Less Meat, More Plants: One Home Cook’s Journey

By Kathryn Matthews

Winter Vegetable Pot Pie; haricot verts and wild rice

Here’s the wonderful thing about my recent, albeit way-too-short, visit to Pittsburgh…good as the burgeoning, local-minded restaurant scene is here (and which I highlighted earlier this year in my NYT article), I didn’t have to set foot in a single restaurant to enjoy locally sourced, healthfully prepared, delicious food.  My mother’s awesome cooking held us captive, of course.

And my longtime friends, Dan and Doug, surprised—and honored—us with a beautiful, home-cooked dinner the day before we headed back to NYC.

Doug, an IT executive, has always been passionate about food and cooking.

Over the last few years, however, Doug has shifted to a more vegetarian and locally sourced diet.  Why?  His health was a strong, motivating force. 

Four years ago, without warning, Doug began experiencing intense pain and tingling sensations throughout his body.  The onset of pain was random; its intensity varied.  He was in his early 30s: what could this be? Visits to dozens of doctors followed; each had a different diagnosis—and a different drug to prescribe. One doctor seemed certain that Doug had fibromyalgia—yet none of the medications prescribed helped alleviate Doug’s symptoms.

Tired of doctors’ uncertain diagnoses (yet ready prescriptions), Doug took a proactive approach to his health; he overhauled his diet. Other reasons also inspired him to eat less meat, more plants.  Among them: a desire to support local farmers; concerns about environmental sustainability; and awareness of the squalor and cruelty that animals on factory farms endure, thanks to authors Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Gene Baur (Farm Sanctuary).

Doug has since become an avid local food shopper: he frequents Pittsburgh’s farmers’ markets and the East End co-op in Point Breeze. And while Doug still eats meat, on occasion, it will be locally raised, organic, or both.

Today, his symptoms are less intense and frequent than they were at first onset.  Doug can’t say—with 100% scientific certainty—that this is because he changed his diet.  What he can say, for sure, however: “I know that my diet gives me a certain psychic peace…the way I eat now is better for the planet and better for my health than a heavy, meat-based diet.”

His partner Dan is an old friend of mine.  He’s never claimed to be a foodie, but he is the lucky recipient of Doug’s epicurean ministrations.  The Dan that I knew in college got through midterm all-nighters with a large bottle (or two) of diet Pepsi at his side and Roy Rogers “roast beef” sandwiches.  Once he began donning a suit and tie, “cooking” at home  meant pouring milk into a bowl of cereal. But that was before Doug.  These days, he’s eating more than his fair share of greenery—Swiss chard, kale, arugula—and local meats.  (And I daresay enjoying it more than he’ll admit!). He wears it well. Not only is he fit, his skin glows—no wrinkles, no lines.

As for our dinner…

After we sipped our French 75s and nibbled on manchego cheese topped with cubes of quince paste, we sat down to a lovely meal of:

♥  Local artisan bread from Mediterra Bakehouse + Kerrygold Irish butter

♥  Wild arugula with toasted pecans, dried figs and goat cheese in a port wine and fig vinaigrette

♥  Winter vegetable pot pie

Doug adapted Deborah Madison’s original pot pie recipe (from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone; see below), swapping out phyllo for a homemade crust.  Encased in a delicious whole wheat crust, this savory medley of root vegetables—parsnips, celery root, butternut squash, turnips, carrots and pearl onions bound with an herb béchamel sauce, all locally sourced, of course, was both warming and filling.

♥  Haricot verts

♥  Wild rice

Local Macintosh apple crisp with homemade Armagnac ice cream

♥  Local Macintosh apple crisp with homemade Armagnac ice cream

The Barefoot Contessa served as inspiration for dessert….the Contessa tends to have a heavy hand with butter, salt and sugar. Doug’s crisp, on the other hand, was warm, apple-dense and not-too-sweet, a delicious contrast to the silky mouthfeel of the Armagnac-infused ice cream.

ps: Doug made the ice cream, Philadelphia-style, using only organic cream and sugar (no eggs).

♥  Espresso: Doug served mine black crowned with a frothy swirl; I never would have guessed this was “decaffeinated”.

Now, that’s a home-cooked meal.  Served with love.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Winter Vegetable Pot Pie (Original Recipe)

From “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” by Deborah Madison (Broadway, 1997)

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed

2 cups herb bechamel

1-1/2 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

Flour for dredging

2 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

16 shallots or boiling onions, peeled and left whole

1 small celery root (celeraic)

Juice of 1 lemon

3 parsnips, peeled and diced

2 kohlrabi or turnips, peeled and cut into wedges

 5 medium carrots, cut into 2-inch lengths

Salt and freshly milled pepper

4 thyme sprigs

1/2 cup cream or milk

1 egg, beaten

Choose a 2-quart souffle or gratin dish.  Roll out the pastry between 1/8 and 1/4 inch thick.  Cut to fit dish.  Cut out leaves or other decorative shapes from the scraps.  Refrigerate pastry, until needed.  Have the bechamel cooking in a double broiler while you prepare the vegetables.

Toss the squash in flour, letting the excess fall away.  Heat the oil and butter in a large skillet and add the squash and shallots.  Saute over medium heat until browned and tender, 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so that they color evenly.  Transfer to a baking dish.

Peel the celeraic, dice itno 1-inch cubes, and put them in a bowl with the juice plus water to cover. Parboil the remaining vegetables in salted water until tender but still  a little firm.  Drain, then parboil the celery root for 1 minute.  Combine all the vegetables, season with salt and pepper and transfer the stew to the dish.  Tuck in the thyme sprigs.

Mix the bechamel and cream and pour it over the vegetables, allowing the sauce to fall between the cracks.  Refrigerate if baking later, the bring to room temperature before baking.

Preheat the oven to 425°F.  Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and lay it on top of the vegetables.  Brush the top with egg, add any decorations and glaze them too.  Bake for 12 minutes, then lower the heat to 350°F and continue baking until the crust is golden and puffed and the sauce is bubbling, 15-20 minutes more.

Let settle for a few minutes and serve.

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