, Pollan spends the third section of the book actually hunting wild boar and foraging for mushrooms.  Since these are activities that will never factor into my own food chain I didn’t devote the same time and consideration to them that I did the sections on industrial and organic farming.)  And it was completely fascinating.  Perhaps my fascination stems in part from the fact that my level of interest in this topic includes me in a self-selected pool of people who are inclined find this book fascinating.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.  It reads like the transcripted version of a lecture by a really interesting college professor.  He takes agricultural theory and brings it to life.  Topics like corn subsidies, grass species, and the dimensions of organic baby lettuce beds could be mindbogglingly dry.  But Pollan doesn’t just provide the facts.  He tells the story, and it lures you in.  He writes with a slant, to be sure; I was never confused about his position.  But when you consider that the slant I’ve been subconsciously provided by the food industry for 32 years tells a very different story, I don’t think a bit of impassioned positioning from Pollan discredits him that much.

I am more than halfway through the month of March now.  I am craving a hamburger.  My creative culinary juices are running thin and I’m missing my normal kitchen routines.  But I have another book to read and nearly two more meatless weeks in front of me.  I don’t presume that I’ve learned all I can on the topic of our food supply and its reverberations throughout our society.  So for the next 12 days I will continue to forge ahead.  Perhaps I will find myself energized by Mr. Foer.  I’m about 50 pages in and, again, riveted.  Perhaps I will sate myself with mental meat, rather than the hamburger I’d rather devour.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #2

Sunday, March 14th, 2010

In keeping with my current vegetarian experiment, here are the latest recipes I’ve tried.  To see last week’s recipes, click here.  This past week’s challenge was incorporating more protein into my diet, so these recipes include more eggs and tofu than what I ate during my first week of vegetarianism.

Note: The title of each dish links to the recipe.  The Source link goes to the website’s homepage.

Asparagus, Artichoke, and Shitake Risotto
Source
Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
:  Medium.  As I mentioned in last week’s recipe recap, if you’ve never prepped an artichoke before, you may find it helpful to watch a video of the process first.  This was my second artichoke rodeo (last week’s being my first) and I found it much easier and quicker the second time around.
Labor:  Medium.  Again with the artichokes.  Apparently I’m a glutton for punishment.  This recipe only called for two of them, though, and that cut down on the time required a lot.  Otherwise, it was par for the risotto course.  Lots of stirring, but I knew that going in.
Overall Results:  Decent.  I swapped Oyster mushrooms for the Shitakes and that was a mistake.  They have less flavor, less structure, and less color, and when you’re making a dish that is essentially formless, you need to make it perk up as much as possible. (Why the swap? When I went to the store the shitakes were really picked over.)  The Oyster mushrooms basically just blended into the rice and didn’t add much to the dish.  I don’t think that would have been the case with Shitakes.  I also didn’t love Deb’s artichoke cooking method.  I like the procedure outlined in last week’s Artichoke and Leek Lasagna recipe better.  Nonetheless it was a tasty dinner.  Just not a showstopper. 

Baked Gnocchi
Source: Recipe card I picked up at the grocery store
Difficulty: Easy.  Except for chopping one clove of garlic and half an onion, this is basically “dump and stir” cooking.  Anyone can do this.
Labor: Low.  This was in the oven in about 10 minutes.
Overall Results: Pretty good.  But then how could it not be with that amount of cheese stirred in?  There wasn’t much depth of flavor, but that could be easily remedied by adding some vegetables and fresh herbs.  Also by eliminating some of the cheese.

Ingredients
1 cup panko or other white breadcrumbs
3 Tbs butter
1½ tsp Italian seasoning*
¼ tsp salt
1 16-oz package gnocchi (vacuum packed, available on pasta aisle)
1 14.5-oz can diced tomatoes
1½ cups half and half (I used whole milk)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup shredded provolone cheese
½ cup plus 2 Tbs shredded parmesan cheese

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.
  2. In a large saucepan melt the butter over medium high heat.  Add breadcrumbs, Italian seasoning, and salt.  Stir until all breadcrumbs are coated.  Remove half of the seasoned breadcrumbs and reserve.
  3. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until softened, about two minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes (with juices), half and half, and gnocchi.  Heat until simmering, about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat and stir in mozzarella, provolone, and ½ cup parmesan cheese.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  5. Pour gnocchi into an ungreased 9×9” baking dish.  Top with remaining 2 Tbs parmesan cheese and reserved breadcrumbs.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until bubbly.

*I didn’t feel like buying a new jar of Italian Seasoning, the components of which I already had sitting in my spice rack.  I just used about ½ tsp each of dried basil, oregano, and sage, and added a pinch of red pepper flake.  It worked fine.

Eggs in Tomato Sauce
Source
: Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
: Easy
Labor: Low.  There are about 20 minutes of total cooking time, but most of that is inactive while the sauce simmers. 
Overall Results:  Wow!  Talk about comfort food!  This was cozy and delicious.  I almost didn’t make it because GAP had plans Wednesday night and it was a convenient excuse not to cook.  I’m very glad I didn’t take the short cut.  I think this could become part of our weeknight rotation! 

I loved it as prepared according to the recipe, but there are a few things I’ll tweak next time.  First, I’m forever substituting olive oil for butter, but in this case I think the sauce would benefit from swapping butter for the olive oil.  I think it would mellow some of the acidity in the tomato puree.  Secondly, leaving the eggs in the sauce for 5 minutes cooked the yolks all the way through.  I like a runny yolk, so next time I’ll cut the cooking time to 3 minutes or so.  Lastly, the recipe says this amount of sauce is enough for 4 eggs.  You’d have to really stretch it to get 4 servings out of it.  If you want to have enough extra sauce for dipping and sopping, this will really only serve two.   

Peanut Braised Tofu with Noodles
Source
: Williams-Sonoma
Difficulty: Easy
Labor: Low
Overall Results: Very good.  This dish came together very easily and was quite tasty.  I was a little nervous about the sauce because I used natural peanut butter (which sometimes separates when used in recipes) and reduced fat coconut milk.  However, neither affected the quality of the dish at all.  If you used rice noodles I recommend breaking them in half before cooking so that they don’t clump together as much when served.  This was comforting and delicious.  IEP even loved it.  After his first bite he immediately started signing “more!”  The only drawback to this recipe is that it doesn’t reheat well.  It was significantly better the first time around.

Asparagus Frittata
Source: My own head
Difficulty:  Depends.  If you have a nonstick ovenproof skillet it’s super easy.  If your ovenproof skillet isn’t nonstick it can take a little finessing.
Labor: Low
Overall Results:  This is a great recipe to have in your back pocket.  You can add any vegetables, meat, or cheese and come up with countless versions.  I used asparagus and gruyere because that’s what I had sitting around.  You can use mushrooms, broccoli, sausage, cheddar, goat cheese, etc.  The possibilities really are endless.  Frittatas are most commonly served for breakfast, but I love them as a simple lunch or supper along with a tossed green salad and a hunk of crusty bread.  They also reheat nicely as leftovers.

Ingredients:
2 eggs
6 egg whites
½ lb pencil-thin asparagus, trimmed and cut into ½-inch segments
½ cup grated cheese
2 Tbs milk or cream
1 Tbs butter
2 Tbs olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. In a shallow sauté pan filled halfway with simmering water, blanch the asparagus for about 3 minutes.  Drain the asparagus in a colander and wipe the pan dry.  Warm 1 Tbs of the olive oil in the pan over medium high heat, and return asparagus to the pan.  Sauté until slightly browned, about 3 minutes.  Set aside.
  2. Slide oven rack to highest level and preheat broiler on high.
  3. In a medium sized bowl combine the eggs and egg whites and beat with a whisk.  Stir in the grated cheese, prepared asparagus, milk/cream, and one pinch each of salt and pepper.
  4. In a 10” to 12” ovenproof skillet (preferably nonstick)* warm the butter and remaining 1 Tbs olive oil over medium heat.  Swirl the pan to ensure that there is an even coating of oil/butter all over the pan.  Pour in the egg mixture and cook, undisturbed, until the eggs are set around the edges and mostly set in the middle – 5 to 6 minutes.  You will have a runny pool of egg mixture on top in the center.  Slide the skillet into your oven centered underneath the broiler.  Leaving the oven door cracked, broil the top of the frittata until it is fully set and slightly browned on top, 2 to 4 minutes.  Watch carefully during this time as your frittata can quickly go from perfectly browned to completely burned quickly.
  5. Remove skillet from oven and using a rubber spatula carefully loosen the frittata from the pan.  If you’re using a nonstick skillet this should be very simple.  If your skillet isn’t nonstick, be patient while working your spatula around the edges in circles, sliding the spatula a little bit farther with each turn.  When the frittata is completely loosened, slide it onto a cutting board and slice into 4 to 6 wedges.

*A note on skillets.  Nonstick is obviously best.  If you don’t have an ovenproof nonstick skillet (I don’t), anodized aluminum (such as Calphalon One brand) will also work just fine.  If you only have a stainless pan (such as All-Clad) I would recommend using some extra butter in your skillet and working very slowly with your spatula.  And be prepared for some stickage. 

Dark Chocolate Mousse Ice Cream
Source
: Orangette
Difficulty
: Medium
Labor: Medium
Overall Results: Sooooo delicious.  I found this recipe last fall and have been making it ever since.  I like to add an extra ½ to one cup of milk or cream, though.  I think it makes the final product a bit softer.  Other than that, I pretty much stick to the recipe.  This stuff never lasts long in our house.  Enjoy!

*Note – This is a great recipe to make concurrently with the frittata, as it calls for 6 egg whites, and this one calls for 6 egg yolks.

Vegetarian Update: Enlightened, Not Enraged

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

I am ten days into this adventure.  I had hoped that by now I would have some sense of the effect this experiment is having on me.  Perhaps evangelical transcendence, utter frustration, or something in between.  Sadly, so far my response is the lukewarm: I think it’s going fine, which is in itself frustrating.

From a strictly dietary perspective, I’m doing pretty well.  I’ve tried many new recipes that might have otherwise lingered online without my ringing endorsements (travesty!).  I’ve felt happy and sated after each of my meals, and have not once gone to bed feeling underfed or undernourished.  I’ve only really craved meat once (and that was shortly after a six-mile run, which I’m sure had something to do with it).  And for the most part I haven’t felt overwhelmed by this challenge.  I am not bored with my diet and I’m not unreasonably out of my comfort zone without meat.  I am a bit concerned about my protein intake.  So this week’s recipes include more eggs and tofu than the first week’s menu.  But other than that, I’m slightly sorry to say that so far the effects of this transition have been relatively trivial.  (I’m not sure what that says about me.  Was I looking for drama?  Am I just highly adaptable?) 

From the bigger-ecological-picture perspective, I’m finding myself surprised and enlightened, but not yet enraged.  I’m about 175 pages into it, and with the exception of the early chapter entitled “Corn Sex” (no kidding) The Omnivore’s Dilemma is proving fascinating.  I have learned about the economic causes and effects of commoditizing crops (the Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon cut a deal to increase the price on corn exports to Russia that altered the entire incentive structure for corn farmers to value yield exclusively and indefinitely).  I now know that nitrogen is the single biggest component of fertilizer; that inert atmospheric nitrogen makes up something like 70% of the nitrogen on earth but is useless to crops; that a process invented by a Nazi called “fixing” said inert atmospheric nitrogen enabled both the invention of chemical fertilizer and the extermination of thousands of Jews.  (Do I sound like a complete nerd yet?  No?  Okay, I’ll keep going.)  I have learned that feeding corn to cattle on feedlots has changed the levels of acidity in their stomachs and rumens (I’ll spare you the explanation of a rumen) which has prompted the emergence of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”  And I have learned that if all cattle were exclusively grass fed they would rarely get sick and agricultural veterinarians would be out of work.  Okay.  I’m finished now… at least with the really nerdy stuff.  

I had some sense of the sins of large-scale agriculture (if you’ve never driven past a feed lot, count your blessings) before I started reading.  But I had no sense of the magnitude of the marketing ploy that buoys “industrial organic” (think Whole Foods) agriculture.  As it turns out, we consumers are gullible pawns, and if someone posts a glossy placard next to a wedge of cheese stating that it came from Farm X, and that the cows on Farm X drink Evian, play croquet, and have bridge clubs, then we will pay $18/pound for Farm X’s cheese.  I’m not altogether humiliated yet, but I am starting to feel a bit foolish.  I haven’t finished the book yet though, so I imagine that humiliation is forthcoming.

At this juncture in my journey I’m reluctantly playing a prediction game.  I’m attempting to foretell in what ways I will be changed by this month of vegetarianism.  And yet, I don’t want to jump to conclusions that will influence my experience as it unfolds.  I don’t believe that I could ever permanently exclude meat from my diet.  But I am finding the reach and influence of “big ag” to be pervasive and disturbing.  If I have any integrity at all, I will have to find some means of reconciling these facts.

And it is this conundrum of integrity – of reconciling my actions to my beliefs – that I suspect will be most troublesome for me.  The food industry is buttressed by decades of economic policy that has facilitated the creation of a dietary economy geared solely toward making my food purchases convenient and affordable.  To find food sources that defy the juggernaut food industry almost by definition requires that my purchasing habits become inconvenient and expensive.  (Intellectual curiosity is starting to sting a little bit.)  I hope that by the time the month ends my selected authors (Pollan and Foer) will not only have opened my eyes to these problems, but also offered some solutions.

In the meantime, bring on the tofu.

Vegetarian Experiment: Recipe Recap #1

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

In conjunction with my current vegetarian experiment I am trying many new recipes these days.  (I am determined not to spend the month of March eating pasta and peanut butter.)  So, in order to bring you along for the ride, I will be reviewing the vegetarian dishes I have made.  Most are new, but some are old favorites.  Enjoy! 

Note: The title of each dish links to the recipe.  The Source link goes to the website’s homepage.

Artichoke and Leek Lasagna
Source
: Williams-Sonoma
Difficulty
:  Medium.  If you’ve never prepped a fresh artichoke before, they can be a little tricky.  Before you try it for the first time I recommend watching a video of the process so you can get a better idea of what you’re doing.  Other than the artichoke-peeling process, it was all very manageable.
Labor: High.  This would be a great meal for entertaining because all the work can be done ahead of time and you can just slide the thing in the oven when your guests arrive.  I would not recommend it for a weeknight supper.  I made it on Monday night and it turned out to be an overly ambitious project.  I started it around 7:15 after IEP went to bed.  It wasn’t ready to go into the oven until 8:30 and we didn’t sit down to eat until 9:20. 
Overall Results:  Really wonderful, and completely worth all the effort!  Great balance of flavors.  Five cloves of garlic seemed like a lot, but they don’t overwhelm the dish at all.  I ate several portions left-over and it reheats beautifully.  I served it with a tossed green salad, which was a perfect accompaniment.    

Cabbage and Mushroom Galette
Source
: Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
:  Medium.  The filling is super simple.  But pastry is one of those things that can be temperamental.  Deb’s recipe came together more easily than most, though.  And even if you’re a pastry virgin you should be able to handle this one without much trouble.  Just be sure you keep your dough-rolling surface well-floured.  And roll the pastry up over your rolling pin to transfer it to your baking sheet to avoid tearing it in transit.
Labor: Medium.  This is scratch cooking, so it’s not going to be on your plate in 15 minutes.  I’d say, from the time I started slicing cabbage to the time it went in the oven was about an hour.  But most of that time was inactive, meaning that I was just periodically stirring the cabbage in the pot while doing other things around the kitchen.
Overall Results:  Crazy delicious.  I swapped white whole wheat flour for the all-purpose flour (just because it was what I had on hand) and it gave the dish an extra earthiness that I really loved.  I’m not a big anise fan, so I left out the tarragon, and used white wine vinegar instead of the tarragon infused vinegar (which I didn’t have anyway).  Be judicious with the vinegar at the end.  It gives the dish a wonderful zing, but it would be easy to overdo it.  I ate it leftover for lunch at work on Friday and the pastry was a tad soggy after a round in the microwave, but didn’t suffer too much.  If I’d been reheating at home I probably would have done 30 seconds in the microwave to get the filling going, followed by about ten minutes in a 375 degree oven to put some starch back into the pastry.  (Mom, if you’re reading, this dish is right up your alley!) 

Italian Hummus
Source
: Food Network
Difficulty
: Easy
Labor: Low.  As long as you have a food processor you can whip this up in about 5 minutes.
Overall Results: A great staple.  I’ve been making this dip for a few years now and it’s become an old favorite.  The parsley gives it a pale green color.  If you don’t care for that you can easily omit the parsley and the dish won’t suffer.  This is a great snack with pita chips or veggies.  But my favorite way to eat it is spread on the inside of a toasted pita pocket with a few slices of fresh mozzarella and some strips of fresh red and yellow bell pepper.  It makes a perfect springtime sandwich.

Simple Potato Gratin
Source
: Smitten Kitchen
Difficulty
: Easy.  If you can slice potatoes and grate cheese then you can make this dish.
Labor: Low.  This would have been a snap if I’d had a mandoline, but I had to slice the potatoes by hand.  Even still, it wasn’t that much work. 
Overall Results: Very tasty.  I added a layer of sautéed shitakes (with minced thyme) between each layer of potatoes which added some heft to the dish, along with a greater depth of flavor that I really liked.  I added the pats of butter at the end as called for, but may leave them out next time as the dish was already plenty rich.  Served with a salad for me, and added grilled sausages to the meal for GAP and my mother-in-law who is in town visiting this weekend.  I will certainly be making this again.  Smitten Kitchen hasn’t let me down yet!

Roasted Vegetables
Source: My own head (but probably subconsciously inspired by Ina Garten who roasts everything)
Difficulty: Easy
Labor: Low
Overall Results: Solid.  Sometime in December I decided to roast some broccoli, rather than steaming it, and we never looked back.  I’ll warn you, it’s not as pretty roasted as steamed.  But the flavors are worlds better.  It caramelizes in the oven and there’s a subtle sweetness that comes through the salt and pepper.  You can use this method for potatoes, sweet potatoes, bell peppers, onions, along with the broccoli and cauliflower listed below.  For potatoes you’ll want to extend your cooking time to 30 minutes, and for peppers and onions you’ll probably want to cut it back to 15. 

Ingredients:
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
2 cups cauliflower florets
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400.
  2. Scatter broccoli and cauliflower on a large cookie sheet.  Drizzle liberally with olive oil (probably ¼ cup).  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Toss with your hands to evenly coat the vegetables in the oil and seasonings.
  3. Roast in oven for 20 minutes, stopping to turn vegetables with tongs halfway through. 

Raspberry Yogurt
Source: My own head
Difficulty: Easy
Labor: Low
Overall Results: Very good.  I’m skeptical of all the artificial sweeteners and dyes that are added to commercially flavored yogurt, so I made up my own version.  I take this to work for my mid-morning snack.

Ingredients:
1 quart low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt (I find that low-fat is a bit mellower and less zingy than nonfat)
1 bag frozen raspberries
Honey

Directions:

  1. Transfer frozen raspberries to a plastic container and let thaw in fridge overnight.  They will be very runny when thawed.
  2. Spoon desired amount of yogurt into a bowl (about ½ cup).  Spoon desired amount of raspberries on top of yogurt (about ¼ cup).  Drizzle with honey (a teaspoon or two), and stir thoroughly to combine.
  3. Makes about 8 servings total.

Eat Your Veggies

Monday, March 1st, 2010

When I started this blog exactly two months ago I had a few goals in mind.  The most significant goal was to shift my paradigm; to look at the world in new ways and keep my mind fresh and engaged.  To keep myself accountable for that goal I stated it clearly and on the record.  At the same time I offered up some smaller resolutions for the year in front of me.  And as it turns out that large goal and one of the smaller resolutions are about to jump into bed together.  Or, perhaps more accurately, into the kitchen together.

Throughout the past several years our culture has paid increasing attention to our food sources.  A whole punditry of dietary and nutritional hawks has emerged.  In 2001 Fast Food Nation was written by Eric Schlosser.  Morgan Spurlock tackled the dubious challenge of eating nothing but McDonald’s for a full month in 2003’s documentary Super Size Me.  Michael Pollan further explored our food sources with his 2007 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  And 2009 brought us another documentary, Food, Inc. from Schlosser and Pollan, as well as the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.  In addition to these larger works, a smattering of magazine articles on related topics has also been published, such as this one in TIME about the real costs of food, this one in the New York Times Magazine about our cooking habits, and this one in Rolling Stone about the putrid realities of hog farming.

As a girl who loves to cook, a girl with a wee bit of an earthy streak, and a girl who grew up hearing the refrains of Wendell Berry echo through her home, I’ve started to feel a bit guilty about the ways in which I contribute to crimes committed by big agriculture and large scale food distribution.  Couple this guilt with the paradigm-shifting purpose of this blog and my resolution to eat more fruits and vegetables and you get:

Gale is becoming a vegetarian for a month.

(For the record, GAP is not excited about this…  Supportive, but not excited.)

Starting today, and throughout the month of March, I will abstain from all meat, including fish and seafood.  I will continue to eat eggs and dairy, though.  Veganism requires more fortitude than I can muster at this point.  (And I have a soft spot for milkshakes.)  To keep me company on this journey I am summoning the likes of Michael Pollan and Jonathan Safran Foer and their books The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eating Animals, respectively.  I chose these two titles specifically because they are well-respected works that I believe will help me better understand the larger implications of the dietary decisions I make each day.

I am prepared for the fact that this experiment may take me down a path that is inconvenient and expensive.  Buying chicken breasts priced at four dollars per pound from the grocery store down the road from my house is a very easy way to live.  At this point I don’t know where that chicken comes from, or what its living conditions were when it was alive.  I suspect that my prescribed reading for this month will dispel my ignorance, which may not be an easy realization to accept.

Some of my shopping and eating habits have already changed.  I stopped buying farm-raised salmon many months ago after reading an article in The Economist (which I couldn’t find online) about the damage that salmon farms have done to the tributary ecosystems on the East coast.  I started baking my own bread after an incident last spring when I inadvertently bought two loaves at once and after six weeks on my shelf the second loaf still hadn’t molded.  (To me, food that won’t spoil is scarier than food that has spoiled.)  And I make all of IEP’s food from scratch so that I can ensure that he isn’t exposed to the skyrocketing levels of sugar, salt, and processed fats that exist in many packaged foods.

So I’m not walking into this completely blind.  But, I do not buy local produce.  I do not buy organic.  And I have never intentionally excluded meat from my diet.  It will certainly be a challenge.

I would also like to mention that I recognize that I am not unique in this decision.  Thousands (millions?) of people have gone years without eating meat.  I am here making a bit of a fuss about this experiment because, for me, it is a significant change.  I live in the Midwest where meat is the centerpiece of nearly every meal.  But many, many people have traveled this same path – for reasons both noble and silly – with no fanfare at all.  My reason for calling attention to this choice is because I believe that I am a pretty fair representation of your average, healthy American.  And if all of the attention drawn to the environmental ramifications of “big ag” and the general cause of sustainability will ever amount to real change, it will be because average people like myself find the behavioral alterations requisite in affecting the bigger picture to be worthwhile and attainable.

I have some suspicions about what long-term effects on my eating and shopping habits will be brought to bear based on this experiment.  But I will keep them to myself for now.  I will keep you updated on my progress, and will certainly have plenty to say about this exercise at its conclusion.  In the meantime, don’t forget to eat your veggies.