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?"