Food Column August 2, 2019

These two books can expand one’s ideas of how to eat well and in a healthy way.

Sometimes when I talk about plant-based cooking with friends, their response is “Please don’t go all vegetarian on us—you do such an amazing job with proteins. Your food is pretty perfect right now!” Well, isn’t that just the challenge I needed?

As you read this, I will be returning from Kripalu, in the Berkshires, where I have been taking a week-long nutrition and food immersion course in plant-based cooking. In preparation for this, I revisited a couple of cookbooks that I really haven’t had the time to read. These are, I think, books that deserve a second look—perhaps given an hour or two to actually read through the introduction and recipes before trying a few, then perhaps putting them aside for cooking at a later date.

Last week I wrote about a delightful book that I “discovered” in my stack of new and not-so-new cookbooks. This week, I am looking at two more; the first is “Mostly Plants” by the family of Michael Pollan. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” These seven words, attributed to Michael Pollan, started a national conversation about how best to eat for optimal health.

A decade later, as more and more of us explore a plant-based diet, his family is still showing us how to change. “The point isn’t necessarily to give up meat entirely, but to build a diet that shifts the ration from animals to plants, creating delicious and nutritious meals sure to appeal to everyone,” they state.

“Mostly Plants” is about the flexitarian diet, which is designed to strike the best balance on our plates between flavor and pleasure, and nutrition and sustainability. The Pollan family grew up eating the classic American dinner, consisting of a meat centerpiece, a starch, a vegetable, and sometimes a salad.

That has changed; now they sit down to soup and salad, maybe a big hearty bowl of chili and rice. Tracy, Dana, Lori and Corky Pollan balance their meals according to their preferences: Corky goes vegetarian only twice a week, Dana and Lori go meatless every night, and Tracy eats vegetarian three to four times a week.

If you are considering adding more plant-based dishes to your meals, this might be the book for you. Research tells us that flexitarians are healthier than their carnivorous counterparts—in fact, they are very often just as healthy as vegetarians. Then there are the benefits to the planet: eating less meat slashes greenhouse gasses, protects our water supplies, rivers and oceans, and improves our food resources.

Ever wonder how Meatless Mondays became a “thing”? The Pollans state that abstaining from meat even just one day a week can make a significant difference for the environment—if every American went vegetarian for just one day, we would save 100 billion gallons of water. But this is not about what you need to remove from your diet; rather, it’s about what you can add to it.

More healthy grains, beans and fresh produce—that’s what it takes. Dishes like Vegetable Loaded Turkey Chili, Chicken Scarpariello with Escarole, Ratatouille Gratin with Chicken or Vegetarian Sausage, Shrimp Scampi with Zucchini Noodles, and Mediterranean Sea Bass will still give you what you grew up with—it’s just that the emphasis is shifted.

If you are still reading this column, you are probably already familiar with the Pollans. Michael Pollan inspired Sonja and Alex Overhiser so much that they began eating one from-scratch vegetarian meal every week. As they started to feel better, they became hooked. Their book, “Pretty Simple Cooking,” evolved from their blog, A Couple Cooks.

This book, like the previous one, is easy to follow. Recipes are well-tested, the results contain bold, inspired flavors, and their concepts are simple to grasp. The Overhisers are not strict vegetarians, but their book is. They say they eat about 20 percent sustainably raised seafood and meat, 80 percent vegetarian.

Expect some great recipes soon when I share my experience with an evidence-based and whole-foods diet. I cannot wait to impress my friends with really delicious meals that are (primarily) plant-based. Meanwhile, try a few of the following dishes from the above two cookbooks as you take your own journey to healthier eating—both for yourselves, your families, and our planet.

Spinach Artichoke Frittata

(from Pretty Simple Cooking)

2 green onions

1 medium garlic clove

15-oz can quartered artichoke hearts

8 large eggs

½ tsp each: dried oregano and kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

½ cup sour cream or crème fraiche, plus extra for serving

¼ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil

6 cups baby spinach leaves (chopped if leaves are large)

Thinly slice the onions and mince the garlic; drain the artichoke hearts and roughly chop them. In a bowl, whisk the eggs with the oregano, salt, and pepper; whisk in the Parmesan and sour cream until almost smooth. In a skillet, heat the oil and sauté the spinach, stirring, until wilted, then add the onions, garlic, and artichokes. Sauté briefly, then pour the egg mixture into the skillet and shake gently to allow the eggs to fill in around the vegetables. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes over medium heat, until the bottom is set and lightly browned. Place the skillet in a preheated 400°F oven and bake for 10 to 112 minutes, until the top is puffed and slightly browned. Let stand for 10 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve warm, with additional sour cream or crème fraiche, if desired.

Baked Goat Cheese With Tomato Sauce

(from Pretty Simple Cooking)

½ cup chopped white onion

2 medium garlic cloves

1 TBSP extra virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish

1 TBSP plus 1 tsp chopped fresh basil

¼ tsp dried oregano

Pinch red pepper flakes (to taste)

½ TBSP white wine vinegar

15-oz can fire-roasted tomatoes

½ tsp kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 oz soft goat cheese

Crusty bread or warm naan for serving

Finely mince the garlic and onion; heat the oil in a saucepan and add the onion. Sauté for 3 minutes, then add the garlic, red pepper flakes, 1 TBSP fresh basil, and oregano and sauté for 1 minute more. Add the vinegar and stir for a minute, then add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper to taste; reduce the heat, cover, and let simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings; spoon the sauce into two shallow baking dishes and add dollops of the goat cheese. Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for 15 minutes, until the cheese is warmed through; if desired, broil for a few minutes until the cheese is lightly browned. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then drizzle with a little oil and top with remaining basil; serve warm with bread. Note: for a larger appetizer this recipe doubles easily; use a 28-oz can tomatoes and double the remainder of the ingredients.

Roasted Corn and Avocado Salad

(from Mostly Plants)

5 TBSP extra virgin olive oil

¼ tsp paprika

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 ears corn, husks and silk removed

1½ cups cherry tomatoes, halved

1⁄3 cup finely chopped red onion

¼ cup fresh basil leaves, very thinly sliced

2 TBSP sherry vinegar

1 ripe avocado, cut into small cubes

Combine 3 TBSP oil with paprika, ¼ tsp salt, and 1/3 tsp pepper; mix well and brush the oil mixture onto the ears of corn. Wrap each one well in foil and place them on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 450°F oven for 30 to 35 minutes, turning several times, just until tender. Remove the corn from the foil and let cool; cut the kernels off the cob and place in a large bowl. Add 1 cup tomatoes, the onion, and basil, and toss to combine. Add the vinegar and remaining oil and season to taste with salt and pepper; top with the remaining tomatoes and avocado and serve immediately.

Grandma Mary’s Zucchini Cake

(my adaptation from Mostly Plants)

3 large eggs at room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

1 TBSP vanilla

2 to 3 cups grated, unpeeled zucchini, patted dry with paper towels

3 cups AP flour

1 TBSP cinnamon

1 tsp each: kosher salt and baking soda

¼ tsp baking powder

1 cup chopped walnuts

Powdered sugar

Preheat the oven to 350F and generously grease a 10-inch bundt pan. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs until light and foamy; add the sugar, oil and vanilla and beat for another minute to incorporate. Add the zucchini and mix well with a wooden spoon; in another bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon salt, baking soda and powder and stir to blend. Add this to the zucchini mixture, a third at a time, and mix until incorporated. Stir in the walnuts and pour the batter into the greased pan; bake, rotating the pan halfway through, until the cake tests done, 55 to 60 minutes. Let the pan cool on a rack for 20 minutes, then invert onto a serving plate and dust with powdered sugar before serving.

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