Sustainable Food, from the NYT
Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One, or 6 Billion
By MARK BITTMAN
“Revolutionary” diet books flood the market this time of year, promising a life changed permanently and for the better — yes, in just 10 to 30 days! — but, as everyone knows, the key to eating better begins with a diet of real food.
The problem is, real food is cooked by real people — you! — and real people are cooking less than ever before.We know why people don’t cook, or at least we think we do: they’re busy; they find “convenience” and restaurant foods more accessible than foods they cook themselves; they (incorrectly) believe that ready-to-eat foods are less expensive than those they cook themselves; they live in so-called food deserts and lack access to real food; and they were never taught to cook by their parents, making the trend self-perpetuating.
Yet Americans watch 35 hours of television a week, according to a Nielsen survey. (Increasing amounts of that time are spent watching other people cook). And although there certainly are urban and rural pockets where people have little access to fresh food, about 90 percent of American households own cars, and anyone who can drive to McDonald’s can drive to a supermarket.
But perhaps most important, a cooking repertoire of three basic recipes can get anyone into the kitchen and beyond the realm of takeout food, microwaved popcorn and bologna sandwiches in a few days.
One could set off a heated argument with a question like, “What are the three best basic recipes?” but I stand behind these: a stir-fry, a chopped salad, and the basic combination of rice and lentils, all of which are easy enough to learn in one lesson. (“Lessons” might be called “recipes,” and need no “teacher” beyond the written word.) Each can be varied in countless ways. Each is produced from basic building blocks that contain no additives, preservatives, trans fats, artificial flavorings or ingredients of any kind, or outrageous calorie counts; they are, in other words, made from actual food. The salad requires no cooking; the stir-fry is lightning fast; the rice-and-lentils, though cooked more slowly, requires minimal attention. The same can be said for other recipes, of course, but not for all of them, and certainly not for the food that most Americans rely upon most of the time.
These recipes offer other benefits: They’re nutritionally sound and environmentally friendly. They’ve sustained scores of generations of societies worldwide, using traditional farming methods and producing little negative impact on the earth. (Almost without exception, your ancestors relied on something like one or more of these dishes.) All of them can be made with meat, poultry or fish, but they can be satisfying and delicious when made vegetarian or even vegan. In fact, if you cooked only variations on these three dishes you’d be well on your way to becoming an intuitive, fluid cook (the fanciest pilaf is essentially a rice-and-bean variation), eating more healthfully and with a lighter carbon footprint.
There is one notable thing these recipes are not: magic. You cannot produce them without having a functioning kitchen (a sink, a refrigerator and a stove will do it); some minimal equipment, including a pot, a skillet and a bowl (though in a pinch, the salad could be made in the pot); a couple of knives; some utensils; a strainer and a cutting board; and the ability (and money) to stock a pantry and at least occasionally supplement it with fresh food. These requirements cannot be met by everyone, but they can be met by far more people than those who cooked dinner last night.
(It’s worth noting, furthermore, that the stir-fry and the rice-and-lentils can be made entirely from the pantry, if you allow for the fact that frozen vegetables are a completely acceptable substitute for fresh, especially in winter, when “fresh” may mean “flown in from Peru.”) This pantry list can be as simple as oil, vinegar, grains, legumes and a few other things, but as people learn to cook it inevitably grows.
Given ingredients, a kitchen and equipment, all that is left is some time, and with a well-stocked pantry that time can be about the same as driving to Burger King and back. You can make a chopped salad in 15 or 20 minutes, practicing knife skills and producing a vegetable-heavy dish quickly and easily. Anyone who can boil water can whip up a batch of rice and lentils in just over half an hour, providing fiber, protein and one of humankind’s classic comfort foods. And anyone who’s learned how to chop (primitively is fine), apply heat to a pan and stir can produce a stir-fry — really the epitome of a traditional dish based mostly on plants with just enough meat or other protein-dense food to contribute additional interest, flavor and nutrition — in less than half an hour.
Make these three things and you’re a cook. And with luck and perseverance, these foods will crowd out things like (to single out one egregious example from hundreds of its competitors) KFC’s Chicken Pot Pie, which costs about $5 (so much for the myth of cheap fast food; a terrific meal for four can be put together for $10); contains nearly 700 calories, more than half of which come from fat; and has well over 50 ingredients — most of which cannot be purchased by normal consumers anywhere — including things like “chicken pot pie flavor” and MSG.
By becoming a cook, you can leave processed foods behind, creating more healthful, less expensive and better-tasting food that requires less energy, water and land per calorie and reduces our carbon footprint. Not a bad result for us — or the planet.
Broccoli Stir-Fry With Chicken and Mushrooms
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings.
2 tablespoons good-quality vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
4 scallions, chopped
1 pound broccoli, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces, the stems no more than 1/4-inch thick
8 ounces button mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch chunks or thin slices and blotted dry
2 tablespoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper.
1. Put a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add half the oil, swirl it around, and immediately add half the garlic and ginger. Cook for 15 seconds, stirring, then add the broccoli, mushrooms and all but a sprinkling of the scallions. Raise heat to high, and cook, stirring, until mushrooms release their water and broccoli is bright green and beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes.
2. Sprinkle with salt; add 1 cup water. Stir and cook until almost all liquid evaporates and broccoli is almost tender, another minute or two more, then transfer everything to a plate.
3. Turn heat to medium, add remaining oil, then remaining garlic and ginger. Stir, then add chicken and turn heat to high. Cook, stirring occasionally, until chicken has lost its pink color, three to five minutes.
4. Turn heat to medium. Return broccoli, mushrooms and juices to the pan, and stir. Add soy sauce, sprinkle with more salt and some pepper; add a little more water if mixture is dry. Raise heat to high and cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced slightly and you’ve scraped up all the bits of chicken. Taste and adjust seasoning, garnish with remaining scallion and serve.
Stir-fries work with virtually any combination of vegetables; protein-dense food (meat, poultry, fish, tofu, etc.) is optional. Use pork (like shoulder), shrimp, beef (like sirloin), or tofu instead of chicken; slice the meat thinly or the tofu into cubes.
Use cabbage, cauliflower, asparagus, green beans, snow peas, carrots or spinach in place of either the broccoli or the mushrooms or both. Or use other mushrooms.
Use fish sauce instead of soy sauce and finish with a squeeze of lime to give it a Southeast Asian flavor.
Use olive oil, skip the ginger, use onion instead of scallion, and substitute 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary or thyme to give it a Mediterranean flavor profile.
Use coconut milk instead of stock; 1 tablespoon curry powder instead of soy sauce to give it an Indian flavor.
Lentils and Rice With or Without Pork
Time: About 45 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 medium onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
4 ounces bacon or sausage, chopped, optional
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups lentils, rinsed and picked over
1 cup long-grain brown rice
3 or 4 bay leaves
Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish.
1. Put the oil in a large, deep saucepan over medium heat. When it’s hot, add onion, celery, carrot and meat, if using. Cook until vegetables begin to become tender and meat begins to brown in places, 5 to 10 minutes. Add garlic and some salt and pepper and cook for another minute or two.
2. Add lentils, rice, bay leaves and 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat so liquid bubbles gently, and cover.
3. After 30 minutes, if rice and lentils are tender and liquid is absorbed, the dish is ready. If lentils and rice are not tender, add enough liquid to keep bottom of pot moist, cover and cook for a few more minutes. If rice and lentils are soft and there is much liquid remaining (which is unlikely), raise heat a bit and cook, uncovered, stirring once or twice, until it evaporates. Discard bay leaves. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary, fluff with a fork and serve, garnished with parsley and drizzled with more olive oil.
Use any grain instead of brown rice; you can even substitute white rice. (Cooking time for white rice is half or less that for brown, so add later.)
Similarly, use any bean: cook longer as needed and keep an eye on the water to make sure the beans stay submerged in about 1 inch of water during cooking; wait to add the rice until the beans are tender.
Stock will add flavor, but don’t waste money on the canned stuff; use water instead. (The dish will taste like lentils and rice.) For more flavor, add onion, carrot, or other vegetables and an herb like thyme.
For the dish called Moors and Christians, substitute a red bell pepper for the celery and carrot, black beans for the lentils, and 1 cup chopped tomato for some of the liquid; let the beans cook until half done before adding the rice.
For smoky red beans and rice, add 1 tablespoon tomato paste and 2 teaspoons pimentón to the vegetables. Use red beans instead of lentils and cook until they’re half done before adding the rice (which should be short-grain). Simmer for another 15 minutes, then bake uncovered at 450 degrees Fahrenheit until the beans and rice are tender.
For mujaddara, skip the meat; cook two sliced onions in a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat until they’re dark brown but not burned, and serve on top of the rice and lentils.
For lentil and rice soup — or any bean and rice soup — use more water, or stock if you have it.
Crunchy Cabbage Salad
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 6 servings
2 tablespoons or more white or red wine vinegar
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic, or more to taste
Salt and black pepper
2 celery stalks (preferably from the heart), chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 small red onion, minced
3 or 4 radishes, chopped
1 red or yellow bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
1 small cabbage, cored and shredded.
1. Combine vinegar, oil, garlic, a large pinch of salt and a smaller one of pepper in a salad bowl. Beat with a fork until combined.
2. Add the vegetables, sprinkle lightly with more salt and pepper, and toss. Taste and adjust seasoning, and serve immediately.
Use lettuce or other greens instead of cabbage.
Add 1/2 cup chopped nuts.
Add 1/2 cup chopped dried fruit or a cup or so of fresh fruit.
Add a couple teaspoons of mustard, chopped fresh herbs, tomato paste, minced fresh chilies, yogurt, soy sauce, one or two anchovies, or some spice (like curry powder or fennel seeds) to the dressing.
Add leftover cooked beans, grains, meat or fish.
Crumble feta or other cheese into the salad.
Use any other cooked or raw vegetables you like: carrots, snow peas, avocado, tomatoes, cucumber, fennel, beets, corn, potatoes, green beans, asparagus or broccoli.