(MY RETREAT FROM THE WESTERN DIET)
Salad Pizza with Chickpea Crust, Cashew Spinach Pesto and Mozzarella
It happens without fail. After a new acquaintance discovers my passion for food, invariably the next question is: "So, what's your favorite restaurant?" My current 'go to' answer is the one James Beard gave to strangers who recognized him on street: "It's the same as yours!" he'd reply, "The one that loves me the most."
James Beard's enormous girth bore testimony to his love affair with what we've come to call The Western Diet. The right to eat one's fill has always been implicit in The American Dream. Our immigrant forefathers found food here was inexpensive and plentiful. They fed their families a daily diet of meat and dairy protein. Americans had yet to become as sedentary as they are today. We had not become addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in fast food, packaged snacks and soft drinks.
Pappardelle Pasta with Cannellini Beans, Cherry Tomatoes and Spinach
Those of us who have grown up eating The Western Diet now find ourselves battling high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes and cancer before we reach retirement. But how many of us have voluntarily replaced the food that is shortening our life with healthier proteins from plants? Not I, for one.
I chose to modify my eating habits only recently as an alternative to taking medication. My daily dilemma of making healthier food choices feels analogous to England's fumbling attempts to leave the European Union. My Wexit, as I call it, aims to dramatically reduce animal-based protein in my diet and replace it with beans, grains and green vegetables. To paraphrase James Beard, will this new cuisine love and comfort me or will I feel exiled from my culinary world?
My first step toward healthier eating is an embrace of the The Mediterranean Diet with its reliance on olive oil along with more fruits and vegetables. The next step is adding a foreign high protein plant - quinoa from Peru, cranberry beans from Columbia, jasmine rice from Thailand - to a pasta or vegetable dish that I've made before. Finally, swapping out meat for a plant protein creates an entirely new kind of culinary experience. This transition will take more time than the other two.
The good news is that cooking plants takes less time than preparing a meat dish. There's more knife work involved for cooks who enjoy working with their hands. I do rely on organic canned beans when they are background ingredients and on frozen vegetables when the fresh version is out of season. Vegetarian dishes are usually a vivid green or a multicolored mixture that are more pleasing to the eye than the traditional separated mounds of meat, potatoes and vegetable. I find it satisfying to eat these meals slowly, savoring the interplay of flavors and textures. Here's a Wexit confession: I'm curious to taste Burger King's vegetarian Impossible Burger when it enters the Chicago market. I think James Beard would approve.