Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mad Cow: The Untold Story

Yesterday there was a news item regarding a dairy cow that began exhibiting the symptoms of "Mad Cow" (shaking, staggering, stumbling, falling). Two things happened very quickly: 1) news stations found an "expert" or two to discuss the occurrence, and 2) the industry reassured the public that this was nothing to worry about.

I am by no means an expert on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow), but I have read a fairly disturbing book on the subject, "Deadly Feasts," by Richard Rhodes--the man who discovered the connection between what the animals were eating and the disease itself. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like to understand exactly what "mad cow" is, and why everyone should be concerned.

It's actually a fascinating story that reads a bit like a suspense novel. I don't want to spoil it for you, but I do want to touch on the part that no one is addressing, especially the meat industry and "the authorities."

In a recap I saw this morning, a talking head first made the point that "no one has ever contracted mad cow in the United States." The segment had shown a woman who had been stricken with the disease, seen thrashing helplessly in her hospital bed sometime before her inevitable demise (there is no treatment or cure). The guest expert was quick to mention that the unfortunate woman had eaten some infected meat in the U.K., and had then moved to the U.S., not knowing that she had been infected, because (here's the exciting part) it can take anywhere from six to twelve years from the initial infection to the first symptoms of the disease. Again, the assurance was made that the American meat supply is "safe."

My immediate question was, "How do they know?" If it takes that long for symptoms to appear, how could anyone be sure? The answer, of course, is obvious: they can't be sure, and they aren't. My guess is, they're engaging in damage control.

I saw this book on the shelf back in 1997--with a much creepier cover--and was intrigued, so I opened it and read the inside flap:

"It lurks in the meat we eat. Undetectable, it incubates for years. It kills by eating holes in people's brains, so that they stagger and collapse and lose their minds. It's one hundred percent fatal. And it's already abroad in America"

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there is a connection between a bizarre disease afflicting the cannibals of New Guinea, known as "kuru," an animal disease afflicting sheep, called "scrapie," a rare disease afflicting humans, "Creutzfeldt-Jakob," and "mad cow." All of the subjects had brains that, when viewed in cross-sections under a microscope, had thousands of little holes, giving them the appearance of a sponge--hence the name, "spongiform encephalopathy."

What causes mad cow? Well, it's pretty disgusting, but apparently they had been feeding cattle a protein supplement made from rendering animals parts--bovine carcasses, diseased pets put down at veterinarian clinics, roadkill, you name it--cooked down and formed into little pellets. Essentially, they were turning cows into cannibals, and whatever was affecting the cannibals of New Guinea was now doing the same with cattle. And as with kuru, the disease is transmissible from the dead to the eaters.

Just when you think it's scary enough, it gets worse. It turns out that the disease agent is not a virus or bacterium, or anything living. It's a "prion," a protein fragment that somehow messes with the programming in brain cells. When the cells die off, instead of splitting and leaving a new cell to replace them, they leave only a hole where they once had been. Eventually, you don't have enough brain left to do the job, so you begin to stagger, shake, lose functions, and die. That's why it takes so long for observable symptoms to arise, and why there is no cure. You can't kill this thing, because it isn't alive. They put a sample in a petri dish and blasted it with hard radiation for a ridiculous length of time and it was unaffected. Read the book; it's a classic!

Legislation has since been enacted that forbids the feeding of ruminant parts to ruminants (whew!). But there is no law against feeding the same stuff to pigs, or chickens (be afraid, be very afraid!). What a world, huh?

Final note: When you read or hear assurances from the meat industry that everything is fine, and it doesn't get into the dairy products, and no one has gotten mad cow in America, or, frankly, anything else these people assert, assume it's exactly what they want you to believe and not necessarily fact. Best advice? Don't eat animals!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Kitchen, Desk, and Garden

My wife is the gardener; I'm the cook. But sometimes our roles overlap, as they did yesterday. Last year, I built some beds on the slope next to our house, and she planted zucchini and kabochas--my two all-time favorite squashes. The zucchini did very well, but we noticed that the kabochas she planted up on the hillside above the house did much better than the others. So this year, the decision was made to dig more beds on the hillside and plant the zucchini there as well (I hope this works!).

I was busy writing yesterday morning, until I took a break and peeked out back to see what my sweetie was up to. I found her slinging a pick--an absolutely necessary first step in digging anywhere on the hillside, because we live on virtually solid granite. Growing anything here means replacing the crushed rock with rich topsoil. I offered to take over the hole digging so she could focus on less brutal tasks for a while.

At one point she called up to me, and as I stopped and looked up, she snapped a picture. The thought crossed my mind that this was not unlike a politician posing at a  construction site--somehow taking credit for all the hard work someone else has done. See all those rocks behind me? My wife went out in the car, found them and brought them home, carried them up onto the hillside, and placed them around the beds she dug last year. Okay, I did help a little, but she did nearly all the work--and by nearly, I mean 99%. I vowed to do more this year, but I've been so taken up with my next book and my new webinar, well, what an excellent excuse for staying indoors!

Yesterday was truly the first day of spring here, not yet hot, but clearly with the scent of budding life. The outdoors had finally begun to beckon convincingly. So this was obviously the time for me to pick up the shovel and match action to words. Maybe that's why she took the picture--she couldn't believe her eyes! Just kidding.

Back when I was studying Aikido (before the marit-al arts took me over), I read that O'Sensei--the founder of Aikido--used to recommend that all martial artists also take time to be gardeners. The idea, as I understood it, was that being solely a warrior tends to corrupt the mind, tilting one too far to the yang side of things, and making one arrogant. In order to bring one's spirit into balance and maintain a wise, calm character, he felt it was important to get in touch with the nurturing aspect of a man's nature, to spend time growing and building things, and be humbled by understanding how fundamentally we all rely on farmers for our very existence.

After the holes were dug, we went out and found dozens of rocks to shore them up--an essential step if you don't want everything to wash down the hill the first time it rains. The afternoon flew by, and last night I slept better than I had in months.

I know I'll never be a gardener like my wife is, but just being out there with her I get an inkling of what O'Sensei had in mind. I'm a cook, and a writer, and for me it's important to get my hands in the dirt a little, to see and feel the connection between what appears to have so little value--dirt--and exactly the stuff my blood and bones are made of. Over and over again, as long as I'm alive, each cell in my body will die off and be replaced by a new one, constructed with building blocks that come out of the earth, into plants, and into me. A warrior without this reverence for life, this understanding of his true place in the overall scheme of life, or a sense of wonder at the unstoppable beauty of it all, is no more than an ignorant barbarian--skilled at killing, but clueless at living.


Saturday, April 21, 2012

Asian Greens and Mangoes

Asian Greens with Bean Sprouts, Red Pepper and Mango
I very rarely buy those packages of mixed salad greens--all too often I've opened them to find that roughly half the contents are what I call "pre-compost." But a new one caught my eye the other day, and it looked super-fresh, so I gave it a shot. It was called "Five Happiness," by Organic Girl, and to say it did not disappoint would be a spectacular understatement. It must have just come off the truck, because every single leaf was resplendent and bursting with lifejuice (a neologism coined just now). I couldn't wait to make something that would do them justice.

At the same market, I found some irresistibly ripe champagne mangoes, and this salad formed instantly in my head, which I would later dub "Asian Greens with Bean Sprouts, Red Pepper and Mango."

I combined the greens, mung bean sprouts, slices of the mango, and strips of roasted and peeled red pepper (for a step-by-step demo showing how to roast and peel peppers, check out my 14-minute webinar--it's in there about halfway through). For the dressing, I wanted something very light that would spark it to life without getting in the way. I pressed a little garlic into a bowl and added fresh lime juice, splashes of tamari and sriracha sauce, and just a dab of toasted sesame oil. I whisked it together and quickly tossed the salad. After piling it on plates, I topped each serving with thinly cut scallion slivers.

This salad now holds an iconic spot in my taste memory--one of those that not only stand out as near-perfect, but that also rely completely on specific ingredients that must be at the peak of freshness and ripeness. Crunchy, juicy, spicy, sweet, sour, bright, light, and thoroughly satisfying. Unbelievable. Sometimes I surprise even myself--which of course is the crass way of acknowledging that flow of genuine inspiration we mortals receive directly from the divine. Hats off to the kitchen gods!

My 19-year-old son, who is decidedly not interested in anything vegan, declared it a winner. To be fair, he is (as I am) profoundly enamored with mango in any form, so this was a slam-dunk from the get-go. But one must use one's wiles if one is to promulgate one's worldview among those determined to resist it. Sounds like a message you'd pull out of a fortune cookie, doesn't it? Apropos.

P.S. You go, Organic Girl!

Friday, April 20, 2012

3 Reasons Why Some Vegans Are Boiling Mad at Me

No vegans were harmed in the filming of this picture.
Maybe you've seen the announcement I posted a few days ago, about my new webinar, "The Occasional Vegan." I've enjoyed a very positive response for the most part, but slightly less than 100% from the vegan community.

I'm used to explaining my position on food, my vegan diet, and the eco-ethical reasons why I think it's a good idea for people to start getting their head around the idea that animal products are not sustainable as a staple for billions of people. And I'm used to the resistance I pick up from people who sense that I might be expecting them to immediately stop eating animal products as I have.

It doesn't come up too often, but when it does, it's hard for me to hold back my views on the disgustingly heartless practice of factory farming, which in itself is ample reason for many people to swear off animal products forever. I do understand that this alone isn't enough for the majority of people, however, because I was one of them. I had the same semi-conscious blinders in place that kept me from having to really look at the reality of where my food came from, and, hardest to bear, what living creatures--every bit as warm, cute, and lovable as my dogs--had to endure in order for me to eat their flesh and body fluids.

What's entirely new to me is explaining my position to vegans. It seems my approach in the webinar (all too tolerant of people who aren't ready to jump in with both feet) has put some of them off. One in particular had some fairly harsh words for my endeavors. Oh well.

The purpose of the webinar is essentially to offer people a viable alternative to the standard American diet that is sickening and killing people by the millions. My thought was to do this in an environment free of judgment, coercion, or anything else that might inhibit their chances of appreciating the pleasure that comes with good food from healthy plant-based sources. Think compassion for the human animal. 

So I've decided to have a free conference call tomorrow for anyone who's interested in this topic.

All are welcome!

3 Reasons Why Some Vegans Are Boiling Mad at Chef Alan
Saturday, April 21st at 9:05am PDT / 12:05pm EDT / 16:05 UTC
Attend via Phone or Web. No registrations required.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Raw Brussels Sprouts

I like to say that "Vegan is the highest common denominator" (at least in terms of food and eaters), because everyone eats plants. Then I was in Portland a year or two ago, and I said this to someone who came back with, "Actually, raw vegan is." He's obviously never traveled to India--eat raw food there see how your day goes.

But the fact is, raw food is a must, a minimum daily requirement. I've taken to blending salad for breakfast (a.k.a. "green juice") and it's freaking great. I still cook a lot of my food (I am a cook, after all), but my body loves raw food best. I can feel its gratitude every time I feed it raw food.

So I was thinking recently about how to eat a Brussels sprout raw (and enjoy it, of course), when it came to me: make it the primary ingredient in a cole slaw! I don't know why I never thought of it before. It's a cabbage, after all--in Mexico, where I grew up,  the name for it is col de bruselas ("cabbage of Brussels"). But my friendship with Brussels sprouts is still fairly young--I hated it as a kid--and I haven't really spent a lot of time thinking up ways to use it.

For this slaw, I used a mandoline to get uniform, superthin slices of the Brussels sprouts and red cabbage. I added finely grated carrot and then fluffed the slaw to combine the three ingredients well. Then I made a creamy dressing with fresh lime juice, sherry vinegar, Udo's Oil, raw cashew butter, mellow white miso, tamari, sriracha sauce, and grated ginger. I served it immediately after tossing in the dressing, when all the flavors and textures were at their peak of assertiveness.

I realized after I had written it all down, that I hadn't used any onion--something I'd rarely left out of most salads, let alone a slaw--but the this was so pungent and spicy, it hadn't occurred to me while I was eating it. It was bit paradoxical, really--the texture was very delicate, with just a little crunch, yet with an explosive overall effect. It was still good the next day, but nothing like that hot-sweet-sour-crunchy-creamy tangle I piled into bowls and ate just seconds after assembling. And the colors! Check out the colors!

Monday, April 16, 2012

First Harvest of the Year!

A fraction of the gardening operation , chard on the right.
My wife is one amazing, seriously dedicated gardener--she's got green things in different stages of development all year long. We have basil, parsley, and such going in our "bathtub garden," and right now the living room is a makeshift nursery, where she's got little bitty green sproutlets peeking up out of the dirt in preparation for planting in the outdoor garden as soon as it stops snowing around here, hopefully sometime next month.

April 15th--just a few inches, mostly melted now.
But we've already had our first harvest of Swiss chard, which I immediately used in a salad--it's so fresh and tender, I couldn't bear to cook it!

Freshly picked young chard is velvety soft with a delicate flavor.   I still had some of that Tangelo Vinaigrette left over, so making a delightful salad was quick work.

All I had to do was cut out the center ribs, then stack the leaves and cut crosswise into strips about 3/8-inch (1 cm) wide. Then I combined them with slices of baby cucumber, red pepper, and red onion in a bowl and tossed it all with the vinaigrette.

There's something ineffable about the experience of eating food that just moments before was still sucking nutrients from the soil--like munching on a freshly picked strawberry, still warm from the sun--nothing compares with that.

The chard was amazingly fine; if you look closely, you can actually see a little piece of red pepper through one of the strips. Now just imagine biting down on that! It was more like an herb accompaniment for the cucumber and pepper than an actual salad green. Yum!

I can't wait until all these tiny sproutlings are in the ground and pushing out zucchini, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers,peas, beans and whatever else my magical garden goddess has planned...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Sweet Lovely Tangelos!

Is it just me, or are these not a luscious-looking pair?
I bought a huge bag of Minneola tangelos just three days ago, and they're almost gone already--which should tell you something about them. Tangelos are a favorite of mine among citrus, mostly because of their unique taste and sweet-sour balance, but also, to be honest, for their mammaliamorphic appearance (it's a guy thing).

Tangelos, a hybrid of tangerine and pomelo, are rich in vitamin C, but you probably knew that. What you may not have known is that they're also a great source of folate, and a decent source of B vitamins, Vitamin A, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, and--contrary to carnivore beliefs--riboflavin! My mother used to worry so fretfully that I might be lacking riboflavin since I wasn't eating anything that bleeds. Of course, most plants pack a ton of nutrients--both macro and micro--so this should come as no big surprise--I mean, where did dear mama think the animals got their essential nutrients from to begin with? Alas, entrenched beliefs do die hard.

Anyway, back to these gorgeous fruits. First, naturally, a bunch of them went through the squeezer and into tall glasses. A couple had their lustrous skins pulled off, their sensuous segments crushed between teeth, their brilliant dancing juice guzzled down grateful gullets. Those initial urges quickly sated--let's face it, they don't take much imagination--I began to use the zest and juice a little more creatively.

I made a generous batch of tangelo vinaigrette, with the juice and zest, basil-infused white balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, Celtic salt, freshly ground mixed peppercorns (black, white, pink and green), and the last of a bottle of Manzanillo EVOO (yum!). Then I made this salad...

Actually, the idea for the salad came first. I had just picked up an exceptionally lush, verdant bunch of dandelion greens, and was thinking of ways to make them more palatable for my family. I love all the tastes, but bitter is a hard sell for most people. Bitter, by the way--at least in food--is good for you. It's an indicator that the food in question is a powerful blood cleanser. Once you get past the initial reaction most sweet-addicted people have, it's really quite enjoyable, believe it or not. But again, most people will need a compensating foil for bitter greens that can take the edge off. So this was the vinaigrette I devised to help get the medicine down.

Dandelion Salad with Tangelo Vinaigrette
As an extra sweetening agent, I included a generous amount of grated beet and a little grated carrot to the salad, along with thinly sliced red onion and celery. It all went very quickly. I tossed the the salad with the tangelo vinaigrette and piled it in shallow bowls. But as I stood back and looked, it seemed wistful in a way, just not quite complete, like a wood-nymph, arrayed in greenery, but lacking just a little gem to bring out her glow.

Then--aha!--I took a few Brazil nuts, sliced them thickly and strewed them over the mounded greens. Perfect, both to the eye and the munching experience. The nuts themselves seemed pleased, as if they too had met a suitable companion and were finally content.

As I like to say, "Why stop at good, when it's not that much farther to extraordinary?"


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Watercress and Roasted Golden Beet Salad

Click to enlarge image!
Biodiversity in edible plants is crucial to the future of food and to our survival, and the more varieties we can cultivate the better protected we are from blights and famine. But what I really like about biodiversity is the sheer beauty of it--the panoply of tastes, textures, aromas, colors, and shape variations that abound in nature. It's absolutely thrilling to me as a cook that even after 30-plus years wandering markets and working with food, I'm still coming across new forms of edible plants.

Recently I found a gorgeous variety of watercress I had never seen before--a dark, almost black-looking red leaf with bright green stems and veins. Typically, watercress bunches are fairly worn-looking, since unlike most produce, it lives and grows in water, and it doesn't last long after being severed from its lifeline. I've taken to buying hydroponic watercress for this very reason, even though I much prefer the more potent and peppery leaves of stream-grown cress. This bunch I found was remarkably fresh, so I naturally I snapped it up and used it the same day.

I decided to keep the salad very simple, to showcase the beauty of these unique zinfandel-red leaves as well as their flavor. I paired their slightly bitter taste with roasted golden beets--roasting brings out the sweetness of beets, and concentrates their beetiness.

The dressing needed to be unobtrusive as possible, while still providing a bright foil to set off the two dramatically different ingredients. It was quick and easy. I just whisked together a little sherry vinegar, Dijon mustard, walnut oil, salt and pepper. Once I had carefully tossed and tasted the salad, I decided to add a few walnuts--to provide an extra crunch factor, to add a nutty-bitter-unctuous counterpoint to the peppery-bitter-astringent leaves, and to tie in the walnut oil, which might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

I have to say, a large part of the pleasure of finding and using unusual produce lies in the uncertainty of ever seeing it again, let alone savoring its one-of-a-kind sensual messaging. Gold and precious stones owe their value to the same fundamental element--rarity--but edible plants are among the most ephemeral of pleasures, appearing so brightly on the plate and on the palate, and lasting so, so briefly, very possibly never to return again.

Whether you believe in a wise and kind creator, or in a happenstance existence with no inherent purpose, one thing is undeniable: the chance to be alive as a human being is a most exquisite gift--unsurpassed or even equaled, as far as anyone can see, or even imagine!


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Back In Action--Finally?

I hesitate to make any sort of predictions that involve technology, but it does look like my computer is really fixed this time--after four months of "repairs" that lasted a day or two before the freezing and crashing resumed. I now have a new motherboard and high hopes!

In other good news, it turns out I don't have thyroid cancer after all! Of course, they had to take out half my thyroid to figure this out, but hey--I still have the other half, and I'm told I'll be able to function normally on just one lobe (eventually).


My April column on One Green Planet Is "Permitted" Enough?  is up and ready for viewing.

And I have two food articles in the April issue of Delicious Living Magazine (and one of my dishes made the cover!). Pick up a free copy at your local health food store--or if  they don't carry it, ask them why!  

Plus: I have a new project that I've been working on these last four months (with and without that unreliable computer) that is almost ready to launch (pretty exciting).

Hint: This will be good for vegans, non-vegans who want to try vegan, and vegans who want to help friends and family try vegan.

Stay tuned! I'm back in action--finally!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Where Compassion Begins

I can't believe I've let a month go by without a single post. Not that I haven't thought about it, but a few factors have intervened--I've been working on some new projects, including a webinar that will be released soon, called "The Occasional Vegan." I've also had to send my computer in to be repaired/debugged/whatever-ed over twelve times since December! At any rate, no excuses (and no, the title wasn't a plea for readers to forgive my lapse), I'm back at it and really glad to be! 

In case you missed it, here's the link to my March column on One Green Planet:

Let me know what you think!


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Of Food and Medicine

My sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that I haven't posted in a good while. Thanks for coming back to check on me!

I've been working on several demanding projects, including a webinar production called "The Occasional Vegan" (I'll put up the link as soon as it's ready to launch).

I did manage to squeeze in my monthly column for One Green Planet, which just went up today.

I took my inspiration for the piece from Paula Deen's recent scrape with reality.

Ever since the cause-and-effect relationship between what I eat and how I feel became clear to me (I know--DUH, right?), I've been on an upward trend that has me not only eating plant-based food exclusively, but making better-informed choices within that realm.

So it's a little jarring when I see someone who has suffered both weight gain and diet-related disease go on national television and act like there is no connection. Not backing away one bit from the excessively unhealthy fare she dishes up, Ms. Deen now recommends "moderation," a term as meaningless and easy to fudge as "a balanced diet." Like so many Americans, her solution to the problem is to take a drug and just keep on going. I much prefer the "Forks Over Knives" approach, but that's just me. Food is so much more fun than medical intervention, let's face it.

You can read my take on all this here:  and let me know what you think.

I've also been creating more new dishes lately, and I'll be posting about them in the days ahead. Thanks for following!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

My First Time Sprouting Lentils

Back in the days of hippiedom and the unusually earthy cuisine that grew up around it, sprouting was all the rage. And say what you may about most of said cuisine, a few things not only stuck, but joined the mainstream. Sprouting seeds for food is such an easy process, and if you're paying attention even just a little bit, quite miraculous. All you really do is soak them, drain them, and rinse and drain twice a day, and in a few short days you have a tangle of superfood tendrils. Brilliant, life is.

I had sprouted several seed varieties in my time, but for some reason I never tried lentils until recently. Then I came upon a nearly empty bag of very small tan colored lentils (an heirloom variety whose name unfortunately eludes me now), too few to bother cooking. So I decided to sprout them. They took a total of three days to reach their peak, and I seized the occasion to make a quick salad.

I wanted something that would showcase the lentil sprouts without distracting from them too much, so I picked only two vegetables to pair them with, red onion and beet. I sliced the onion thinly, grated the beet, and combined them with the sprouted lentils. I happened to have a fair amount of leftover balsamic vinaigrette in the refrigerator, so rather than start over and make a new dressing, I went ahead and tossed it into the salad. I had actually had in mind a sort of mustardy vinaigrette, but the beets played quite well with the rich 18-year old balsamic, and the resulting sweetness of the salad made a pleasant foil for the starchy-raw mouthfeel of those young lentil-lifeforms. My only possible complaint would be that I didn't have more of it.

If I manage to recall the name of those lentils, I'll definitely order them again and try a few other applications. Sprouting is fun. It's like gardening for the ADD-afflicted.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Brown Rice Pasta

Brown Rice Ziti with Spicy Tomatoes and Basil
The recipes in the cookbook I'm working on now will not only be vegan, but gluten-free as well. Actually, come to think of it, nearly all of the recipes in Speed Vegan are gluten-free. I didn't set out to do this; it just turned out that way because I was steering clear of refined carbs.

In the process of trying new foods to use in the book, I discovered brown rice pasta, and in spite of a longstanding dislike of whole grain pastas, I decided to give it a shot. Good call. Brown rice pasta is the only kind I've ever tried that comes even vaguely close to the durum wheat pasta everyone loves. It cooks up al dente, it doesn't fall apart, it's not grainy, and it tastes an awful lot like "the real thing." It's absolutely the only one I'll willingly eat.

Last night, I had a hankering for comfort food--the kind that normally brings with it some health compromise, like mashed potatoes with butter and heavy cream. I've taken this sort of thing up as a challenge; I shoot for maximum pleasure with virtually no downside. For me, pasta is (or at least can be) a tremendously comforting thing to eat, evoking moments of sublime enjoyment from my past.

Among the top ten iconic pasta sauces is tomato and basil. Spaghetti is the classic shape for this, but I chose ziti, which the manufacturers of brown rice  pasta for some reason call penne (a glaring misnomer, since "penne" means "pens," owing to the quill-shaped tips). Americans.

The sauce is ridiculously easy to make, but it does have one or two potential pitfalls--not the least of which is burning the garlic. The safest way to do it is to put some olive oil in a cold pan and add several cloves of garlic, thinly sliced, and a few dried red chiles. Turn on the heat and swirl the pan until the garlic is just beginning to turn a tan color. Immediately add chopped Italian tomatoes, salt and pepper, and cook just about four minutes; the tomatoes should retain a little fresh taste, and the sauce should not be too thick. Remove from the heat and stir in a hefty handful of coarsely chopped basil. This whole process can be executed while the pasta cooks.

When the pasta is done, drain, but keep a little of the cooking liquid in the pot. Return the pasta to the pot and add the sauce. Swirl and toss to coat the pasta thoroughly. Eat. At this point you'll be in a position to understand why I like tube shapes with tomato sauce. Don't get me wrong, I do like spaghetti, but there is something about air passing through the juicy tubes, lifting and transporting microscopic bits of aromatic flavor across your palate as you slurp and chew that really awakens the Italian in me.

One note about the water pasta is boiled in: according to Frank Sinatra (rest in peace), it should have enough salt to make it taste like sea water. He was right. I know that sounds like an awful lot of salt, but most of it goes down the drain anyway, and it gives the pasta a delicious flavor in its own right, even without a sauce. You never know what you'll learn from people.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Carrot-Cardamom Rice with Saffron

I know, I know--white rice isn't that great for you. And I know this is going to sound like a rationalization (partly because it pretty much is), but I make a fairly rare exception for basmati rice. First, true basmati rice is processed by hand, and unlike polished rice, retains a glimmer of its erstwhile brownness. Second, for some dishes, there truly is no substitute. Third, just the smell of basmati cooking that wafts through the house is freaking heavenly. Fourth, because I eat it about once a month on average, I make it count. So there. Rationalization complete.

As an example of a rice dish for which I contend that there is no comparable grain--at least no whole-grain, "healthy" one--let me explain this simple little dish I came up with the other day:

First, as always, the rice needs to be rinsed several times, until the rinsing water runs clear. This must be done very gently, to avoid breaking the fragile grains. Basmati swells lengthwise as it cooks, into elegant fluffy white fingers, so it's important not to damage them. That's the most laborious task in making this full-flavored rice.

Once the rice was washed, all I did was put it in a small pot and add the remaining ingredients: water, carrot juice, a few lightly crushed cardamom pods, a pinch of saffron, a little salt, and a small gob of  coconut oil. Then I brought it to a boil as usual, turned the heat down to the lowest setting, covered the pot, and cooked the rice for 15 minutes. At a lower elevation--like sea level--I would use a quarter less liquid and cook it for 12 minutes. Once done, I slid a silicone spatula under the rice and fluffed it very lightly. That's it!

The coconut oil helps keep the grains from clinging to one another, producing a lighter, much more appealing result than the same effort would without it. Brown basmati is a wonderful whole grain, and I do use it far more often than white basmati, but it would never absorb the flavors in this dish the same way, nor even close to the same extent. Think of painting with watercolors on a white canvas versus a grey or brown one--and then add the dimensions of texture, flavor and aroma!

I served this alongside a spicy dish of lentils and curried cauliflower and peas. And yes, I know I could have enjoyed the latter two with brown rice, but come on--nowhere near as much! The way I see it, if you eat something that's less than ideal health-wise but way up the charts enjoyment-wise, and you eat it very rarely, it does you much more good than harm. That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. No one has ever proven it wrong yet.

What do you think?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Oven-dried Tomatoes

It's only logical that drying food would concentrate the flavors--as the water evaporates, they become "un-watered down."  Wild mushrooms are downright fragrant when dried, and even after being reconstituted, they're still more flavorful than fresh ones. The flavor of sundried tomatoes is not only more potent, but radically altered. There are two minor issues with dried food, however. One is the loss of fresh flavors--citrus in particular undergoes a profound change--and the other is that leathery texture food takes on when it has dried a little too much.

Oven-drying tomatoes offers a happy medium, where a lot of the original flavors of a fresh tomato are still palpable, but enhanced, and their juiciness is not entirely expunged. I first encountered this phenomenon in Australia, where they're called "semi-dried tomatoes" (that's tuh-mah-toes) and sold in the deli department at grocery stores. Spectacular.

Making your own version of these beauties is not hard at all. Here's what you do:

Preheat your oven to the lowest possible setting.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (this prevents the acids in the tomatoes from reacting with the aluminum or iron in the pan, and contaminating the product.).

Cut the tomatoes in half and lay them out on the parchment, cut side up.

Stir pressed garlic and chopped parsley into some EVOO and brush a generous amount onto the cut surface of each tomato (don't worry if it spills onto the paper a little).

Season them with salt and pepper and slide the pan into the oven. Leave them several hours, checking on them from time to time, until they reach a "semi-dried" state. Depending on your oven, elevation, and relative humidity in the air, this could take up to 8 or even 10 hours.

First time out, I recommend doing this in the morning, and plan on being around to monitor them. If you have an oven with a very low setting, like 120F/50C, you can put them in at night and they should be perfect early the next morning. However, I tried this when I moved to Colorado and bought a house with an oven that would only light at 185F/85C, and they got too dark (as in burned).  My advice: try it in the daytime once, and see how much time they need. You can take them as far as you like in the drying process, but I recommend pulling them out when they still have a little juice left. They'll continue to lose moisture as they cool, and I think you'll find that a tender, luscious mouthfeel is far superior to a chewy, dry one. Your call.

I'm always on the lookout for "baby roma" tomatoes, which are fabulous oven-dried--they shrink down to a perfect bite-size. You can pop them in your mouth all at once, unlike the larger ones (pictured) that require two somewhat messy bites. You can use any kind of tomato, but the thick, succulent flesh of roma tomatoes is ideal for drying.

Once the tomatoes are sufficiently dried, you can use them to make interesting hos d'ouevres, top salads with them, add a delicious dimension to ordinary sandwiches, or just throw them directly into your mouth. Then I'm sure other uses will come to you, like chopping them and stirring them into salad dressings, sauces and soups. I used to make a sandwich with pesto, oven-dried tomatoes and brie; now, having dropped the dairy products, I'm still looking to match the unctuous sensuality of that one!


Monday, January 9, 2012

Eggplant and Buckwheat Sandwich

I was reworking a recipe for Delicious Living Magazine last month, when an interesting thing happened--one of my favorite things, in fact.

My wife had not really liked the original dish I came up with, primarily because she's not a buckwheat fan.
My editor and her testing/tasting team pretty much agreed with my wife's assessment, which is why I was back at the drawing board with it.

I knew I would need to begin the creative process all over again, so I  threw out the entire first recipe and took off in a new direction.

I decided to keep tomato in the picture, to challenge the buckwheat's firm footing--in effect, to upstage it and let it take a less prominent role. I made an abbreviated form of ratatouille, with onions, peppers, garlic, eggplant, and tomato--not the traditional way, sauteing each vegetable separately, but a much quicker way, sauteing them together, and then adding the tomato at the end. Once the vegetables were tender and the flavors had melded and concentrated, I added the cooked buckwheat and adjusted the seasoning. Then I roasted thin slices of eggplant, cut lengthwise, and used them as "bread" to make "sandwiches." To serve, I placed the hot sandwiches on plates, drizzled some oregano oil on either side, and sprinkled chopped parsley generously about.

This time I didn't even tell my wife what it was, but simply presented her with the finished dish, calling it an "eggplant sandwich." This time she gave my invention high marks, and asked what the filling was. That's the interesting thing I mentioned above, indeed something I've built a career on: a complete reversal of food aversion, by virtue of an unusual context. This is a fun thing, but it also provides tremendous benefit, enabling people to redefine their likes and dislikes--essentially retraining their desires--in order to enjoy eating a wider range of foods. In the case of buckwheat, I found at least one way for my wife--and, I hope, a lot of other people--to appreciate a highly nutritious whole grain.

I consider this a very encouraging sign, because it means that if I can just present plant-based foods in just the right way, I can help unlimited numbers of people to eat more of them with pleasure. I'm not out to convert anyone to anything, but if they're open to expanding their horizons, I love to provide them with an enjoyable landing place.


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hogless Hoppin' John

Each culture has its own traditional food eaten for luck on New Year's Day. In Germany and Italy, it's lentils; in Spain, they eat grapes; in Cuba, roast suckling pig, and there are all sorts of cakes and pastries consumed to assure good fortune the world over. In the southern United States, one eats blackeyed peas to "start the year off right." I've been inventing dishes featuring blackeyed peas every January for a few years now, but this year I decided to rework an ethnic southern mainstay known as "Hoppin' John."

For the original Hoppin' John, the peas are first boiled with ham hocks. Separately, chopped ham, onions, peppers, celery, carrots, and garlic are fried in oil or lard before adding water or broth and chopped collard greens. Then the cooked peas are added, ham hocks and all, and the mixture is simmered until everything is tender. The soup (or stew) is served with cooked rice and chopped fresh tomatoes and scallions.

For my hog-free version, I used a little smoked paprika and smoked salt to give it that smokehouse flavor. Some people like to use "liquid smoke" for this sort of thing, but I'm leery of artificial flavorings, especially ones that don't list their ingredients.

Unfortunately, collard greens were not available where I live (I searched at five markets without success), which was a shame for a couple of reasons--one, they're delicious and a favorite of mine at any time of year; and two, because the stacked green leaves are thought to represent money, eating them on New Year's is supposed to bring big bucks (which I could really use right about now). I switched out the collards for kale--a limp substitute, I know, but a healthy one nonetheless. I grew up in Mexico, where improvisation is a way of life, so this bothered me not one bit.

To keep things light, I skipped the rice at serving time, but kept the tomatoes and scallions. I had used both serrano and jalapeño chiles, but I'd seeded them first, in deference to any tender-tongued guests who might otherwise have encountered too much heat for comfort. To compensate, I passed the ol' Sriracha around.

Everyone seemed to thoroughly enjoy this classic soul food, and I hope it brings us all good luck. Personally, I don't really believe in luck--at least not the capricious kind that comes in the form of good and bad. I don't believe in bad luck at all, because even the so-called "bad" things that have happened to me have all eventually led to good things, not the least of which is the present moment where I live and breathe. I think bad luck is nothing more than a limited perspective--one that excludes the unfathomable good fortune of being alive in a human body, which, if you have your head screwed on right, is the luckiest possible situation that could ever be. So I guess I do believe in good luck--why? Because I've had it every day of my life.

Happy New Year Everyone!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

My Compassionate Christmas Dinner

It's a good thing, and I'm all for it, but no, I wasn't referring to compassion for animals. I'm working the other side of the street--the human side--where, I believe, compassion needs to begin in order to be ultimately effective. Truly, genuine compassion--like love, forgiveness, kindness, peace, and every other good thing--begins with the self. It's a simple premise: If I can't love myself, I can't love anyone else either.

So, on that premise, I decided to buck the system this year and blow off making a traditional Christmas dinner (along with a salad for myself, as usual). Instead, I went for broke and came up with a four-course all-plant menu that all twelve diners could enjoy, including me. This way, I got to eat the same thing as everyone else, and they got to eat a feast that didn't leave them lying around like beached whales afterwards. Zero cholesterol, healthy fats, and lots of vegetables. Here's how it went:

I began with an "Artichoke Caponata" that included fresh globe artichokes, onion, garlic, capers, preserved lemon, Sicilian olives, parsley, and of course, EVOO, salt and pepper. I served it on individual hors d'oeuvre plates with crostini. Sorry, no photo--I actually shot the plates the next day, using leftovers, and we ate all of the caponata. Moving along...

Following the appetizer, I served a brand new soup I developed recently when I was trying to make a butternut squash soup that doesn't taste like every other butternut squash soup.

I diced a giant yellow onion and sauteed it in coconut oil until soft and just beginning to color. I stirred in a ridiculous amount of minced garlic and four roasted, peeled, and diced red peppers, and continued cooking for several minutes. Then I added a small butternut squash and a couple of garnet yams, diced, along with Celtic salt and a little smoked paprika. Once the vegetables were nicely coated with oil and spices, I added a couple liters of water, a few bay leaves, and vegetable bouillon cubes. I got it boiling, lowered the heat to very low, covered the pot, and let it cook for about an hour. At this point everything was supersoft. I blasted the contents of the pot (minus the bay leaves) in a blender until very smooth and returned it to the pot. Then I added a pinch of saffron threads, a little ground hot red chile, freshly ground black pepper, and a bit more salt.

I reheated the soup on medium-low and stirred until the saffron's aroma began to penetrate. I served the soup in small bowls, garnished with snipped chives. No one knew what kind of soup it was until I told them--at which point there were epiphanous utterances of "oh...yeah...mmm!"

The main course was more complicated. I had decided on using beluga lentils, for two reasons: one. I love their color, taste and texture; and two, because these tiny black lentils are originally from Syria, and I thought a little solidarity with our oppressed Syrian brethren would be a good thing. I sauteed a large amount of diced fennel in EVOO until lightly browned on the edges and then stirred in the lentils, until coated with the oil. Then I added water and vegetable bouillon cubes and simmered until the lentils were tender (at my elevation, this took about an hour). Just before serving, I stirred in an ounce of absinthe, for good measure.

To serve, I browned large Portobello mushroom caps, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then finished them in the oven. I placed a cap in the center of each plate, concave side up, and filled it with the lentils.I surrounded them with four vegetable dishes:

Rapini, coarsely chopped, blanched, and sauteed in EVOO with garlic and Aleppo pepper (spicy and very flavorful, also from Syria).

Carrots and Parsnips, julienned and roasted with coconut oil.

Cauliflower and Beets, roasted with red onion and fresh thyme. I've usually served this as a salad, but of course it worked well served hot.

Sauteed Mushrooms, with a little coconut oil, splashes of aged balsamic and a few chunks of dark chocolate. Most people would never guess there was chocolate in there, but as soon as you tell them, you can see the light bulb coming to life in their heads. I love surprising people's palates that way.

A garnish of fresh thyme sprigs, a drizzle of chive oil, and a sprinkling of snipped chives completed the plate.

For dessert, I warmed pitted bing cherries with a little palm sugar, some crushed cardamom seeds, and a healthy slug of kirsch. I spooned them into bowls and placed a scoop of vanilla "Coconut Bliss" ice cream in the middle. Earlier, I had piped a batch of chocolate peace signs and dusted them with edible gold; I laid one on top of the ice cream for a crowning touch. I served dessert with a homemade spiced-pear brandy liqueur, which one of my nephews described as "like Christmas in your mouth."

When everyone was pleasantly sated--but not overstuffed--I announced that "No animals were harmed in the making of this meal." Compassion, come full-circle.