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America’s Healthy
Cooking Teacher

Can Vegetables Be Our New Meat?

It’s been a bad time recently for meat-and meat eaters. Everywhere they turn, they are faced with studies telling them meat kills, experts advising to quit meat and contaminated meat recalls. Everywhere, knives and forks are paused over juicy pieces of animal shank in hesitation.

Of course, surveys also tell us that most Americans are shrugging off the World Health Organization’s dire health warnings about meat and are not particularly concerned about meat recalls due to e coli contamination. There’s even a bit of a backlash by companies like Dunkin Donuts introducing more bacon-based junk food for our consumption, as though a rebellion against healthy choices will diminish the impact.

And yet, there are rumblings everywhere from food trucks to damask covered, candle-lit tables. Vegetables are having a moment, a renaissance so to speak. Chefs and home cooks everywhere are delighting in the tastes, colors and textures of the plant-kingdom…and not just as a way to bring life and color to a plate where the main course has neither.

Plates of cabbage and carrots, cauliflower and kale are becoming the stars on our tables. According to an article in Vogue: “Restaurant-consulting firm Technomic reports that two thirds of today’s Americans think a vegetarian meal can be as satisfying as one with meat.” It’s about time.

All our old protestations to eating vegetables are slipping away as the delicious flavors of vegetables shine. Beets simmer in glorious, thick sauce as we roast them to sweet perfection. Chefs salt-roast root vegetables like they would a whole sea bass. Delectably sweet carrots and parsnips are nestled in pastry, creating pot pies, strudels and roulades as satisfying as any you might imagine. I have perfected a recipe for carrots-osso buco-style that will knock your socks off (see the end of this article for the recipe).

I spend a lot of time thinking about food trends and our collective health and wellness. This new trend (and I say trend because this is no fad, people; it has staying power) has ramifications that far exceed my love of cabbage (which is deep and abiding). This vegetable-as-main-course trend can help alter the course of disease we find ourselves on…and maybe even help save the planet.

A few years after I became a vegetarian, my mother gave me a copy of Frances Moore Lappe’s book, “Diet for a Small Planet” and I was enthralled. Her book became the bible of plant-based eating, making more than a persuasive case against meat eating. Like studies released and other books since, we remain a meat-loving culture, but her book has rocked many lives with statistics like:

It takes 25 times more energy to produce a calorie of beef than of corn.

It requires 450 gallons of water to produce a quarter-pound hamburger.

The meat industry emits more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation.

The likelihood of death from any cause is 75% higher in heavy meat eaters.

While this data has been accumulating for a very long time and while most Americans surveyed still say bacon is worth dying for, there has been a shift in eating awareness. Anyone with knowledge of a kitchen has been quietly infiltrating mainstream perception  with the sheer pleasure of the flavors of vegetables.

A new consciousness of food is being created.  

Might the day be coming when we salivate at the thought of perfectly roasted tender carrots and lustily sink our forks into platters of braised artichokes?

Marion Nestle, (professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU, and author of Food Politics, What to Eat, Safe Food, and Why Calories Count), was quoted in Vogue as saying, “We don’t need to eat any animals, really. If you eat enough calories, the probability of getting more than enough protein is extremely high. Most Americans get twice the protein needed.”

I quote this because of the constant questions I get about plant-based eaters getting enough protein. This myth has plagued us since the dawn of time…or so it seems. The truth is that a diverse vegetable diet, chosen without a focus on any one thing in particular, is nutritionally sufficient on all fronts.

"The number-one problem Americans face today is the lack of vegetables in our diet,” Jose Andrés, an award-winning chef says. “We are eating almost opposite the amounts of fruit and vegetables and meat we’re supposed to. I also realized recently that meat is incredibly overrated in terms of flavor. Think about a pineapple: Every instant, even after the last bite, is deeply interesting.”

The challenge is helping Americans think of eating vegetables as…well, sexy. Certainly chefs can prepare them in ways that rival any dish on any plate in flavor and satisfaction. We all know the facts. Vegetables are vital to our health, from our bones to our skin, literally. Vegetables can help prevent disease and help us to age gracefully. They provide most of what is essential to human health. They’re brightly colored and provide various delicious flavors and textures.

So…why…don’t…we…eat…them?

Are they too expensive for our tight budgets? Are they hard to find? Are they too girly for real men?

Some of that thinking is so yesterday. We know that choosing vegetables and fruit are within most family budgets. We know that real men do eat broccoli (Engine 2 Diet anyone?).

Some of us however, more than I care to imagine, struggle with availability. That’s a sad truth. With only 1 million people identifying as full-time farmers and with food deserts in our underserved communities, access to fresh produce can present a challenge for some. There are people who travel long distances in an attempt to feed their families, but the good news is that there are organizations out there doing great work creating community gardens, neighborhood produce trucks and city farms to help remedy this problem. It will take time, but the day is coming when vegetables are readily available to and affordable for all of us.

In the meantime, if we are to maintain health and wellness, we must begin to think of vegetables as cuisine, instead of turning up our noses at Brussels sprouts. We must consistently turn to the plant kingdom to deliciously and sustainably feed those we love, our community and the world. 

 

CARROT OSSO BUCO

Yup, you read right. Replacing the meat with hearty roots creates a splendidly satisfying side dish for any holiday feast. Adapted from another recipe, I have made this dish and simply love it. You can do it with carrots, parsnips or winter squash, whatever hearty veggie you love.

Makes 6-7 servings

1/2 pound red pearl onions, peeled, left whole

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon avocado oil

3 very large carrots, cut crosswise 1 inch thick at the wide ends and 1 1/2 inches thick toward the narrow ends

Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 teaspoon curry powder

1 cup dry red wine

4-6 dried porcini mushrooms

1 1/2 cups prepared mushroom stock or water

1/2 cup flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350°. In a large, deep ovenproof skillet, bring 1 inch of water to a boil. Add the pearl onions and cook for 1 minute. Drain and trim the onions, then peel them. Wipe out the skillet.

Return the skillet to the heat and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. Add the carrots in a single layer, season with salt and pepper and cook over moderate heat, turning, until browned, about 5 minutes per side.

Add the pearl onions, sprinkle with the curry powder and cook, stirring a few times, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine and simmer over moderately high heat for 3 minutes. Add the porcini and mushroom broth/water and bring to a boil. Transfer the skillet to the oven and braise the carrots for 1 hour and 15 minutes, turning once, until tender.

Season the sauce with salt and pepper. Spoon the carrots, onions and sauce into shallow bowls. In a bowl, toss the parsley with the lemon juice and the remaining 1 teaspoon of oil and season with salt and pepper. Scatter the parsley leaves over the carrots and serve on a bed of polenta or mashed potatoes.