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Mindful Plant Based For Our Burning Planet

Mindful Plant Based For Our Burning Planet

At my French culinary school, we lived by the motto that butter makes everything better. Steaks sizzled on our grills and we submerged duck legs in buckets of melted duck fat. Veggies were roasted in that same duck fat or slathered in cream and cheese. There was not much regard for the seasons in our choices of vegetables and fruits. Need cherries in December? Not a problem – we fly them in from South America. Tomatoes in February not ripe? We’ll make due. Cheese was melted and grated and eaten with wild abandon. We were in complete denial.

I like to think we’ve come a long way since then, but as I watched the wild fires recently ravage Australia, California, and even Lebanon last October, homes lost, animals killed, livelihoods ended, I thought to myself that something needs to change in our attitude to what is plainly a planet in crisis. “I want you to act as if your house is on fire,” the young heroine Greta Thurnberg implores, “because it is.” And as individuals I think we often believe that we can’t make a difference, but change starts with each and everyone one of us.

Plant based eating is the buzzword of the wellness community today…and with good reason. There are a myriad of reasons to focus on a diet comprised mostly of legumes, grains, and vegetables, ranging from our personal health, to the planet’s health, to animal welfare. And the traditional Lebanese kitchen is one that naturally veers in this direction, so we are blessed with a pantry already bursting with fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy grains. Get this: Simply swapping one daily portion of red or processed meat for fish, decreases your risk of early death by 17%. An option of eggs, nuts, or whole grains, decreases the risk by 8%, 19%, and 12%, respectively, according to a study by the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. So if the climate isn’t your concern, surely this might get your attention.

As a chef, it would be impossible for me to go completely vegan. It’s a diet I often flirt with the idea of, not just because of climate change, but because I’m an animal lover, and it seems like more than hypocrisy to know about the horrors of industrial animal farming while still dining out on my lamb chops, fillet, and Brie. Furthermore, I have a husband who like many men, is very tied to his meat. So I’m a bit stuck, but have come up with what I think is a responsible and achievable way to avoid career suicide and a grumpy husband.  I now cook and eat mindfully. My predicament will likely be familiar to many of you, and my solution for eating mindfully can, I hope, be a blueprint for many of you who are similarly emotionally tied to their kibbeh bil laban (With Yogurt), but want to be better to themselves and the planet.

Just to really impress my point upon you, I offer some alarming statistics. According to the Worldwatch Institute, meat and dairy production alone are responsible for 51% of annual global emissions. That’s more than all the cars, planes, buildings, power plants, and industry combined.  And just cutting back here and there will not enable the planet to reach the global emissions goals of 2050. The World Resource Institute has recommended that wealthy nations cut their beef, lamb, and dairy consumption by a whopping 40%.
 
So how can you start to make an impactful change? It means committing to only two to three meals per week that include meat, seafood, or dairy.  Try plant milks in your morning coffee, nut butters or smashed avocado with tahini on your toast. I add cooked grains (not just quinoa, please) to salads or pimp them up with the season’s veggies roasted and topped with seeds and nuts, and a beautiful bright herb sauce. Tofu seems to have a bad reputation here, but cooked properly it can be a revelation. Marinate it and cook in a hot oven until crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. Beans are plentiful here! I stew mine in water and lots of olive oil and aromatics until I have a stew that makes me feel virtuous, while also being versatile and delicious. Toss in handfuls of hearty greens, spicy oil mixtures, maybe a preserved lemon and if you must, top it with a fried egg (the soft egg yolk intermingled with the bean broth is a joy I won’t completely give up).

As an aside, I urge you to buy locally produced ingredients. Not only does this make sense with the current economic crisis in Lebanon and help a producer in need, but it’s also so much better for our planet. The Lebanese countryside offers such a bounty of fresh produce, grains, nuts. We are blessed! And by eating what grows nearby you further improve your carbon footprint, eliminating the emissions from flying your Brazilian beef or Italian baby spinach halfway from around the world.

Recipes:

The recipes below are just an example of the way that I cook when I’m being my most mindful. While the beans bubble away on the stove, I prepare the other vegetables and these are just jumping off points. Please feel free to mix and match your favorites. But this I hope, gives you some ideas, and will have you celebrating your new outlook on cooking and eating, leaving you feeling satisfied and happy, healthy and maybe a bit smug. You can easily make the elements for this dish separately on a Sunday evening for meal prep, and just put a spoonful of each element on your plate, and have a week’s worth of satisfying packed lunches. If each of us just made these small adjustments to our lives, then perhaps we could stop the planet from burning, because small conscious decisions are better than none at all.

1.Stewed White Beans

Serves 6

 Ingredients:

  • 1 kg fresh white beans, or dried soaked overnight
  • 1 head garlic, sliced in half through the equator
  • 1 red onion, cut into 6 wedges
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 1 lemon, cut in half
  • 1 red chili, cut in half
  • 1 litre of filtered water
  • 200 ml olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons salt

Instructions: 

Combine everything in a large heavy pot and bring to a simmer. Don’t allow it to boil or you will get beans that aren’t cooked in the middle but are falling apart on the outside. For the fresh beans I used, it took 45 minutes to finish, but stir and check often to the doneness you prefer.


2.Garlicky Bread Crumbs

Makes one cup


 Ingredients:

  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs, see note
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • Pinch of salt


 Instructions:

Heat oil in a sauté pan and add garlic. Cook until just browning and then add the breadcrumbs. Stir, making sure not to let them brown too quickly, and cook until golden. Remove from heat before you think they’re done and add a big pinch of salt. Set aside to cool.

Note: I take all of my ends of sourdough or bread that’s about to go bad and store it in a bag in the freezer. When I have a nice amount stored up, I blitz all of it in my food processor so I have little crumbs. Then I store them in the freezer until I need them (which is often).
 
3.Sautéed Greens

Ingredients:

  • 500g chard or kale or other hearty green, thick stems removed and leaves chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • pinch red chili flakes
  • olive oil
  • salt


Instructions:

Heat oil in sauté pan and add garlic and red chili flakes. Once the garlic is smelling lovely add the chard ribbons and toss well until wilted. Add a bit of salt.
 
4.Roasted Butternut Squash

Ingredients:

  • 1 small butternut squash, peeled and cubed
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper


Instructions:

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.  Toss together the cubes of butternut squash, a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper on a baking sheet. Put this in a hot over for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through, until golden and soft.


Now to serve, pile everything on a bowl and sprinkle with lots of garlic breadcrumbs.