North Fork Chef: A new year inspires food for thought

After reading Jane Starwood’s excellent article about plant-based nutrition in the Times/Review Health & Fitness section (Jan. 6), I was at first shaken and then reflective about my knowledge of nutrition. As a chef and teacher over a long career in food service, I have always tried to balance healthy eating with the immense pleasure derived from fine dining. I felt that fresh, seasonal ingredients, cooked from scratch at the last minute, would lead to a healthy diet. I have also felt that processed food, fast food, dietary supplements and fad diets were not the way to improve your well-being.

Jane discussed “The China Study,” a book written by Cornell professor T. Colin Campbell and his son. Campbell argues that a whole-foods, plant-based diet can prevent cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and many more “diseases of affluence” — in addition to providing a happier lifestyle. Can this be true? And if so, should I turn away from a lifetime of enjoying thick steaks, crisp duck, succulent oysters and rich ice cream?

Before overturning my world, I thought that I would review some nutritional advice from the past:

Fannie Farmer, Boston Cooking School, 1896: “The working man needs quantity as well as quality, that the stomach may have something to act upon — corned beef, cabbage, brown bread and pastry. Women require less food than men … brain workers should take their proteid in a form easily digested … fish and eggs form desirable substitutes for meat. The daily average ration for an adult requires 3 1/2 oz. proteid; 10 oz. starch; 3 oz. fat; 1 oz. salt; and 5 pints of water.”

USDA Daily Food Guide, 1956: The Basic Four Food Groups, which include 1) meats, poultry, fish, dry beans and peas, eggs and nuts; 2) dairy, including milk, cheese and yogurt; 3) grains; 4) fruits and vegetables. This basic-four group lasted until 1992, when the Food Guide Pyramid was developed. The pyramid had vegetables, fruits and whole grains at the bottom, indicating that large amounts could be consumed daily with lesser amounts recommended for fish, poultry and eggs. As you reach the top it’s recommended that you use sparingly red meat, butter, refined grains and sweets. Dairy is just below with 1 to 2 servings per day.

Frances Moore Lappe, ‘Diet for a Small Planet,’ 1971: In this explosive book the author says that “the amount of humanly edible protein fed to American livestock and not returned for human consumption approached the whole world’s protein deficit!” She went on to say that it takes 16 pounds of grain to make one pound of edible beef. It is not only healthier to eat vegetables, but much more sustainable.

Harold McGee, ‘On Food and Cooking,’ 1984: “It seems likely that we are conditioned nutritionally in our early years, that within limits we can adapt to the food supplies that are available to us. Nutrition by the numbers is no guarantee of the good life, and probably precludes it by overriding the calls of appetite and pleasure.”

Michael Pollan, ‘Omnivore’s Dilemma,’ 2006: What to have for dinner when you can have just about anything nature has to offer? The three principal food chains identified by Pollan are the Industrial, the Organic and the Hunter/Gatherer. Pollan decries the industrialization of our food supplies, including the handling of corn, soybean and meat production. He feels that it is inhumane, unhealthy and not economically sustainable. He likes the “good farm” that grows crops organically and raises livestock in a natural, humane manner. “Half the dogs in America will receive Christmas presents this year, yet few of us ever pause to consider the life of the pig — an animal easily as intelligent as a dog — that becomes the Christmas ham.”

T. Colin Campbell, “The China Study, 2006: “I propose to do nothing less than redefine what we think of as good nutrition. The provocative results of my four decades of biomedical research, including the findings from a twenty-seven-year laboratory program prove that eating right can save your life.” To Campbell, eating right means eliminating meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products from your diet and replacing them with a whole-foods, plant-based diet.

For this chef, giving up more than 60 years of eating what I like will not be easy, but I also realize that our world is changing and will require further adaptation from the most versatile of creatures: us. Here are a few recipes that would meet Campbell’s criteria — and could save your life.

Vegetable Paella
Cook 1 cup brown rice in 2 cups vegetable broth until liquid is just absorbed, about 15 minutes, and set aside.
Heat a large sauté pan and add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When oil is shimmering, add 1 cup chopped onion and 1/2 cup chopped scallion. Cook briefly and add half of a green pepper and half of a red pepper, diced. Stir in 1 tablespoon minced garlic and 1 cup diced fresh tomato. Add the partially cooked rice along with 1 cup vegetable broth, 1 package frozen artichoke hearts, 1 package frozen peas, 1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives, and 1/4 cup shelled pistachio nuts. Season with 1 bay leaf, 1 teaspoon turmeric, 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Cover and simmer until rice is just tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in 1/4 cup chopped parsley and serve.
Serves 4.

Lentil Stew
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven. Add 1 cup chopped onion, 1 cup diced celery and 1 cup diced carrots. Cook for 5 minutes and add 1 tablespoon minced garlic and 2 cups rinsed lentils. Stir in 2 cups diced potatoes and add 1 quart vegetable broth along with 2 bay leaves, 1 teaspoon oregano, 1/4 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer until the lentils and potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.
Just before service, add 4 cups kale, cut into bite-sized pieces, and the juice and zest from 1 lemon. Simmer another 5 minutes and serve.
Serves 4.

Black Bean Soup
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan. Add 1 cup chopped onion, 1/2 cup diced celery, 1/2 cup diced carrot, 1/2 cup diced red pepper and 1/2 cup diced green pepper. Cook at medium heat for 10 minutes and season with 1 tablespoon minced garlic, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon chili powder and 1 teaspoon oregano. Add 2 cans (15 ounces each) drained and rinsed black beans and 1 can (15 ounces) chopped tomatoes. Add 3 cups vegetable broth, 1 tablespoon coarse salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Simmer for 20 minutes and garnish with minced scallion.
Serves 4.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. E-mail: [email protected]