Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Eating less meat

Mark Bittman, a minimalist cook who shares a similar philosophy of food with Michael Pollan, has an interesting article in today's Times dealing with difficulties of actually carrying through with a plan of reducing meat consumption in America's food culture. If it's not something you've contemplated, it really is harder than you'd think it would be. In many ways, Bittman is right: it's simpler just to forgo meat entirely and become a vegetarian since, these days, there is such an established vegetarian food culture full of interesting recipes and all that. However, if you still want to keep meat in your diet, like me, it's a bit more complicated since if you grew up in this country, every meal has revolved around a giant piece of meat and tiny portions of vegetables... which if you buy into the Pollan/Bittman food world view is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing.

Now, living with a vegan means I probably do better than most omnivores, since we often cook together(though not as much as we should) and thus I get completely meatless dishes fairly frequently. Also, when we go out to dinner, 9 times out of 10 it's to an ethnic place like Korean or Thai that does treat meat more like a condiment. However, when I cook for myself I have a troubling tendency to make big meaty things and skimp on the veggies... this is partially do to a lifetime of war against green things that I've only gradually gotten over, and also my status as a novice and inexperienced cook. I have a lot of trouble managing more than one dish at a time, and as a consequence end up making my main dish and then skimping on the sides... which is fine with a stew, but probably not with a steak.

You should read the whole article, but two recommendations struck me as particularly good ones... the first:

4. Buy more vegetables, and learn new ways to cook them.

If you’re a good cook, you already know you can make a meal out of pretty much anything. If you open your refrigerator and it’s stocked with vegetables, that’s what you’re going to cook. You’ll augment the vegetables with pantry items: pasta, rice, beans, cheese, eggs, good canned fish, bacon, even a small amount of meat. We’re not discussing vegetarianism, remember?

If you’re not a good cook, you have the opportunity to learn how to cook in what could turn out to be the style of the future.

This is one of the big reasons I decided to do this farmer's market thing. Buying more vegetables and learning how to cook them in interesting new ways is a pretty exciting concept for me... what am I going to do with those sugar snap peas I bought on Monday? I still don't know, but it certainly helps me become a better cook and get some veggies in my system that I otherwise wouldn't.

5. Make nonmeat items as convenient as meat.

There is a myth, even among experienced cooks, that few things are as convenient as meat. And while there’s no arguing that grilling, broiling or pan-grilling a steak or chop is fast, it’s equally true that almost no one considers such a preparation a one-dish meal.

By thinking ahead, and working ahead, you can make cooking vegetables as convenient as what in India is often called “non-veg.” Spend an hour or two during the course of the week precooking all the nonmeat foods you think take too long for fast dinners.

Store cooked beans in the refrigerator or freezer and reheat as needed, with seasonings. Keeping precooked beans in the freezer will change your cooking habits more easily than any other simple strategy.

Reheat cooked whole grains (the microwave is good for this) for breakfast with milk or dinner with savory seasonings. Wash tender greens and store in a salad spinner, covered bowl, or plastic bag. Most other vegetables can be poached, shocked in ice water, drained, and served cold or reheated in any fashion you like — sautéed quickly in butter, steamed, grilled or made into a gratin or something equally substantial.

This is something Anna does all the time... spend a couple hours one night cooking up a storm of dishes that she can then put together any way she wants over the next week or whatever. It works really well for her, and I have no idea why I didn't think of it before... probably because I am not quite as gung-ho about leftovers as her. It's definitely a good idea for me, and something I need to start doing as I bring in the local produce.

photo by flickr user Muffet used under a Creative Commons license

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