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Appetite to change

Wed., May 11, 2011

Preparing meals from scratch is good for the planet, your kids and your wallet

Save the planet, save your children, save yourself and save money.

How? Cook.

I went to Leavenworth, Wash., recently to catch a talk by New York Times opinion writer, cookbook author and food columnist Mark Bittman. As a follower of his work in the Times and his recent book on conscious eating, “Food Matters,” I knew what Bittman was going to say.

I knew he would tell the standing-room-only crowd that Americans consume 200 pounds of meat per year (about 8 ounces per day), which is more than twice the global average. (We also down some 237 pounds of dairy and 32 pounds of eggs each year.)

I knew he would talk about the horrifying details of industrialized meat production. “Watching how most livestock is raised and slaughtered in this country would horrify even the most die-hard carnivores,” he said.

I knew that he would talk about how all of that meat eating is taxing the Earth in a way that is not sustainable by most estimates. It takes our planet a year and four months to regenerate the resources we use each year. And if everyone ate like Americans, it would take more than four and a half planet Earths to sustain us, according to Bittman.

Meat consumption is not the only problem, he says: Processed foods and empty calories have also led to a nationwide epidemic of obesity and related health problems. Bittman writes about all of the alarming ways that advertising, government subsidies and other marketing have contributed to the overconsumption in “Food Matters.”

There was one thing I wasn’t prepared to hear: As Bittman challenged audience members to rethink their diets and make small changes to start eating more plants, legumes and whole grains, he said part of the problem is that few people cook at home.

According to his rough estimate, just 10 percent of American meals are made at home, from scratch. (Throwing a frozen pizza into the oven does not count as a from-scratch meal, nor do other convenience foods. Bittman calls them UFOs: Unidentified Foodlike Objects.)

Ironically, we’re spending more time sitting in front of the television … watching others cook.

Really? People are cooking just 10 percent of their meals?

OK, he conceded when I asked him afterward, maybe 20 percent – but no more than that. The rest of the food most Americans eat is takeout, restaurant meals and heat-and-eat, Bittman said. This, from the man who wrote “How to Cook Everything.”

When I got back, I started quizzing friends and family: How often do you cook? Would you say you cook from scratch more than 10 to 20 percent of the time?

Many people said they are in their kitchen more often than that. Others were sheepish, and I started thinking about how a busy week can erase the cooking time even at our house.

So, here’s a challenge: This is our chance to join the food revolution. We don’t have to become vegans (Bittman’s not) or raise chickens in our backyard. All we have to do is cook, from scratch, a few more meals each week.

Bonus points for those who make those meals meatless, focus on local or seasonal foods, seek out humanely raised animals or stick to sustainable seafood choices.

Make small changes, Bittman says. If we would all eat three fewer cheeseburgers each week (or the equivalent) it would have the same impact on the environment as getting rid of all the SUVs in the country, he says.

Here are a few more reasons to cook:

• A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that when families shared at least three meals a week their children were more likely maintain a healthy weight and less likely to have problems with disordered eating than those who eat together less often.

• Rising food prices have been in the news a lot lately. However, it is still less expensive to make a meal at home than to dine out most of the time. Learn how to cook beans. Treat meat as a condiment, rather than the centerpiece of everyday meals.

• Those who plan ahead and cook meals at home are more likely to meet their weight-loss goals. At home, cooks can control the fat and calories that go into a dish and keep a tight rein on portion sizes – two trouble spots when dining out.

What more do you need? Quick, easy and delicious recipes? We’ve got you covered with suggestions from current food magazines, friends and new cookbooks.

If you love cooking shows on channels such as the Food Network or Lifetime television, start there. Pick up a cookbook by your favorite celebrity chef and get rolling.

Lifetime’s Allison Fishman has a new book that’s packed with fast, easy and healthy recipes called “You Can Trust a Skinny Cook.”

The Food Network’s Aaron McCargo Jr. just released “Simply Done, Well Done” with some serious comfort food that even beginners can make.

Simplest and Best Shrimp Dish

From “How to Cook Everything,” (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition), by Mark Bittman. He writes: “Excuse the superlatives; this spin on a Spanish tapa is my favorite, and everyone I serve it to loves it. The shrimp juices infuse the oil, and the sum is beyond delicious. It’s good with bread, over rice, tossed with pasta, or stuffed into tacos.” Substitute similar-sized scallops if you like.

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil, or more as needed

3 or 4 big cloves garlic, cut into slivers

About 1 1/2 pounds shrimp, 20 to 30 per pound, peeled, rinsed, and dried

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons hot paprika

Chopped fresh parsley leaves for garnish

Warm the olive oil in a large, broad ovenproof skillet or heatproof baking pan over low heat. There should be enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan; don’t skimp. Add the garlic and cook until it turns golden, a few minutes.

Raise the heat to medium-high and add the shrimp, some salt and pepper, the cumin, and the paprika. Stir to blend and continue to cook, shaking the pan once or twice and turning the shrimp once or twice, until they are pink all over and the mixture is bubbly, 5 to 10 minutes. Garnish and serve immediately.

Yield: 4 servings

Rigatoni with Sausage and Broccoli Rabe

From “You Can Trust a Skinny Cook,” by Allison Fishman. Add even more vegetables if you like. Try roasted red peppers, grilled zucchini or sautéed mushrooms.

1 pound dried rigatoni

1 large bunch broccoli rabe, trimmed and cut into 2-inch lengths

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 large garlic cloves, sliced

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

Large pinch red pepper flakes

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

12 ounces chicken sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente. During the last 3 minutes that the pasta is cooking, add the broccoli rabe to the pot with the pasta.

While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil over medium heat in a pot large enough to hold the cooked pasta. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about 1 minute. Add the oregano and red pepper flakes, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the crushed tomatoes, sausage and salt and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 to 12 minutes.

Drain the pasta and rabe and add to the sauce. Gently turn the pasta and rabe to the sauce to coat. Serve warm, topped with parmesan cheese.

Yield: 6 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving (from the cookbook): 453 calories, 10 grams fat (2 grams saturated) 26 grams protein, 65 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams dietary fiber.

Maple Pork Chops with Smashed Sweet Potatoes

A friend shared this recipe. She says, “This looks like a lot of work, but it truly takes only 30 minutes.”

2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths

4 center-cut pork chops, about 8 ounces each

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 cup maple syrup

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon whole-grain mustard

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 garlic clove, thinly sliced

8 ounces baby spinach

1 teaspoon cornstarch

2 tablespoons water

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat broiler.

Cover sweet potatoes with water in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Cook until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain.

While potatoes cook, rub both sides of the pork chops with salt and pepper. Stir the maple syrup, vinegar and mustard in a small bowl. Separate a few tablespoons for the glaze and set aside the rest for the sauce.

Brush chops with the glaze. Place the chops on a baking sheet and place in the broiler. Broil until cooked through, about 4 to 5 minutes a side. Tent with foil and let rest while you finish the dish.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the garlic and sauté until brown. Add the greens a little a time, stirring until just wilted. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer the spinach to a bowl and tent with foil to keep warm (I never do this because I do the spinach absolutely last).

Place the reserved sauce in a small pan and warm over low heat. Dissolve the cornstarch in the water. Stir into the sauce and simmer until the sauce thickens (Be patient with this. It’s worth it to have a thick sauce).

Mash the sweet potatoes roughly with the butter using a fork; season with salt and pepper.

Divide greens among four plates. Place sweet potatoes on top of the greens and prop the pork chops against the potatoes. Drizzle with sauce.

Yield: 4 servings

Vegetarian Cassoulet

From A vegetarian friend loves this cassoulet from Gourmet magazine.

For the cassoulet:

3 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only)

4 medium carrots, halved lengthwise and cut into 1-inch-wide pieces

3 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch-wide pieces

4 garlic cloves, chopped

1/4 cup olive oil

4 thyme sprigs

2 parsley sprigs

1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

3 (19-ounce) cans cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained

1 quart water

For garlic crumbs:

4 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs from a baguette

1/3 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1/4 cup chopped parsley

To make the cassoulet: Halve leeks lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces, then wash well and pat dry.

Cook leeks, carrots, celery, and garlic in oil with herb sprigs, bay leaf, cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a large heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, about 15 minutes. Stir in beans, then water, and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender but not falling apart, about 30 minutes.

Make garlic crumbs while cassoulet simmers: Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack in middle.

Toss bread crumbs with oil, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a bowl until well coated. Spread in a baking pan and toast in oven, stirring once halfway through, until crisp and golden, 12 to 15 minutes.

Cool crumbs in pan, then return to bowl and stir in parsley.

Finish cassoulet: Discard herb sprigs and bay leaf. Mash some of beans in pot with a potato masher or back of a spoon to thicken broth. Season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with garlic crumbs.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 516 calories, 23 grams fat (3 grams saturated), no cholesterol, 12 grams dietary fiber, 370 milligrams sodium.

Pork Empanadas with Ranchero Sauce

From “Simply Done, Well Done,” by Aaron McCargo Jr. This recipe is a little more work but why not? Tackle it on a weekend, with help from friends and family.

McCargo writes: “Camden, New Jersey, where I grew up, has a large and vibrant Latino population. When I was a kid, I loved eating the empanadas sold in the Mexican and Spanish markets found in nearly every corner of the city. I lived in south Camden, which was a very mixed neighborhood, but I only had to cross over to east Camden for Mexican shops and restaurants and into north Camden for Puerto Rican stores. I relied on this rich history of sampling many different empanadas when I decided to create my own with a seriously spicy ranchero sauce.”

For the ranchero sauce:

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 medium onion, chopped

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 (15-ounce) can diced fire-roasted tomatoes

1 (6-ounce) can diced green chilies

1 chipotle chili pepper in adobo sauce, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

For the empanadas:

1/2 pound pork tenderloin, cut into small cubes

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 scallions, sliced, white and green parts

2 chipotle chili peppers in adobo sauce, minced

1 cup grated smoked cheddar cheese

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

2 (9-inch) unbaked pie dough rounds (store bought or homemade)

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a shallow baking pan, such as a jelly-roll pan or a baking sheet, with parchment paper.

To make the ranchero sauce: In a medium saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, chilies, and chipotle pepper and cook, stirring to blend the flavors. Add the salt and black pepper and cook until the sauce reduces slightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and set aside, covered, to keep warm.

To make the empanadas: Season the pork with salt and black pepper. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When hot, sear the pork cubes, turning occasionally, until lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer the cubes of meat to a shallow bowl and let them cool slightly. Add the scallions, chipotle peppers, cheddar, and cilantro to the bowl and toss well.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the pie rounds so that they are slightly larger and a little thinner (about 1/8 inch thick). Using a 3-inch round biscuit cutter, punch out circles of dough.

Put about 2 tablespoons of the filling, off center, on each round of dough. Brush the edges of the dough with the beaten egg and fold it over the filling to form a half-moon shape. Crimp the edges closed with a fork and arrange the empanadas on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 13 to 15 minutes or until nicely browned. Serve warm with the ranchero sauce for dipping.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings, about 14 empanadas

Lemon Curd Tartlets

From Allison Fishman’s “You Can Trust a Skinny Cook.”

3/4 cup granulated sugar

Juice and zest of 3 lemons

3 large eggs

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Pinch of kosher salt

6 mini graham cracker crusts

1 pint fresh blueberries

1 teaspoon confectioner’s sugar

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, lemon juice and zest, eggs, cornstarch and salt. Place over medium heat and whisk constantly, until it’s the texture of vanilla pudding, about 6 minutes. Be sure to get into the corners of the pan when you’re whisking.

Remove the lemon curd from the heat, spoon it into tartlet shells and top with blueberries. Before serving, dust tartlets with the confectioner’s sugar.

Yield: 6 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving (from the cookbook): 289 calories, 8 grams fat (2 grams saturated), 5 grams protein, 53 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams dietary fiber.

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