Dear reader, I’m so glad we’ve agreed to disagree about vegetarianism. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t spend much time here with me. Chances are good that you are not a vegetarian, or if you are, you may be following a more restricted diet than mine. Perhaps you are a vegan, lamenting about how few vegan recipes I give you. Today I will add one more to your collection. It’s one of my favorites.
October 1 is World Vegetarian Day, which is something we can all celebrate. To my mind, it isn’t necessary to be a vegetarian to appreciate what vegetarianism has to offer. Really, it’s all about the food. I may be more than a little biased, but doesn’t everybody love chickpeas and tofu, salads and soups, grainy cornbread and hearty roasted potatoes? Even Matt, who has some sort of steak quota he must satisfy each week, let me feed him tofu (twice! in two days!) and found it more than edible. I think he even went back for seconds.
We vegetarians know our way around the kitchen, and we cook some damn fine food. Collectively, we benefit from the recipes and ideas that vegetarians have contributed to our cooking repertoires. For anyone who is looking to eat more nutritiously, meatless meals are a great place to start. It’s not because meat is bad for you. Instead, it’s because it’s so easy to eat healthfully when you focus on plant-based foods like whole grains and vegetables. But now that I’ve been a dedicated vegetarian for seven years, the thing that impresses me most about this way of eating is how well it promotes abundance and good stewardship of the land. Raising animals for meat will always be a resource-intensive activity. Land animals, for example, require lots of land for grazing and roaming around, lots of water for drinking, and they produce tons of waste. There are great examples of farmers and ranchers who produce meat in humane, environmentally responsible ways, but their ways still require one very important resource: land. This devotion of resources is relevant to anyone who eats animal products, including me. I love dairy and eggs, much to the chagrin of my vegan readers!
If we all eat a little less meat (and dairy and eggs), it means there’s a little more food for everyone, particularly those who need it the most. The math gets a little wobbly here. Years ago I read that it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. Then I start hopping around on the internet and I come across this site which states that it only takes 2.6 pounds of grain. Hmm. In the end, it comes down to a question of how your cows are fed. Grass-fed beef (all grass, from start to finish) require no grain, just lots and lots of grass, which means lots of land for grazing. Conventionally-raised cattle that are raised in feedlots eat at least some grain; Michael Pollan tells us that these cattle eat a lot of corn, a diet that is detrimental to their health and ours.
But when we sit down to eat, nobody thinks that steak is equivalent to corn, even if we put a pound of steak side by side with 2.6 or even 16 pounds of corn. Steak is a big hunk of protein and fat. Corn is little kernels of sweet starchiness. The more I thought about how one might compare the economics of eating meat to the economics of vegetarianism, the more I realized that vegetarianism is not a cure-all for the problems facing our food production these days. Food transportation and processing are perhaps the most pressing issues of our time. How much fuel can we afford to use so that I can have bananas all year round? How much fertilizer can we pour onto conventional corn crops so that we can make high-fructose corn syrup for our Cokes? I love bananas and the occasional rum and Coke.
Vegetarianism does not answer the questions about food and energy consumption, but eating locally does. We are, hopefully, in the beginning stages of a nationwide effort to promote local food. I’m not ready to give up my bananas or my avocadoes—I’m hoping I won’t have to give them up—but I am happy to support local eating opportunities, whether they are found at the Evanston farmer’s market during the Midwestern growing season or at local restaurants, such as Uncommon Ground, a groovy little café near Loyala University. Uncommon Ground has a big welcoming menu featuring dishes packed with locally grown produce. Awesome. (FYI: Uncommon Ground serves the best granola pancakes, made with sour cream and little chunks of dried fruit. Daphna and I have a top-secret plan to develop a homemade version of their granola pancakes.)
I remain a vegetarian, even as I contemplate the possibility of eating meat again. For me, vegetarianism marked a shift in the way I think about food and the ethics of eating. Vegetarianism was a way of saying I care. I care about what goes into the growing and processing of my food, for my sake and the sake of other people and the environment. What’s more is that vegetarianism has been a wonderful experience for me, a safe haven as I learned about cooking and cuisine. I didn’t have to deal with bloody hunks of meat or bacteria-coated raw chicken. I don’t miss eating meat, but I realize now that vegetarianism is just the beginning of my path toward a sustainable way of cooking and eating.
In the spirit of abundance, may you always have enough food to go around your table. Happy World Vegetarian Day.
Adapted from EatingWell magazine
Serves 4-5 as an entrée
This dish is just brimming with good flavors. It’s a substantial vegetable stew studded with sweet soybeans and accented with herbs and citrus. I served it once at a dinner party to rave reviews. Mostly I make it for myself and love its fresh, vibrant taste. This stew is vegan, so it’s one of the first dinners that pops into my head if I’ll be feeding any vegans. I think of it as a late-summer/early-fall dish, but you are certainly welcome to make it anytime you’d like.
In the past, I’ve served it over bulgur. Tonight, I’ll be ladling it over brown rice. I can’t really see how it would be bad with rice, but in the interest of full disclosure, expect a follow-up report from me in the comments section tomorrow.
1 16-oz. package of frozen shelled edamame (about 3 cups of beans)
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large zucchini, diced
2 tbsp. minced garlic
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. red crushed chile peppers, or to taste
1 28-oz. can diced tomatoes
A handful of fresh mint leaves, chopped
2-3 tbsp fresh lemon juice, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Several cups of a grain of your choice, such as bulgur or rice
1) Bring a large pot of water to boil. Pour in the edamame and cook according to package directions. Drain and set aside.
2) While the water is going, heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, for about 3 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook, covered, for another 3 minutes or until the onions start to brown. Add the garlic, cumin, coriander, and red crushed chile peppers. Cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly.
3) Stir in the tomatoes and their juices. Bring the whole thing to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook until the liquid amount is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes.
4) Stir in the cooked edamame and heat thoroughly. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the mint and lemon juice. Taste and add more lemon juice, salt, and/or pepper to taste.
5) Serve in deep bowls over a grain of your choice with lemon wedges on the side.