thoughts on meat-eating

before i get into this post, i want to say a huge thank you to all of my new readers! i’m honored that my recent post on copenhagen and sweden was selected for wordpress’ freshly pressed page, and it’s been so wonderful to get new perspectives and kind words from photographers, travelers, and foodies alike. (and if you don’t know what i’m talking about, check out this hilarious blog post for more insight.)

the past few weeks have been absolutely beautiful here in budapest, and as steve and i have traveled through sweden, copenhagen, and dublin, i’ve continued to wrestle with the plant-based diet and its ramifications for my daily life. since my puppy is living with my parents in the states and my current projects have wrapped up, i have a lot of free time to wander the city, snap photos with my camera, and think about food.

it’s so fascinating to me that as americans, we are absolutely obsessed with our looks and weight, yet our food and lifestyle choices rarely reflect that – fast food chains and doughnut shops on every corner, grocery stores filled with instant foods and preservative-filled snacks, and public transportation that stops every 100 yards so that no one has to walk more than a few steps to get where they’re going. but the foodies in america and around the world are getting louder, whether they’re champions of vegetarian and vegan diets or are instead pushing the paleo/caveman diet, and they’re all saying the same thing: we need to pay more attention to what we’re putting into our bodies.

having just completed a masters of liberal arts in gastronomy, i can honestly say that i’ve spent some serious time thinking about what i eat, where it comes from, and how my eating patterns affect the planet. i even took an entire course devoted to meat with the wonderful warren belasco, and obsessed over the ethics of eating meat for an entire semester.

the arguments for and against meat-eating are complex and involved, and there are enough well-written and exhaustively researched works out there that i won’t bother recreating them here. i’m not going to try to explain how i feel about every issue – i find the subject incredibly draining, particularly after so many conversations in class about the issues. it’s a topic that everyone has an opinion about, and is one that brings out strong emotions in just about everybody. after all, everyone eats, and everyone likes to talk about food. it isn’t just the nerdy foodies or the gastronomy professors or the celebrity chefs or the smarmy nutritionists – we all love food, and we all want to believe that the way we’ve chosen to eat is the best.

well, i’ll admit it here and now: the way i eat is probably not the best, in spite of my expensive gastronomic education. i love to eat, and cook, and bake, and talk about food. i love to write about food, and i love to photograph food. i love to know where my food comes from, whether it’s a raw vegetable or a pre-assembled cookie dough. but i’m not rich, and i don’t always have unlimited time to prepare my food. i can’t always afford to buy all of my produce from the farmer’s market, especially when it’s only once a week – sometimes i’m cooking and realize i’m out of garlic, and i cheat and just run to the stop & shop because it’s half a mile from my house. and not every restaurant that i eat at serves exclusively local meats…but sometimes i still order the steak, because i’m in the mood for it.

does this make me a bad person? maybe not, but i’m not proud of it. i want to be more responsible in my eating. i want to support local farmers as much as i can afford to. and i desperately want to eat in a way that’s healthy, but still gives me all the foodie satisfaction of a delicious meal, prepared beautifully from fresh, amazing ingredients. this is not a change that i’m pretending will happen overnight – i’d rather take my time and find solutions that i can stick with.

my first goal? stop eating so much meat, especially at home. and keep an eye on how much dairy i’m really consuming.

avoiding meat and dairy in eastern europe is no easy feat. since i’m just starting my journey and am more concerned about my meat intake than my dairy intake (mostly because my “dairy intake” is really just a lifelong love affair with cheese), it’s been fun to find satisfying substitutes for the chicken and duck that are present at most hungarian meals. there certainly aren’t as many grocery shopping options here as i’ll have when i’m back in the states (boy, do i miss whole foods…), but i’ve been doing pretty well so far. and i don’t miss meat quite as much as i thought i would, which is a wonderful thing.

feeling inspired? try this refreshing, satisfying, power-food-packed lentil salad for an easy meat-free option that doesn’t feel like you’re giving anything up. lentils are fantastic for you, and this recipe (a variation on alice waters’ delicious original) showcases them beautifully. if you’re avoiding dairy, just leave out the cheese – and if you fall more on the caveman diet side of things, cold shredded chicken would be a delicious addition.

lentil salad

1 cup french green lentils (i had to use brown lentils, which are still very healthy but don’t hold their shape as well after cooking)
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar (or red or white wine vinegar, if you prefer)
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
2 small tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 medium cucumber, diced
1 scallion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
1 bell pepper, cored, seeded and diced
4 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tsp lemon juice

sort and rinse lentils. place in a large saucepan and cover with water about 3 inches, then bring to a boil. lower heat until simmering and cook until tender, 25-30 minutes. drain, then transfer to a bowl and add vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper. allow to sit for at least 5 minutes, tasting to adjust seasonings.

add tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, feta cheese, bell pepper, parsley, and lemon juice. if lentils are dry, add a bit more olive oil or a tablespoon of warm water. 

the big cook-off

well, it’s over.

last night was stressful, exhilarating, surprising, and a bit terrifying. all the planning, making schedules, researching recipes, practicing dishes on the weekends…it all culminated last night in our big, final cook-off. and while everything didn’t turn out exactly as i’d planned, it’s a real relief to have it over and done with.

the idea for this final was that it would be an educational version of chopped – we got a list of three ingredients on monday night, and on
tuesday we had to prepare a three course meal using the items. i really lucked out, because i was hoping to do ceviche and a taco, and our mystery ingredients turned out to be shrimp, raspberries and chicken – absolutely perfect for my fantasy menu. it was important to me to try and balance dishes that we’d done in class with recipes i’d prepared on my own, so that i could work in my comfort zone (namely, mexican food) but prove that i’d grown in the class. armed with empty plates, a stack of recipes and a very optimistic schedule for how to prepare my meal, i set up my knives, put on my chef coat, and took a few deep, cleansing breaths.

the kitchen was a madhouse. as soon as we got the “go” signal, everybody started running – grabbing equipment, prepping stations, trying to find the perfect set of spices. the first few minutes, i was ridiculously calm – i just stuck to my schedule, followed my recipes, and tried not to think too much. but after a little bit, my brain jumped into high gear and i had trouble focusing. it was a little scary, after all. but after three and a half hours of careful cooking, i served all three courses, with varying levels of success. i brought my camera in hopes of getting shots of each course before i served it, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. i did, however, sneak in a few shots at the end, while the judges were assessing all three courses together.

the appetizer – i prepared ceviche, using shrimp along with lots of onions, cilantro, jalapeno peppers, and of course, fresh lime juice. alongside it, i made flour tortillas for my main course, but cut some into chips and grilled them a bit longer for tostadas. i also made fresh salsa, a simple recipe of chopped tomatoes, garlic, onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice, and served it on the side in a little dish. i put a bit too much food on the plate, and my ceviche really could’ve used another 20 minutes marinating, but it came out all right.

the entree – soft tacos, stuffed with creamy chicken with spicy greens, and topped with a little more fresh salsa. i served two side dishes with this guy, mexican rice (this is not the recipe i used, but it’s similar) and a simple grilled corn salad with grilled jalapenos, chopped after grilling and sauteed quickly in oil. this came out really well – the tortillas were soft and pliable, the chicken was creamy and tender, with a kick of spice, and the side dishes had just enough heat to compliment the tacos without overwhelming them. i think that this was my best course.

and finally, the dessert – raspberry margarita granita, which was a real problem. granita is supposed to be separated crystals of ice, flavored with whatever you want and offering serious refreshment in a crunchy, cold dessert. i’d made this several times at home, fiddling with the recipe until i had it how i liked it, but it always took forever to froze. i placed a little too much confidence in our kitchen’s blast freezer, hoping that it would freeze faster…but it didn’t. i put this guy in first, around 5:40, and by 8:00 it was still completely liquid. bad news. i was stumped – the appetizer course had to go out at 8:00, the entree at 8:30, and the dessert at 9:00, which didn’t leave me a lot of time to come up with and assemble a brand new dessert. in a bit of a panic, i threw together a simple, non-alcoholic granita, blended it with some ice, and threw it in the freezer. miraculously, it was at least partially frozen by the time i had to serve it, so i tossed it in a salt-rimmed margarita glass, topped it with tequila, and brought it out to the judges. not my best work, but better than not serving a dessert at all…and we got to eat the boozy one in the kitchen afterwards.

i am really going to miss this class, but it’s hard not to really anticipate a break – i haven’t had time off from classes since january, since even my spring break had to have make-up classes from some of our snow days. i’m beyond exhausted. time to wander around with my camera, write more, get to some reading, and start seriously working on my thesis.

chocolate and salt

my semester is almost over, but while i’m wrapping my  last few papers and exams up, i thought i’d share one of my pieces here. the next few days will be filled with learning my way around my new camera, and then there should be plenty of photos to come…

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Chocolate is one of those simple pleasures that most people are powerless to resist. Add a pinch of salt and chocolate takes on a whole new dimension, with an unexpected fullness and captivating flavor that brings any dessert to new heights.  Continue reading