No Meat, No Dairy, No Problem

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Among your other resolutions — do more good? make more money? — you’ve probably made the annual pledge to eat better, although this concept may be more often reduced simply to “lose some weight.” The weight-loss obsession is both a national need and a neurotic urge (those last five pounds really don’t matter, either cosmetically or medically). But most of us do need to eat “better.”

If defining this betterness has become increasingly more difficult (half the diet books that spilled over my desk in December focused on going gluten-free), the core of the answer is known to everyone: eat more plants. And if the diet that most starkly represents this — veganism — is no longer considered bizarre or unreasonably spartan, neither is it exactly mainstream. (For the record, vegans don’t simply avoid meat; they eschew all animal products, including dairy, eggs and even honey.)

Many vegan dishes, however, are already beloved: we eat fruit salad, peanut butter and jelly, beans and rice, eggplant in garlic sauce. The problem faced by many of us — brought up as we were with plates whose center was filled with a piece of an animal — is in imagining less-traditional vegan dishes that are creative, filling, interesting and not especially challenging to either put together or enjoy.

My point here is to make semi-veganism work for you. Once a week, let bean burgers stand in for hamburgers, leave the meat out of your pasta sauce, make a risotto the likes of which you’ve probably never had — and you may just find yourself eating “better.”

These recipes serve about four, and in all, the addition of salt and pepper is taken for granted. This is not a gimmick or even a diet. It’s a path, and the smart resolution might be to get on it.

Get the recipes here.

Bacteria 1, F.D.A. 0

Earlier this month, the Maine-based grocery chain Hannaford issued a ground beef recall after at least 14 people were infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of salmonella. Chances are this is the first you’ve heard of it. After all, it’s not much compared to the 76 illnesses and one death back in August that led Cargill to recall almost 36 million pounds of ground turkey products potentially contaminated with drug-resistant salmonella. The particulars get confusing, but the trend is unmistakable: our meat supply is frequently contaminated with bacteria that can’t readily be treated by antibiotics.

A study earlier this year by a nonprofit research center in Phoenix analyzed 80 brands of beef, pork, chicken and turkey from five cities and found that 47 percent contained staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria that can cause anything from minor skin infections to pneumonia and sepsis, more technically called systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS), and commonly known as blood poisoning — but no matter what you call it, plenty scary. Of those bacteria, 52 percent were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics. So when you go to the supermarket to buy one of these brands of pre-ground meat products, there’s a roughly 25 percent chance you’ll consume a potentially fatal bacteria that doesn’t respond to commonly prescribed drugs.

It’s not like this is happening without a reason; the little germs have plenty of practice fighting the drugs designed to kill them in the industrially raised animals to which antibiotics are routinely fed. And although it’s economical for producers to drug animals prophylactically[1], there are many strong arguments against the use of those drugs, including their declining efficacy in humans.

Probably you’d agree with the couple of people I described this situation to earlier this week, one of whom said something like, “Ugh, that’s crazy,” and the other simply, “They gotta do something about that!”

The thing is, “they” did. In 1977.

Read the rest of this column here

The Gift of Cooking

Americans spend less time cooking than anyone, and the amount we “cook” — some people count microwaving a pizza — has been on a long, slow decline. The reasons for this decline are varied and complex, but an increase in the average of both hours worked and television watched, coupled with the marketing of “convenience” foods, have turned cooking from a sometimes-pleasurable necessity into, for many people, an ominous-seeming choice.

Yet the benefits of cooking, about which I’ve written before, are many: Cooking gives you control over what you put into your body and it’s cheaper than eating out or taking in. Food you make yourself tastes better, and it’s better for the environment, for your body, for your family. It’s just plain better.

We all know people who don’t cook: not enough time, skill or stuff. Gentle encouragement could change that, and — if it does — it’s no exaggeration to call it a gift of life. So instead of your incredible cookies — or in addition to them — you might consider a gift of the means, encouragement or inspiration for non-cooks. Imagine how great it would feel if, next year, they gave you cookies.

Some ideas:

Read the rest of this column here.

One Dough, Endless Cookies

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Cookie recipes are just about infinite, because almost anything can be shaped into a circle and baked: hence gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free “cookies.” But the basic cookie contains three key ingredients: butter, flour and sugar. That combination has not been bettered, and it can be varied in so many ways that, really, it’s the only recipe you need.

Flavor this dough (it can be doubled, tripled, etc., and refrigerated up to two days in advance or frozen for longer), then spoon it out and fill it for thumbprints, chill and roll it and frost it, turn it into “sandwiches” or press and spread it into bars. Master those options, and you can create pretty much any cookie you can dream of. Unless you’re not open to those with butter, sugar and flour.

The Basic Dough

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 egg

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch salt

1/4 cup milk, plus more if needed.

1. Heat the oven to 375. Use an electric mixer to cream together the butter and sugar; add the vanilla and egg and beat until well blended.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add half the dry ingredients to the dough, beat for a moment, then add the milk. Beat for about 10 seconds, then add the remaining dry ingredients and a little more milk, if necessary, to make a soft dough.

3. Bake using one of the four variations: Frosted Cookies, Thumbprints, Sandwich Cookies and Cookie Bars.

Yield: 2 to 3 dozen.

Brown Sugar Carrot Bread with Almonds

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By Alaina Sullivan

Impatient bakers love a good quick bread – the no-yeast, no-hassle loaf that teeters between bread and dessert. Typically a touch sweet, with a crumb more cakelike than its yeast-risen breads, quick bread is an easy solution for bakers who don’t feel like waiting.

This version is a variation on the master recipe for Fruit (or Vegetable)-and-Nut Bread from How to Cook Everything. Of the endless possibilities (think Banana-Walnut, Cranberry-Pecan, Zucchini-Sunflower, Pumpkin Ginger with Hazelnuts…) the one that struck me was a Brown Sugar Carrot Bread with Almonds. The shredded carrots ensure moisture, while the slivered almonds lend a consistent crunch. A combination of grains (all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour and wheat bran) yields a denser, heartier loaf, and brown sugar brings the right touch of molasses sweetness, while orange zest brightens the whole thing.

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Dessert for Breakfast

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We all know the importance of real food in the morning: kids who eat high-sugar breakfasts have a harder time in school, and a growing body of research suggests that foods sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup can be as addictive as nicotine or cocaine. It’s clear, too, that for most of us the eating patterns we develop as children hang around forever.

Every parent of a child born in the United States since 1950 also knows the difficulty of getting that kid to eat a breakfast of real food. This is not a “natural” inclination — no one is born craving Froot Loops or Count Chocula — but one resulting from a bombardment of marketing.

So for more than half a century well-intentioned parents have been torn between their desperation to get their kids to eat something, anything, and the knowledge that most packaged breakfast cereals are little better than cookies.

Read the rest of this column here.