23 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Some Easy Recipes

My friend Karen asked for some help going vegan. This post is #2 in a series.

First off, if you're making drastic changes (or even not so drastic) to your diet, take it slow. Learn one new recipe a week and then slot it into your rotation. My favorite cookbooks are The Joy of Cooking (yes, really) and Laurel's Kitchen. Neither is a vegan cookbook, but both are very well written and go into depth about foods and cooking techniques. Laurel's Kitchen also includes a very handy food guide with information about nutrient contents of individual ingredients as well as their recipes; I wish the editors would update the book.

But I almost never cook from recipes; I read cookbooks for ideas and then add things into my own repertoire. I try to shop local, so I cook with what's on hand rather than shopping to prepare a particular recipe, and I have a few dishes in my head that take wide variation. Here are a few of my basics:

Creamy cauliflower soup

Wash and cut up a whole cauliflower. If if came with leaves, include them, but chop them into little pieces. Cook in a couple of inches of water until it's soft. Add soy milk, a tablespoon or so of tahini, and some salt (or a vegan boullion cube, if you're so inclined). Puree, but leave some texture. A stick blender makes this easy but it can also be pureed in a regular blender or a food processor. For safety, let it cool a bit first -- enough so it's not hot enough to burn -- and then reheat.

This also works well with broccoli, asparagus, or leeks and potatoes. For the latter, I saute onions and the chopped leeks for 15 minutes, then add cubed potatoes, cover with water, and boil until soft.

Lentil stew

Chop an onion, some garlic, and some celery (with leaves) and saute in a couple of tablespoons of oil of your choice. I like olive oil, which means you have to keep the heat relatively low and be patient. Once they're golden and maybe a little brown, add dried basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and some curry, with a little water so it doesn't stick, and stir in with the vegetables for a couple of minutes.

Add red split lentils (rinsed first) and some chopped greens (spinach, kale, collards...), cover with water, bring to a boil and then simmer until the lentils have fallen apart: 15 or 20 minutes. Keep an eye on them, and keep adding water as they absorb what's already in with them. Once they've disintegrated, add a package of crushed tomatoes and bring back to a boil (just) stirring constantly. Salt/pepper to taste.

You can substitute green lentils, navy beans, cannellini, black beans, or split peas, though they all take a lot longer to cook. Speed cooking time by rinsing them and putting them in a pot and bringing them to a boil and then letting them sit overnight; cook separately from the other ingredients. With split peas, leave out the tomatoes. For variety, add one or more root vegetables, or include more than one kind of bean. Black beans and chick peas or navy beans and kidneys are nice combinations.

These stews also work with canned beans. And you can boost the spices and serve over rice or quinoa or steamed potatoes.

Today, I used black beans, grated carrots, and a few tomatoes that needed eating, and then pureed the results with a stick blender.

Stir fry

This one also starts with onions, celery, and garlic, though I leave the pieces a lot bigger than for stew. It might have potatoes and eggplant or broccoli and snap peas and green beans or cauliflower and bell peppers and tomatoes, or any variety of other vegetables in combination. It might be flavored with green curry and some coconut milk, or indian curry and a little soy sauce, or soy sauce and chili peppers and green onions sliced in right before serving. I made a very inauthentic red coconut curry stirfry with beets and cannellini once. I might eat it over rice, noodles, or potatoes.


A salad spinner is super helpful for vegetarian cooking, not only for salad, but also for washing all those greens. Rip up some salad, wash and spin. Slice, shred or grate whatever other vegetables you have on hand -- cucumbers, carrots, beets, baby spinach. If you're so inclined, you can also add some cut up fruit. If you want to make it a meal, add cannellini, chick peas, hummus, or cubed tofu.  Dressing can be plain olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepp er.  Add vegan mayonnaise to make it creamy, or use honey and mustard.

The Bottom Line:

The agriculture industry has persuaded us that cooking is hard, maybe with some help from The New York Times Cookbook and Iron Chef. It's not. Learn to cook from scratch, with recipes in your head that you can modify based on what's around. Keep your kitchen stocked with basics -- a few cans of different kinds of beans, a couple kinds of dry beans, rice and pasta, and whatever dried herbs and spices you like. In the fridge, root vegetables and onions and celery last quite a while. If you can only shop once a week, cook the greens right away -- they keep well in the fridge for a few days, or you can freeze them to add to soups.

08 May 2015

Want to Go Vegan? Eating In Restaurants

A friend asked for advice on going vegan. So this is the first of a series of posts in an attempt to answer some of her questions.

Eating vegan in restaurants can be a challenge. When I can choose the restaurant, I'm good to go; Indian restaurants almost always have good vegan options, and Chinese and Japanese restaurants also usually do.

At diners and diner-like restaurants, I usually do pretty well off the list of side orders, combining a couple of vegetables with some baked beans and a salad, for instance.

But sometimes you get stuck with a plate of wilted lettuce and tasteless tomatoes with salt and pepper out of little paper packets. Maybe some bread or home fries, if you're lucky. Then what?

If you know it's coming, you can plan ahead. I often carry a bag of almonds or cashews, as they make great vegan snacks and are also good to supplement an inadequate meal. If it comes as a surprise, I drink a lot of water and then go in search of more food. Even vending machines and gas stations will almost always have something vegan -- potato chips, pretzels, peanuts.

It gets easier. Around home, I've learned which restaurants have at least one item on the menu that I'm happy to eat, as well as a few with enough great options I actually re-read the menu each time I eat there.

If fast food is the only option, Wendy's salad bar can work; Taco Bell will sell you a tacos or a burritos with just beans and vegetables, and if you add enough of their tiny packets of sauce, they're not bad.

And I try not to be too hard on myself. The tofu and the chicken wings get deep-fried in the same oil, and the Vietnamese soup might contain fish sauce or chicken broth, but I try not to make myself crazy, particularly when traveling.

Hiking in the Dolomites and staying in mountain huts a couple of summers ago, I was getting really low on protein; day after day, I was eating polenta or potatoes and not much else, after I ran out of nuts and dried fruit. I was going to have to quit hiking or eat meat. so I chose the meat. I had to retreat to a corner of the bunk room and choke it down without anyone watching, and it still grosses me out to think about it, but boy was I strong the next day.

I try to learn from mistakes: When I went to the Lake District for a hostel-to-hostel hike a few weeks ago, I brought along a huge bag of TVP: dried soy chunks to reconstitute with water. Much lighter than nuts, so pound for pound, it goes much farther, and thus lasts much longer.

But also, I try not to beat myself up over the lapses. I'm never going to be perfect, so I just do my best and keep on moving.

19 April 2015

Second Shepherds' Play, Video Adaptation

I teach medieval drama in various contexts -- in lower-level survey courses, upper-level and graduate courses in medieval literature, and in courses on environment and literature. I've been trying for years to get The Mate (known to some of you as Doug Morse) to make a movie version of The Second Shepherds' Play: short enough to show in a class meeting and still get discussion time, and it's funny -- or should be, if played right.

Last year, he finally agreed. I applied for and got a small grant from my university to help pay the production costs, but it won't cover the full cost. So he's put the project on Kickstarter so that people can pre-purchase the film to raise additional funds for equipment and costume rentals, location fees, and to feed cast and crew for the six days of shooting.

Doug and I had arguments about whether the play should be shot in the original Middle English or in modernized form. In the end, we settled on a version using the language of the Towneley manuscript -- all the archaic vocabulary -- but pronounced in contemporary British dialects.

There will be a sheep, a live sheep, in the scene where Mak and Gil dress a sheep up as a baby.
Kenny wouldn't take milk from his mother and had to be brought indoors, where the family hand-fed him. He gets his name -- or maybe her name; apparently it's hard to tell with new lambs -- from the Kenmore Microwave box in which he spent his first few days.

Costumes will be period. The film will be shot on fields outside Cambridge that haven't changed much since sheep first grazed on them. Songs included in the play will be performed using medieval tunes.

Kickstarter is a fundraising platform that allows people to pre-buy a product in development, thus providing the cash for people to make a project rather than going into debt to get started. Doug just finished making a movie about board-game designers that was funded through Kickstarter. He's also completed adaptations of Everyman, The Merchant of Venice, and The Jew of Malta, all available from Films for the Humanities, where they're priced for library or departmental acquisition.

With this movie, he's trying to make it easier for individuals to buy a copy for classroom use. For $20, you can pre-buy a digital download of the video adaptation of The Second Shepherds' Play, and for $35 you get a DVD that also includes a copy of Everyman. He's also planning a documentary about contemporary shepherds on the farm where the video will be shot; that will be included with either the digital download or the DVD copy.

Previews of Everyman and Doug's other Renaissance adaptations are available on his website, Grandfather Films. Click here for more information about The Second Shepherds' Play and the accompanying documentary, or for advance purchase details.

Questions? gimme a holler.

15 April 2015

Google Maps and the Default Car

I use Google Maps pretty regularly to look for good routes for running* and biking, and to clock distances afterward. 
So I just sent them this message:
Every time I open Google Maps to get directions or track a run or a bike ride, the car automatically comes up as the automatic option; mass transit is second, walking third, and bicycle hidden behind an ellipsis. 
I am writing to suggest that you allow users to choose a preferred mode of transit so as not to have to reset this every time we use the program, or rewrite the program so that it will save the previous transportation mode automatically, rather than always defaulting to "car. 
Thank you for your consideration.
It took a long time to find a place I could send a message. Apparently, Google doesn't have a corporate email address, or if they do, it's well hidden. I got directed first to FAQs and then to a Help forum, but eventually found out how to send feedback on the map.

The comment form warns that users should not expect a reply. But I wonder if they'll give the issue any attention.


*No, I'm not back to running yet. I've been swimming, which feels great, and biking, which is okay as long as I don't have to put my feet down. When I can walk without limping, I'll give it a try. Marathon or half marathon on May 4? I don't think so. But there will be another.

14 April 2015

Drifting toward Vegan

It took me a long time, many years, to become fully vegan, and I still cheat for good butter. And I eat honey and I wear leather shoes.

I started on the journey after reading Diet For A Small Planet -- my mother had a copy kicking around -- and was completely appalled that they were razing forests in Argentina to grow beef for McDonald's hamburgers.

I quit eating meat, though I still ate cheese and eggs. Once every few months I'd got out for a hamburger with everything, and for a while I continued eating fish at family gatherings. It was probably years before I gave that up. And I only stopped eating eggs because I figured out they were giving me a rash, and cheese because it didn't agree with me either.

Unfortunately, "sustainably" grown beef actually isn't, despite industry claims to the contrary: it still requires large quantities of water as well as grazing acreage that can feed only a fraction of the planetary population. Grazing cows still fart methane. It's more humane for the cows, and if the cows aren't fed hormones and antibiotics, it is healthier -- but it's not sustainable for everyone to continue eating current first-world quantities of meat.

And the amount of meat we eat today is historically unprecedented: here's a graph from the World Cancer Research Fund, which wants you to cut back on eating meat because it's statistically linked with more cases of cancer. Correlation isn't causation, of course, but the data keep piling up

Chicken and eggs, by the way, require a lot less in the way of resources than red meat. Fish is pretty problematic given the violence to ocean environments of industrial-scale fishing operations.

Changing to a more sustainable diet doesn't have to be all-or-nothing. When I was a kid growing up in northern New Hampshire, billboards everywhere proclaimed, "Wednesday is Prince Spaghetti Day." These days, many families aim for Meatless Mondays or Vegan Wednesdays (or "Vednesdays," if you like your alliteration). Some families go vegetarian during the week but not on weekends. We cook vegetarian and vegan meals at home, but one member of the family chooses to eat meat at restaurants.

You can make a great vegan sauce for spaghetti or lasange by replacing the meat with chick peas, navy beans, tempeh, or bits of fried tofu. If you add a little parmesan for flavor, that's still healthier for you AND the planet than feeding half a pound of ground beef to everyone at the table.

If you want to drift toward vegetarian or even vegan, it doesn't have to mean a commitment to self-deprived asceticism. You can start by adding one recipe to your repertoire. A couple of weeks later, try out another. Make sure you find foods you LIKE. Instead of thinking in terms of cutting out meat, think in terms of adding vegetarian or vegan meals, or parts of meals, to the rotation, and spacing out meat-heavy meals. Maybe you'll continue to change over time; maybe you'll find a point where you're comfortable.

But the data are clear: reducing meat consumption, and in particular beef and dairy products, is the most efficient way to reduce your own carbon and water footprint. Eliminating beef from your diet would have more impact than giving up your car.

12 April 2015

The Magazine That Made My Brain Explode

I flew on a plane the other day. I know, I know; I should have taken a train or other ground transport. It was a short-haul flight -- an hour and a half over the mountains from Luton to Basel, with a train journey on one end and a bus on the other, and took nine hours from end to end. We could have taken the train in thirteen hours, but something about the ways train and plane travel are subsidized (or not) meant that the cost would have been several times higher. Multiply that by three travellers, and it's tough to take the environmental option.

At any rate, in the airport, waiting for the delayed flight, I found a fashion magazine lying around, and leafed through it with a curiosity drifting between anthropological and outraged. An actress was photographed in a dress that took 27 people 900-plus hours to make.

I haven't been able to find out where the 80,000 sequins were sewn on the dress, and what the seamstresses made per hour. Or how much a dress like that costs. Or how much Karl Lagerfeld, who designed the dress, makes, though The Google throws back numbers between $108 million and $58 billion.

You could do a heck of a lot of good with the money that flows into high fashion. What if you shaved off the top and bottom ends? What would it take to get rid of the fast fashion that underpaid Bangladeshi seamstresses churn out in death-trap factories, and simultaneously to get Oscar winners to show up in dresses costing, say, a maximum of $500? Who really needs shoes that cost $500? Or $10,000?

The other thing that made me nuts about the fashion magazines: it appears that white is the color of the season. What's wrong with white? It looks nice and crisp, it's cool on a hot summer day.

But you know what I've noticed? My black t-shirts last practically forever. Other dark colors, same story. It takes years and years of regular wear before they get stained or faded or holy. But white clothes? one fumbled glass of wine or coffee, and it's toast. Maybe you're better than I am at stain removal, or maybe you're not as clumsy as I am.

But I've just about stopped buying whites, because they just don't last. Even light colors do better.

There was nothing, NOTHING, in any of these magazines to suggest that maybe, MAYBE, the products they were implicitly -- and very explicitly -- hawking are terrible for the environment and terrible for the people who produce them.

While I'm on the subject of fashion? Making one pair of jeans, from growing the cotton to stone-washing the finished product so it looks ten years old, takes something like 10,000 liters of water. It also dumps massive amounts of toxic dyes into the environment and causing high levels of cancer and other illnesses in the communities where factories are located. Growing the cotton in the first place takes a huge amount of water as well as massive amounts of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

So what do you do, besides swallow the guilt and keep moving? Buy jeans that don't look ancient, and wear them until they do. Or buy organic cotton with natural dyes. Or products made out of hemp or bamboo, which take far less water to grow. Most importantly, save up to buy the most durable clothing you can afford, and then keep it around until it falls apart.

02 April 2015

The Kindness of Strangers

The Mate, The Offspring and I went to the Lake District for a hiking holiday earlier this week. The weather turned mean on our first hiking day, but we decided to see how far up Scafell Pike we could get before the sleet, hail, and wind made it feel too dangerous.
We saw a group of people ahead of us -- teenagers, mostly -- underdressed for the conditions. One of them fell crossing a stream. Later on, we were passed by faster hikers, and as we followed them up, realized we had followed them off the trail. We stopped, and the fog drifted, and we saw a cairn 20 yards away and found our way back to the trail.

In my hubris, I thought one of those groups was going to run into trouble.

About 200 meters from the summit we turned back... and a few hundred meters farther down the mountain, I slipped, perhaps on a patch of hail or sleet. And slid, with my foot under me, down the surface of a wet rock.


The Mate dug the first-aid kit out of my packpack and gave me Tylenol (Paracetamol) and the Ace bandage. I took his poles and tried to use them as crutches to hobble, but progress was very slow.

A group of experienced hikers caught up with us, pointed out that it would take us hours to get out that way, pointed out that The Offspring was in the early stages of hypothermia, pointed out that I was likely to fall again and get hurt worse, and offered to call Mountain Rescue. I remembered the stair-like section of the trail with rain-water cascading down it below us. I gave up. Another pair of hikers also stopped to help.

We got out our space blankets, they got out another, as well as an emergency shelter. The Offspring and I wrapped up and huddled together and ate some food. Other hikers came along and passed thermoses of hot coffee and hot cocoa into the shelter and we drank, to help warm up; we'd already finished our own thermos of hot tea.

A helicopter came, but between the fog and the rocks, it couldn't land, and eventually it landed in the valley. So The Mate made the decision to walk out with The Offspring so he could warm up; two of our helpers walked with them. Four people waited with me. For something like three hours, before the first members of the Wasdale Mountain Rescue Team reached me.

One of the doctors had seen The Mate and The Offspring near the bottom, and kindly let me know that they were almost out: a huge relief, as I was worried about them getting down safely.

The wrapped me in a massively thick "cas bag" and strapped me onto a sledge and took me down a path with lots of grassy patches that they could drag me across, but they also carried me over a river and several stiles. The efficiency with which they passed me hand to hand along a chain of people was incredible.
We reached the bottom, and somehow someone knew that the guys had hitched a ride back to the hostel and could warm up. They bundled me into an ambulance and took me to the nearest hospital.

All of the Mountain Rescue Team members are volunteers. They do not charge for getting people out.

At "A&E" (the ER), I was assigned an amazing nurse who stayed with me the entire time, making me tea and putting heated blankets over me (because after five hours immobile on the mountain, I still hadn't warmed up), wheeling my gurney to the x-ray department, chatting with me to keep my spirits up.

She tried to call the youth hostel to let The Mate know I was off the mountain, but just then got a message that he'd already called -- and was on his way with a man who was staying there for the night and offered to drive him over to pick me up.

We got back to Cambridge, and a neighbor brought  me more Paracetamol, an ice pack, AND a bouquet of beautiful flowers.
Accidents cascade. We might have gotten into really severe trouble out there if those guys hadn't stopped to help. The hiker community is an amazing group of people.

I'm allowed to start running again, carefully, in two weeks. There will be another marathon.