As America prepares to celebrate the 23rd Earth Da tomorrow, I am more hopeful about the planet's future than I have been for many moons. For me, many solutions to questions of basic ecology are found in the kitchen. Of course, it's my
natural starting place, since I am a culinary historian and food journalist; but it can be that way for anyone, since we all need to feed ourselves and our families each day.
Perhaps Vice President Al Gore put it best in "Earth in the Balance" (Plume): "Nothing links us more powerfully to the Earth -- to its rivers and soils and its seasons of plenty -- than food. It is a daily reminder of our connection to the miracle of life."
My own connection to food shifted dramatically in the mid-1980s when, in response to a health crisis, I spent eight months on a low-fat vegan diet (no dairy, eggs or meat).
I credit that vigorous regimen with restoring my health. Once my symptoms disappeared, however, I gradually returned to a more mainstream way of eating. Although the wholesome pleasures of eating grains and fresh vegetables lingered in memory, I was worn out by the time-consuming nature of preparing meals from scratch.
Discovering the pressure cooker changed all of that. I found that I could get a full-flavored lentil soup on the table in 10 minutes, and perfect brown rice out of the pot in 25. Gradually, I returned to making vegetarian meals more and more frequently.
Around the same time, I read John Robbins' "Diet for a New America" (Stillpoint). This carefully documented treatise reveals the waste of grain and the devastation of land, water and human resources that result from large-scale cattle rearing. He shows that by moving toward a plant-based diet, we can make a significant contribution to improving the environment and conserving the earth's vital resources (see accompanying box).
It didn't escape my attention that the diet Mr. Robbins advocated for the health of the planet was the same diet that had promoted my own healing.
This beautiful symmetry inspired me to write "Recipes From an ** Ecological Kitchen" (William Morrow), in which I share my enthusiasm for the delicious and sophisticated vegan dishes I have grown to love. The recipes, which feature grains, beans and vegetables, cook quickly; many of them use the wok and pressure cooker. Another great bonus of plant-based cooking is that it is high in fiber and free of cholesterol.
As time goes on and I continue cooking according to ecological )) principles, I find myself experiencing an enriched quality of life.
For example, I feel more in harmony with the seasons when I shop in farmers' markets and plan menus around just-harvested fruits and vegetables. As a result, I'm eating fresher, more flavorful food and feeling more joyful about cooking it. Even though I live in the heart of New York City, ecological cooking has enhanced my sense of connectedness with Mother Earth.
Following is a menu drawn from some of my earth-friendly recipes to help you celebrate Earth Day. Round out the meal with a loaf of whole-grain bread and some fresh fruit to accompany the cookies.
The following recipe calls for a 4-quart (or larger) pressure cooker, which turns it out in about 12 minutes. Standard stove-top instructions follow.
White bean soup with spinach
Makes 6 servings.
1 cup dried cannellini, navy or Great Northern beans, picked over, rinsed and soaked 8 hours or overnight in ample water to cover
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
1 large carrot, scrubbed and coarsely chopped
6 cups boiling water
1/4 cup tightly packed minced fresh parsley
1 1/2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
1/4 cup tightly packed minced fresh basil or 1 tablespoon dried
1 pound spinach, washed, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
sea salt, freshly ground pepper
Drain and rinse soaked beans. Drain again. Heat oil in 4-quart pressure cooker and saute onions and garlic 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in beans, celery, carrot, water (watch for sputtering oil), parsley and fennel seeds. If using dried basil, add it at this time.
Lock lid into place. Over high heat, bring to high pressure. Lower heat just enough to maintain pressure at high and cook 12 minutes. Allow pressure to come down naturally, or reduce pressure with quick-release method. Remove lid, tilting it away from you to allow any excess steam to escape. If beans are not tender, return to pressure for a few more minutes or simmer, covered, until tender.
Stir in spinach, tomato paste and fresh basil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Simmer with lid slightly ajar until spinach is tender, about 2 minutes.