Saturday, January 30, 2016

Food Forests and Other Bright Futures for the Planet

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Starhawk's new book, City of Refuge. I was very much looking forward to it, being a long-time fan of Walking to Mercury and The Fifth Sacred Thing.  And it was an overall enjoyable experience: familiar characters experiencing new adventures. The two later novels in the chronology are set in the 2040s, after an ecological disaster affects California, splitting it into a Northern utopia-in-recovery and a Southern patriarchal theocracy. The novels interrogate the possibilities that these futures offer by incorporating many elements of present-life Bay Area delights and keeping the environmental stuff as real as possible: San Francisco ("Califia") is a city of water, in which people shuttle around in gondolas on the river, a-la The Blue Greenway. 

But there is one aspect of the new book that made me cringe with discomfort. One of my favorite ecofeminist heroes and authors got it wrong--very wrong--with regard to food.

The citizens of Califia eat very well, and their concoctions, as well as Bay Area booze, are extensively described in the book, especially contrasted to the faux-nutrition "chips" and "sweeties" consumed by the Southerners. Indeed, echoing and crystallizing much of the recent scholarship on our consumption of faux foods, the Southerners have a hard time adjusting to the real food in the north. The book made me feel like Starhawk conjured her favorite meals from the present and planted them in a future in which people's agricultural ingenuity strives the overcome the effects of an ecological horror. Much time is spent in the book on the ways in which my beloved heroes, Madrone and Bird, start their "city of refuge" in the South by starting agricultural production, and the (real) magic of compost is explored in depth.

But what is on the menu in Califia? Much to my surprise, quite a lot of meat, cheese, and eggs, sometimes (but not often) hailed as "humanely raised." Our heroes are served beef and chicken and lamb, eat honey by the bushels, and enjoy dairy with quite some frequency. Oh, there are vegans, of course, but that's briefly described as a "personal choice", with an "option" to order a chickpea-quinoa stew at a restaurant, side by side with the default meat choices.

Not only is this a deeply upsetting culinary repertoire for a presumed utopia, but it's also massively unrealistic, because one has got to ask oneself--where the heck do they even raise all these animals?

Surely, Starhawk must be aware of the massive contribution of animal pasture areas and feedlots to the deforestation and corruption of the earth. Surely she knows that every burger we eat is the equivalent of months of showering. Surely she's heard of waste and manure lagoons covering vast areas and endangering our health. As an avid permaculturist, surely she knows that vegan options are possible, realistic, and cost-effective. In a future affected by climate change, veganism will not be a "personal choice"--it will be a fact of life for everyone.

And, where are all these mysterious cows, lambs, and chickens raised? Where do the chickens lay their eggs? Where are the utopian slaughterhouses? Or do we just not like to talk about the fact that meat comes from animals?

And that's before we even discuss the cruelty involved in the gratuitous raising and killing of animals for our own consumption, which doesn't even begin to be portrayed as being at odds with the deeply Pagan, one-with-nature vibe of Califia. People pray over their food and give thanks to the animals--to the Goddess, to spirit, to whatever--which may make them feel great and a part of the cycle of life, but all these spiritual feel-good florid incantations don't actually affect the animal's fate one bit. For more on the "but I express gratitude for my wild salmon" sensibility and its hypocrisy, read Sherry Colb's excellent Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger?, focusing on the chapter on Native Americans.

Actually, without much effort one could envision a Northern Californian utopia just by looking at one marvelous permacultural initiative: the food forest. Here are several examples of food forests around the world, and for the Hebrew readers among you here's a great story about the new one in Israel. The animals in food forests aren't "raised": they LIVE there. Birds nest in the trees, rodents run around collecting nuts, etc. To the extent that we benefit from their presence there, it's as we would from any naturally-occurring phenomenon.

A world in which all the territories formerly devoted to animal farming are repurposed as food forests and homes for wild animals? Now THAT's what I would consider a really inspiring utopia.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Whole Roasted Cauliflower

I loved cauliflower before it was cool.

Seriously: it was one of my favorite vegetable as a child. My grandma would put it, finely minced, in soups; my mom would steam florets for me to snack on. I even liked it sliced raw in salads.

Turns out I was ahead of the curve. Cauliflower is the new craze, and since it's so tasty and healthy, I encourage you to get on the bandwagon quickly. This salad is wonderful, and received rave reviews from our family visitors, but today I made a whole roasted cauliflower. Huge success!

1 cauliflower
salt, pepper
1 tsp olive oil

Heat the oven to about 450 Fahrenheit. Find a pot that can fit the entire cauliflower. Then, place it stem-side-up inside the pot and add water almost to cover. Bring to a boil, add about 1 tbsp salt, and then reduce the heat to simmer for about 10-15 mins, or until the cauliflower is soft, but not crumbling.

Remove cauliflower from pot and place on baking sheet. Sprinkle salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste. Roast until the outer florets are a dark golden brown and snack to your heart's delight.

Please do not discard the flavorful, vitamin-rich cooking water--use it instead as a soup base!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Soup Tip: Mashed White Beans

Last night, by chance, I came across a really neat soup-thickening tip. I wanted to make a vegetable soup, and hoped to add some bean power to it, but didn't have any cooked, thawed beans, and cooking some would take a long time. Happily, I had about a half-pint of the white bean spread my grandma used to make, and I just added it to the soup pot. The result: a rich, hearty soup, with just the hint of fragrant beans and lots of vegetables. It pays off to make a huge amount of the bean spread and then use part of it as soup base. Here are instructions for making the bean spread and for using it in soup:

2-3 cups white beans
1 onion
a bit of olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Soak beans overnight, or in boiling water for an hour. Then cook until tender. While the beans are cooking, slice and caramelize the entire onion in a bit of olive oil. Transfer beans to blender with half of the caramelized onion and some of the cooking water (enough to reach the desired consistency, which is hummus-like.) Blend till smooth, then transfer to container, salt and pepper to taste, and mix in the remaining half onion. Good in sandwiches, tortillas, as a standalone dish for a multi-dish lunch, etc.

For the soup, I used:

1 package red chard, coarsely chopped
1 package kale, coarsely chopped
10 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 big carrots, cubed
1/2 onion
3 cloves garlic
pinch of chili
pinch of oregano
pinch of sage
1 cup white bean spread

Place all vegetables in soup pot and cover with water. Mix in 1 cup of white bean spread. Cook until vegetables are tender. yum!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

My Inaugural Paella

After being served this wonderful paella a couple of weeks ago, I could not wait to start experimenting with my own. Despite the wonderfulness of having an enormous pan for guests, I figured we'd get more mileage out of a smaller pan, and fortunately La Paella has pans of any size you can think of. And they deliver!

The paella I made is very similar to the one my friend served me, except for a few changes: I halved the recipe because of the differently-sized pan and added a half-cup of chickpeas. I used pre-soaked, short-grain brown rice to improve nutrition (the taste was not compromised in the least). Since I had no artichokes, I topped it with lightly steamed baby courgettes (aren't they pretty?). And, I also sauteed king oyster mushrooms, which have the look and texture of calamari. It was stunningly delicious and I look forward to inventing more variations.

In other news, I happened upon an estate sale in my neighborhood. Beyond the joys of all the neighbors rummaging through furniture and appliances and chatting excitedly, I was chuffed to find ten beautiful porcelain teacups with botanicals with matching saucers--not a set, each different, but incredibly cute. The whole lot, gold leaf and roses and pansies and all, cost me $20. I look forward to hosting a mad hatter party with vegan pastries soon!

Friday, January 15, 2016


It's polenta. With kale. And pesto. And a bit of vegan butter and salt. What's not to like?

1 bundle dino kale
1/2 cup coarse cornmeal
2 cups water
2 tbsp pesto
1-2 tsp vegan butter
salt to taste

Start by placing all the kale in the food processor and process fairly thoroughly.

Then, read this. Apparently, a lot of the polenta punctiliousness out there is completely unnecessary. No need for boiling water, constant stirring, and the like.

Place two cups of water in a wok over medium heat. Gradually whisk in polenta and processed kale. Whisk until the polenta begins to thicken, then reduce the heat to very low. Add pesto and stir every few minutes, until polenta thickens more and separates from the sides of the wok. That means it's nearly done, and it's time to stir in some vegan butter (I'm using this wonderful new thing, but Earth Balance would work just fine) and sprinkle a bit of salt. When the polenta reaches the desired consistency, you're done!

If you want the polenta to harden so it can be beautifully sliced, you can put it in a serving dish (like the one I have above) and set it aside for a bit, or put it in the oven with the light on. After about 10-15 minutes you can slice beautiful polenta triangles or rectangles. We ate this with a nice green salad and some simply cooked pinto beans.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Restaurant Recommendation: Herban Fix in Atlanta, GA

The meal I had today at Herban Fix, a vegan chef restaurant in Atlanta, has to rank as one of the most memorable meals I ate in my entire life. Everything was delicious, prepared with incredible care and creativity, and served with grace and kindness in a large but cozy room decorated in impeccable taste.

We started with two appetizers. The sweet pea ravioli is served in a wonderful, slightly spicy sauce, with some edamame, and stuffed with tender pea shoots and other wonderful flavors. And the mock duck, which appears to be made of yuba (but I'm not sure) is served in little steamed buns with fresh vegetables, alongside a lovely plum sauce. 

For our main courses, we had crispy mushrooms, in an airy-light tempura batter, atop some wilted spinach, and an incredible pom-pom mushroom steak served on baby bok choy in a gorgeous and not-too-heavy mushroom gravy.

And for dessert, we were served a strawberry-coffee cake. It was very tasty, not to mention beautiful, topped with nice cashew cream, and the only reason I wish I hadn't ordered it is that the entrees were so good that I wish I'd stuffed my face with another one!

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Vegetable Paella

After a long hosting stint, it was nice to be invited to have dinner with friends. It was a good, avid-meat-eating friend's birthday, and the meal was to be cooked by his wife, whose cuisine leans a lot on her Argentinian heritage. I asked what to bring, and our host said she was planning on tapas and paella. I assumed the paella would be roaming with little creatures that are far more glorious dancing in the water than killed and cooked in rice, and so made stuffed mushrooms and hummus and brought those with me in addition to the wine.

I underestimated my friends' kindness and consideration. Our host walked us through the tapas; there were charcuterie and cheese and shrimp, but also olives, mushrooms, marcona almonds and a nice bread. And then the piece-de-resistance was brought out: a vegan paella, chock full of colorful bell peppers and decorated with artichoke globes! What an enjoyable meal. For dessert, she made tiramisu, but quietly placed a little platter of fresh apple slices and nuts near us.

Fortunately, our friends were gracious enough to let me photograph the gorgeous piece-de-resistance and give me the recipe (from the book Paella Paella). You'll need a large paella pan - characterized by its size and flat base

1/4 cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, minced
5 cloves of garlic, minced
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups arborio rice (if I were to make this at home, I'd probably switch to short-grain brown rice, like sukoyaka genmai, and increase the broth amount to 5-6 cups)
1 small red pepper, cut into strips
1 small yellow pepper, cut into strips
1 small green pepper, cut into strips
4 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 cup frozen peas, defrosted
2 cups artichoke hearts, tough leaves removed, and quartered
1 lemon

Heat oil in paella pan and saute onion and garlic. Meanwhile, bring broth to a simmer in a separate pot. Pour the rice into the paella pan and saute for 3 minutes. Add peppers and tomatoes and saute for an additional 3 minutes. Add the simmering broth to the pan and cook for 20 more minutes, or until almost tender and most liquid has been absorbed (note that you might have to rotate the pan if your burners don't line up under the whole thing). Stir in the peas. Then, sprinkle artichoke hearts with lemon and arrange in an attractive pattern on top of the paella. Continue cooking until tender and all liquid is absorbed.