Moving Plants to Center Stage

Recipe: Cold Carrot Soup with Chilies and Avocados

The first time I tried vegetarian cooking, it was a trial by fire. My mother-in-law was coming to visit from India, and at that time was a full-fledged vegetarian.  This was in 1996, in East Central Illinois; a place where a grocery clerk once asked K.M. why he was buying fresh spinach, when you could “get that in a can.”

I had no idea what I was doing. We muddled through, eating a lot of pasta.  Eating out, in that time and place was nearly impossible.  People actually would say things like, “Well, it’s nearly vegetarian. You can pick the bacon out.”

I was raised a meat-eater. Steak, hamburger, pork chops, ham, bacon, chicken. These foods were the staples of my diet for the first 17 years of my life.  Meat was the only real element of interest in that diet too – side dishes were always pretty much the same –potatoes, frozen peas, and iceberg lettuce. My 16 year-old self would be amazed by the food I eat in quantity today – things like bok choy, whole wheat couscous, and homemade falafel.

But much of the time, during the years I avoided all red meat, I simply replaced one animal product with another.  Like the national trends, my own poultry consummation escalated.

Only in the past two years as I’ve really thought about the impact my diet has on the environment, as well as on my health, has that begun to change. These days K.M. and I eat vegetarian two
or three days a week, though thanks in part to Charcutepalooza, that change hasn’t really been reflected on the blog. And it is still something of a struggle for me to plan a meal without some kind of meat or fish – my traditional central plate anchors.

Three books  (and all the produce I’ve been bringing home from garden class) are helping me move in a new direction.  Seattle-based Kim O’Donnel’s The Meat Lover’s Meatless  Cookbook, and Mark Bittman’s Food Matters, and its companion the The Food Matters Cookbook.

I have nothing but praise for O’Donnel’s book.   How not? I actually have a photo from my meat-centered childhood very much like the one she uses to open the book.

As a writer for the Washington Post, (she now writes for USA Today) , O’Donnel used her blog to help popularize the idea of Meatless Monday. Everything I’ve tried from the book has been a hit: Slurpy Pan-Asian Noodles,  made those twice, and I’ve eaten the leftovers for breakfast, Rocket (arugula ) Lasagna , Shepherd’s Pie with Chard-Lentil filling (below), and last but certainly not least Red Lentil Dal with Cumin Fried Onions and Wilted Spinach.

This book isn’t about getting dinner on the table in 20 minutes. Many of the recipes go on for several pages– it’s about building flavor components which come together to give the final
dish a huge wow factor. I’m sold – and I think a lot of other carnivores who try it out will be too.

Mark Bittman needs no introduction.  But you may not have heard of his Food Matters books.  Published in 2009, Food Matters was my first encounter with Bittman’s political voice –
which has found a place in the New York Times opinion section.  The first time I read the book, I wasn’t ready to make the leap to part time veganism that Bittman advocates.  My attitude was, I don’t eat red meat, and that’s enough, surely. In other words, in spite of through case laid out in the book, I simply didn’t want to hear Bittman’s central message: If we want to heal the planet, and ourselves, our food system must change  and animal products must share the spotlight with plants.

Two years later, my attitude has changed.  And I’m thinking that the best way for me to live ethically is learn to see all animal products as luxuries and treats – not as daily essentials.

I’m not giving up dairy – not when I’ve just started learning to make cheese – though the cheese making process edged me in this direction; it takes a staggering amount of milk to make
cheese. And I’m certainly not giving up on Charcutepalooza – but I’m going to start making the efforts to plan my food day around plants.

I’ve only started cooking with Food Matters, but reading the book, Bittman’s carrot soup inspired me to create my own version. Cold Carrot Soup with Chilies and Avocados is a lovely end to a hot summer day. And it’s the first deliberately vegan recipe I’ve written – which feels like progress.

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