Browsing on the New York Times website recently, I saw a notice that Julia Reed, a food writer, had died. By all accounts she was a delightful person—irreverent, witty and kind—and a marvelous writer. She had a cancer diagnosis but at the time of her death was visiting friends on a holiday trip. Given that she was possibly quite ill, some people would say this was a good way to depart life, although much too soon at the age of 59.
Intrigued by this woman, I read on, wondering if I would resonate with her food writing. Ms. Reed was born in Mississippi and celebrated Southern cooking, a cuisine with some notable health pitfalls. The Times offered links to 5 of her recipes: Hot Cheese Olives, Roman Steak, Summer Squash Casserole, Milk Punch, and Pralines. I guessed that none of these recipes would be whole-food plant-based, but I couldn’t check, because the Times saw fit to put them behind a paywall.
Fortunately, this move on the part of the Times elicited a barrage of complaints from commenters, one of whom incorporated the recipe for Summer Squash Casserole—the one recipe that had a prayer of being healthy— into her remarks. Here are the ingredients.
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 pounds yellow summer squash
7 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 large clove garlic, chopped
½ red bell pepper, chopped
½ green bell pepper, chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped (optional)
4 slices plain white bread, toasted
24 Ritz crackers, crumbed in food processor
½ pound sharp cheddar cheese, grated
4 large eggs, beaten
½ cup heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
I have to admit I was shocked by this recipe. The only healthy ingredients are the vegetables: the squash, peppers, onion and garlic. Ms. Reed has used them as a delivery system for a load of animal foods: butter, eggs, cheddar cheese, and heavy whipping cream. Ms. Reed does not do a nutritional analysis —she wouldn’t have dared—but it doesn’t take that to know that the calories from vegetables are outweighed many times over by calories from high-fat animal products. Even the grain products used are refined and processed: white bread and Ritz crackers.
It seemed a shame to take a detour from appreciating this entertaining and lovable writer who had died too young, to tut-tutting about the recipes that she wrote; but I had no choice.
It made me realize that the world of whole-food plant-based eating isn’t just a counterweight to the world of “non-food” such as what you find on the shelves of a thruway rest stop. (Forgive me, I just went on a road trip.) It’s also a counterweight to a respectable world of gourmet cooks who believe that taking care of yourself and being good to yourself require that you be open to any and all taste experiences, no matter how decadent.
But eating this food is not taking care of yourself or even being good to yourself in the final analysis.
The problem is that foods such as Ms. Reed’s casserole do taste good: we are programmed to have a taste for fat, salt and sugar because for early humans food was scarce, and it was adaptive to eat these things when you could find them. Now they are as close as the corner supermarket. And down the road from eating this way is chronic illness, disability, and just plain not feeling good.
Summer squash lightly steamed or sautéed without oil tastes just as good to an enlightened palate; and eating this way not only doesn’t hurt you, it builds health. That makes all the difference. Rest in peace, Ms. Reed, but alas, I won’t be using your recipes.
Here’s a summer squash casserole that’s “a Southern favorite made healthy.”
Vegan Squash Casserole
And here is a stovetop summer squash sauté that is plant-based and also Esselstyn- and RLMI Jumpstart compliant. Read about Jumpstart here: https://www.rochesterlifestylemedicine.com/about-community-jumpstart/
SUMMER SQUASH SAUTÉ
1/4 cup braising liquid, more as needed (IE: veggie broth, dry vermouth, etc)
2 or 3 medium-size summer squash or zucchini, or a mix for a pretty result
1 small onion or 1/2 medium onion, chopped (save the rest for another dish)
2-3 cloves garlic. minced
Bell pepper, diced (optional)
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp dried oregano or thyme or fresh herbs if you have them
In a medium saucepan, pour in about 1/4 cup of white wine, dry vermouth, dry sherry, or vegetable broth.* “Slice and dice” the squash: cut it into coins the then each coin into wedges depending on their size and the final result you want. Turn on the heat and add the onion and garlic; cook at medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 2 minutes. Add the squash/zucchini coins and keep stirring and cooking. Total cooking time should be 5 to 10 minutes. Look for the squash to take on a more translucent look to let you know it’s done. Summer squash and zucchini can be eaten raw so people differ in deciding when it’s done.
And here is a vegetable cooking chart: https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/tools-and-techniques/how-to-cook-vegetables24.htm
*Use salt-free veg broth if available; if you use regular veg broth, leave out the salt in the recipe.
Not to cast a pall over your day or make inappropriate political observations but—we all need some comfort right now.
At the time of this writing (early June 2020), we have been under lockdown for a pandemic for almost three months. We are in a state of social unrest (some might say upheaval). It is a time of economic change for everyone and hardship for many. And that’s just for starters.
What could be a better time for comfort food?
What is comfort food, anyway? And is it possible that indulging in comfort food could actually be a good thing?
According to lexicon.com, comfort food is “Food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically having a high sugar or carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.”
A quick look at the tables of contents of Melanie McDonald’s Vegan Comfort Cooking yielded the following recipes: Feel-Good Potato and Chickpea Curry, Mom’s Spaghetti and “Meatballs,” and Miracle No-Knead Focaccia.
If there is a theme to comfort food, it can be summed up in one word: carbs.
Carbs make us feel calmed, satisfied, sustained, soothed, and nurtured—in a word, comforted. Most of us can think of a carb that makes us feel anchored and grounded: a bowl of rice or pasta, a baked potato, a slice of warm bread.
But can it be good to eat carbs? The answer is YES. Carbs are good for you, if you eat the right ones.
A short nutrition lesson:
—All whole foods have all three macronutrients in them: protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
—Carbohydrates are healthful if they come from whole foods and are in as close to their natural state as possible.
Many carbs like beans and grains need to be cooked or sprouted to be edible, which is a kind of processing. And many of us enjoy bread and pasta, which is processed, but that’s okay as long as nothing valuable is taken out and nothing bad added (credit to Dr. Greger here, How Not To Die p.)—i.e. whole grain bread and pasta with no or few additives.
There are at least four or five cookbooks with “vegan” and “comfort food” or “comfort cooking” in the titles. But be forewarned that many of the recipes in these books are high in salt, sugar and fat and you would need to steer around or adapt many of the recipes.
Here are a couple of recipes from plant-based websites that are sure to nourish you and make you feel full and taken care of: plant-based comfort food.
HEARTY CHICKPEA NOODLE SOUP
(10 min. prep, 20 min. cooking)
(Serves 4 to 8)
1/4 cup water
1 onion, diced
3 large carrots, peeled and diced
3 ribs celery, sliced (some leaves ok)
1 teaspoon EACH dried thyme, basil and oregano*
2 cans chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
12 – 16 ounces rotini pasta (use whole wheat or brown rice pasta)
10 – 12 cups water or vegetable broth (or combo)
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
salt & pepper, to taste
lemon wedges, to serve
Sauté: In a large stock pot or dutch oven, heat water over medium heat, add onion, carrots, celery and herbs, cook for 5 – 6 minutes, stirring frequently.
Simmer: Add the chickpeas, pasta, and liquids to the pot, bring to a boil, reduce heat to a gentle simmer, and cook for 6 – 7 minutes, or until pasta is al dente.
Season: Finally, stir in the chopped parsley, and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve: Ladle into individual bowls and serve with lemon wedges for squeezing. The lemon is highly recommended and will add a delicious spark of flavor, trust me! Add a little more fresh parsley to garnish.
*If you don’t have all three herbs on hand, use 1 tablespoon of whichever herb you have on hand. Or if using 2 herbs, use 1 1/2 teaspoons each.
GARDEN VEGETABLE STEW
(15 min prep, 30 min cooking)
(Serves 6 – 8)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1/4 cup vegetable broth or water
28 ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
4 small zucchini, sliced
2 small yellow crookneck squash, sliced
1 cup green beans, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 tbsp soy sauce (optional)
1 tbsp parsley flakes or 1/4 cup fresh
1 tsp dried basil or 1 tbsp fresh
1 tsp oregano or 1/2 tbsp fresh
1 tbsp cornstarch mixed in 1/4 cup cold water
Place the onion, garlic and bell pepper in a large pot with the vegetable broth. Cook and stir until slightly softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, and beans. Cover and simmer over medium heat for 15 minutes. Add the corn and seasonings, except for the cornstarch mixture. Cook for another 10 minutes. Add the cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened.
Editor’s note: I would not be able to resist adding some peeled diced potato along with the corn. Also, you could substitute flour for the cornstarch, or you could use neither and have more of a soup than a stew—still delicious. Good served over cooked brown rice or quinoa for added comfort!
The current crisis
We’ve all been asked to stay home except for essential jobs and shopping for essentials, which includes food. Most people can get their supermarket trips down to once a week with a little planning.
A harrowing experience?
That’s how a friend described food shopping at this time. It’s unsettling to feel that you are taking your life in your hands, just by going to the supermarket! Wearing masks, constant wipe-downs, the “supermarket swerve” when someone avoids you with her cart—these are not what we usually expect but we’ve accepted them. It’s serious business at the grocery store these days.
Focus on what’s essential
With restricted shopping during the epidemic, you need to stock up on foods that keep well in storage: rice and other grains, beans both dried and canned, pasta, and frozen vegetables. That’s right: the very foods that went missing off the shelves in the first couple weeks of the lockdown. I remember thinking: “Wow! These people are making pretty good choices!” There’s something about a crisis that brings out people’s survival skills.
A little heat is essential!
An image I’ll never forget, from one of my first post-epidemic supermarket trips, is a very satisfied-looking young man approaching the cashier, with one large bottle of Frank’s Hot Sauce in each hand. I wondered: Did he think Frank’s will protect him from the virus? Or is life just not worth living without it?
What’s the plan?
Eventually, even the abnormal becomes normalized, and you start to see food shopping during COVID for what it always has been: an adventure and an important mission. So how to approach it?
Plan. Sit down, looking at the calendar to see what days you have least and most time to cook, and choose recipes for dinner for the week. (Where to find recipes is “everywhere,” but also a topic for another day.) Draw up a list of ingredients to buy for those meals, noting when the recipe calls for a staple you already have (like soy sauce or balsamic vinegar). Review your staples while you are at it, to see if you are running out of any. Don’t forget breakfast and lunch needs, like oatmeal, bread, and peanut butter. Stretch out your produce purchases by choosing recipes that will allow you to use a large vegetable like a head of cauliflower in two different entrées during the week.
What should you buy?
Well, start out with those items that went missing in the first panicked weeks of the coronavirus. Those people knew what they were doing.
Rice, dry beans and dry pasta last indefinitely on pantry shelves in their original packages, or in carefully sealed containers once opened. Canned goods are a time-honored way of surviving a crisis: canned beans are great, and canned vegetables can be good in a pinch (rinse both to reduce sodium). Canned tomato products (crushed, diced, sauce, paste) are indispensable. Some other canned and jarred products add a gourmet touch to your cooking: jarred roasted red peppers, capers, canned artichoke hearts. Frozen vegetables are nutritionally equivalent to fresh, but choose varieties with no added sauces (which contain lots of sugar, salt, and oil).
What sends a person to the grocery store when they run out of it? For most people, plant-based or no, it’s probably bread, milk, and lettuce. But bread can be stored in the freezer; and plant-based milk comes in aseptic (juicebox-type shelf-stable) packages that can stay on your pantry shelf till opened. That leaves lettuce. Shelf-stable and frozen items, along with long-lasting fresh produce, can stretch out the time between shopping trips, making salad greens the limiting factor for plant-based shopping.
But salad greens aren’t the only fresh produce you want in your kitchen. Buy a variety of whatever fruits and veggies are your favorites, and don’t forget dark leafy greens like kale. [See follow-up entry, “Save Your Veggies,” for more specific advice.] But some vegetables have a special role during an extended emergency.
At a time when your trips to the grocery store are widely spaced and could be curtailed at any time by a new directive, stock up on vegetables that last for weeks in their preferred storage space: onions and garlic (on the counter), carrots and cabbage (in the fridge), and potatoes (in a dark pantry or drawer). These vegetables also happen to be economical, and versatile as building blocks for a variety of meals when you add canned tomatoes, beans, and ethnic herbs and spices. Put them in a curry or a stir-fry; add Mexican or Middle Eastern spices for a soup or stew. The possibilities are endless!
If you do run out of lettuce, you can shred or slice cabbage (red, green, or both) along with carrots for a delicious salad. With cabbage, alway pull away leaves from the outside rather than slicing into the head, to keep the rest of the head crisp and unspoiled. Don’t forget fruit. Oranges and apples are good keepers: store at room temperature, but refrigeration can lengthen their freshness if you have room.
In bad times and in good …
We can be well nourished even in a time of shortages and restrictions. And guidelines about what foods are good for us, and how to use them to the fullest, can serve us well even when this crisis has passed.
Bonus tips for COVID shopping
No, You Don’t Need To Disinfect Your Groceries. But Here’s How To Shop Safely.
An excellent article from NPR with advice from scientists:
Click here to learn how to shop safely!
Supermarkets in the Time of Coronavirus
On one of my widely-spaced forays to the supermarket since the coronavirus hammer came down, I was happy (and somewhat surprised) to see that people had made good decisions! They had stripped the shelves, or at least made major inroads, in some of my favorite sections of the supermarket, including the dried beans section. Who knew we had such survival skills?
The New York Times agrees!
On 3/22/20, the Times reported that “amid all the panic shopping, the growing demand for beans has stood out as an especially potent symbol of the anxious and uncertain times. At supermarkets, shoppers are stocking up on canned beans from familiar brands like Goya Foods, as well as thick bags of dry beans that usually lie largely untouched on store shelves.”
Food for any crisis
Dried beans are the ultimate food for a crisis. They store indefinitely, virtually without any risk of being infested or losing nutritional quality, in a sealed or resealed bag or in a glass jar (where they can be quite beautiful on your kitchen counter or pantry shelf). All you need is water to soak them and a source of heat to cook them, to turn them into food.
What other kind of crisis is there?
Hmm. There are other crises brewing that have gone to the back burner now that we’re dealing with an epidemic. Beans help to deal with the planetary climate crisis because, like all plant foods, they are low on the food chain and use way fewer resources to grow than animal foods, and generate a fraction of the waste, too.
Beans help deal with our crisis of chronic disease and soaring medical expenditures, too, because they keep you so healthy.
The experts weigh in
Brenda Davis, RD, in Becoming Vegan (2014), p. 373 says “Eat at least three ½ cup servings of legumes per day. (New consumers should begin with smaller servings to allow the gut bacteria to adjust to the increased fiber intake.)” Michael Greger, MD (of nutritionfacts.org fame) in How Not To Die (2015), pp. 294-85 says one study shows that ½ cup a day of pinto beans for 2 months can reduce your cholesterol by 19 points; another study shows that each increment of 2 tbsp a day in bean consumption was associated with an 8% reduction in risk of premature death.
Nutritional benefits—just a few of many
What are beans full of? Complex carbs with loads of fiber, both soluble and insoluble, to regulate your cholesterol, clean your gut, and foster a healthy microbiome. Just the right array of macronutrients to sustain a human, including the right amount of protein. Micronutrients galore, including vitamins and minerals like folate, iron, potassium and magnesium.
Not the stars of the show
Beans often get neglected.
When people start a plant-based diet, sometimes the hardest challenge is to get used to eating beans. Everyone knows they should eat lots of daily servings of fruits and vegetables (5! 7! 9!). And everyone loves grains for comfort food (and it’s not too hard to switch the emphasis to whole grains). But sometimes the only bean dishes people are familiar with are baked beans and hummus. Those dishes can be great, but they are just the beginning!
Okay, but how do I cook beans?
To cook beans from scratch:* Pour the beans into a pot and sort through to remove stones and shriveled beans. Cover with water 2-3 X the volume of the beans. Soak overnight to use them the next day, or at least 3-4 hours before you want to start cooking them. To cook soaked beans: pour off any remaining water; add fresh water 2X the volume of the soaked beans. Cook 45 min. to 1½ hrs, depending on the type of bean (check after 45 min. to see if done, and check frequently to see if you need to add water). Lentils don’t need to be soaked beforehand and cook in 45 min., or less for red lentils. VERY IMPORTANT: When cooking beans from scratch, do not add salt or anything acidic (such as tomatoes, citrus juice, or vinegar) to the beans until they are cooked to desired tenderness.
Here’s a recipe that uses dried beans that do not need to be soaked before you cook with them. When I last shopped, green split peas were the only dried beans left on the shelf.
SPLIT PEA OR LENTIL SOUP*
1 pkg. green or yellow split peas, or lentils
10 c water or vegetable broth, or more as needed
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 or 2 stalks celery, sliced
1 or 2 carrots, sliced
1 t cumin or curry powder
1 t dried basil and/or other herbs
½ t salt
Dash of Liquid Smoke (optional)
2 potatoes, peeled and diced (optional)
Pour split peas or lentils into a large pot and sort through for stones. Add water, onion, garlic, celery, carrots, herbs and spices. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer for about 30 min. Add potatoes about 15 minutes before the end of cooking time.
This is a wonderful hot lunch or dinner that is very economical. Serve with green salad and bread.
Canned beans are good too!
Best to rinse and drain them before using. Some people save the bean liquid and use it as an egg substitute (aquafaba) but that’s a whole other post!
Enjoy, and until next time! —Carol Barnett
*The dried beans instruction and soup recipe are taken from the book for the plant-based nutrition course, which will be given again on six Thursdays starting on September 24th. Go to roclifemed.comfor info and to register.