The Times on Vegetarian Food

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It might seem odd for me to deconstruct an article in The New York Times (login info) that mentions vegetarian food in a positive light, but a number of things in this article really jumped out at me. Let’s take them one by one, extracted from the original article (which you should read first, of course):

When I hear the term “vegetarian lifestyle,” I reach for my skirt steak.

Jeez. Another one of “those people?” Why are ethical vegetarians (which who I assume he’s talking about here) so scary to some people?

No one, after all, says you have to be a committed, converted, proselytizing vegetarian to eat a diet less oriented to meat. Besides, many self-described vegetarians are not, strictly speaking, vegetarians. Today’s rules seem pretty flexible, sometimes to the point where there is not much difference between vegetarians and people who eat moderate amounts of meat.

These are those “rules” and half-assed labels I’ve complained about before. Again, any move to a more plant-based diet is A Good Thing, but to say that “there is not much difference between vegetarians and people who eat moderate amounts of meat” is to imply that, hey, vegetarians won’t mind if you give them soup with chicken stock.

We do not hear, either, that a vegetarian diet promotes weight loss, probably because studies have not been done. But I don’t know any overweight vegetarians, though maybe they are walking around hungry.

I’m going to avoid going on a long rant here, but I have a big problem when vegetarianism is promoted as the ultimate weight loss solution or some such. For one, overweight does not automatically mean unhealthy just as thin doesn’t always mean healthy. There are a lot of factors that come into play, like genetics. To me, it’s more constructive to be physically active and to try and eat a healthy, varied diet (leaving ethics aside for the moment) with a focus on whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. If you eat well and are active and are considered “healthy” by metrics other than weight or BMI, then don’t stress out about a number.

Secondly, I know a number of “overweight” vegetarians… and vegans for that matter. I also know a number of unhealthy vegetarians/vegans. Giving up meat isn’t a miracle cure that will automatically make you instantly healthy if you don’t exercise and continue to eat heavily processed snacks in place of meals.

Lastly, the “walking around hungry” part… what the hell is that even supposed to mean?

Still, it sometimes takes a bit more technique to produce vegetarian food that pleases the spoiled palate. For example, I generally make chickpea soup with chicken stock and sausage. But I found that I could create a soup with just as much flavor and body as my original version by slow-cooking the onions until they are brown; by exploiting the fact that, unlike other dried legumes, chickpeas produce a delicious broth as they cook; and by adding spinach, whose character is just as distinctive as that of sausage. Serve this with homemade croutons if you can, or at least with good bread.

Though it may have been implied, it’s something that needs to be explicitly stated for a mainstream publication: use a one-to-one replacement of vegetable stock for chicken stock. It’s easy to do and personally, I could never taste the difference. Even the powdered stuff or bullion cubes you buy in the store taste just fine.

If you visit a Chinese market, you should find prepressed tofu, often cut into strips. Also known as pressed bean curd or extra-firm tofu, it has a brown exterior and is usually packed in plastic, without water.

Extra-firm tofu doesn’t mean prepressed and the kind I’ve bought have never had a brown exterior unless they’ve been pre-cooked and marinated.

Even with all these minor annoyances, the overall message of the article is right on: the idea that vegetarian cooking is boring is extremely outdated. I can honestly say that since I’ve become vegetarian, I’ve never eaten so well. No cuisine of the world is off-limits (OK, well maybe Hungarian food because every recipe I’ve ever seen has lard, but otherwise…) and there are as many preparation styles as there are cooks. It’s always heartening to see the mainstream press confirm this for themselves.

Low-carb popularity waning

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The Washington Post is running a story about how low-carb product sales are declining, which I would never have guessed with the myriad new products claiming “low carb” on their labels, even if they never had any carbs to begin with. Really, if I never hear the abbreviation “carb” again, I’ll be happy.

The one good thing that came about from the Atkins/Zone/South Beach/etc. diets is that now it’s not so hard to find whole wheat hot dog and hamburger buns for my not dogs and veggie burgers.

Iron Chef Broccoli!

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Now here’s an idea (one that I’ve dreamed about a number of times): a vegetarian Iron Chef competition. While it’s not officially an “Iron Chef” battle, the spirit’s there: one-on-one competition with just veggies between the chefs and victory. Sounds like the event, which took place at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, went well:

“The idea came about because people who are vegetarian typically have a hard time finding new dishes,” [event organizer Matt] Cheney said. “They often cook their own food, and take pride in their cooking. Everyone gets excited about having some really good tasting vegetarian food.”

The event was sponsored by the Campus Vegetarian Society and co-sponsored by Students Improving the Lives of Animals and the Student Dietetic Association. They plan to release a DVD of the event later in the year.