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 V.15 No.26 | June 29 - July 5, 2006 

Tasteful Reads

Eat your conscience

Jay Weinstein’s The Ethical Gourmet

I like cheap food. I like food that is riddled with preservatives, easy on the pocketbook and, more often than not, microwavable. Nasty, salty, overly sweetened in convenient boxes with just a hint of frost on the outside; that's what you'll find in my fridge on a bad week. Sometimes I get the healthy urge and go for the low-fat frozen meals or tell the guy at Subway to go easy on the mayo.

Hanging in the back of my mind has always been the vague notion that this food is not only hard on my body, but hard on the world as well. I know the food the average American consumes is not grown, gathered or paid for in a socially responsible way, the same way I understand that meaty, gummy chicken nuggets start out as things with feathers, eyes, feet and digestive systems of their own. But ethical food is expensive and hard to find, I complain.

I haven’t had a clue about where to begin--until now. A tiny Jay Weinstein has sauntered up to my lips and knocked vigorously on my two front teeth. He's here with his book The Ethical Gourmet, a look at how to eat responsibly in a fast-food, Wal-Mart landscape riddled with pitfalls. He's here to tell us to put our dollars where our mouths are, to vote for smart environmental policy, health standards and the better treatment of workers worldwide with our food choices.

Reading The Ethical Gourmet is a commitment in itself. Part guide, part news source, part political commentary and, of course, part cookbook, it's cleanly written, but of its 353 pages, there are only 100 recipes.

“The Politics of Food” segment is an analysis of the how governmental policy is closely linked to the quality and price of food in America, with a look at McDonald's, Fair Trade Coffee, bottled water, sugar and how much water is used to farm and ranch. (For instance, 50 times as much water goes into producing a kilo of beef than to grow the same amount of soy or rice.)

Weinstein isn't fool enough to tell American readers to give up meat altogether, though. He just suggests that meat should not be the focal point of every meal. That's in step with what many health experts recommend: meat as a sideshow, not a main act. In line with this thinking, Weinstein includes a variety of legume- and bean-focused dishes.

If you're a slacker in the kitchen like me, complicated cooking instructions try your patience. Many of these recipes seemed straightforward enough. The “Mini Lentil-Scallion Pancakes with Cumin Cream” require making a batter and then frying it in olive oil. The “Chickpea Dip” is food processor material. The “Coconut Rice” calls for simmering for 20 minutes. Weinstein handily includes websites where organic ingredients can be found with most recipes.

What's the matter? Chickpeas and lentils don't do it for you the way, say, steak does? Weinstein's got you covered with a handful of gourmet meat dishes (to the tune of beef, pork, poultry, game and seafood--even lamb). Selection is what makes the ethical difference here. Watch out for synthetic or unwieldy amounts of hormones, which you can avoid by buying organic. Ever wondered what the deal is with “natural” meat? The natural stamp means a product doesn't have artificial ingredients or added color, but it does not mean hormones and antibiotics haven't been part of raising your food.

Now, being somewhat of a gourmet cookbook, Weinstein lists ingredients a Hot Pocket eater such as myself has never heard of. Champagne vinegar? Isn't that a band? It's not everyday food, unless you're of the rare breed that consumes sturgeon caviar regularly.

Outside of the informative and relevant commentary on how our food industry works and how I might do my part to chow down on meals in good conscience, I might not cook anything out of this book beyond the occasional bean dip. The most valuable portion, by far, is in the back. The “Sources” entry includes lists of websites and stores broken down by food for easy, quick access to ethical grocers and products.

The Ethical Gourmet is aimed at folks with a broad palate and considerable chef skills. I have visions of a book that would reach a much bigger audience, The Ethical Nongourmet: World-conscious Food for Impatient Folks with Little Time and Money Who Can't Cook Very Well. That book would be coated with flour and egg and living a secure life on my kitchen counter.

Mini Lentil-Scallion Pancakes with Cumin Cream

Ingredients:

1 cup brown lentils, cooked until soft but not broken
3 scallions, chopped fine
1 tablespoon curry powder, toasted in a dry pan until fragrant
Pinch of cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or flat-leaf parsley
1 large egg, beaten
1 tablespoon milk or water
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted briefly in a dry pan and then ground, or 2 teaspoons ground cumin, toasted in a dry pan until fragrant
Instructions:

1. Gently combine the lentils, scallions, curry cayenne, salt and cilantro in a mixing bowl. Mix in the beaten egg and milk with your hands, then dust with enough flour to form a cohesive batter.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet until hot, but not smoking. A bit of the batter should sizzle when placed in the oil. Drop teaspoonfuls of batter into the pan; flatten them and shape them into round cakes with the back of the spoon. Some lentils may fall away, but the cakes will stick together once they're cooked. Leave at least 1 inch of space between cakes. Fry 2 to 3 minutes per side, until lightly browned and crisp. Drain on paper towels.

3. Whisk together the sour cream and cumin. Arrange the lentil cakes on a serving platter and top each with a dollop of cumin cream.

Cardamom-scented Grass-fed Rib Steak with Herb Vinaigrette

Ingredients:

4 cardamom pods, crushed
4 garlic cloves, lightly crushed
2 bay leaves
2 star anise, crushed, or 1/2 teaspoon anise seeds
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/4 cup white wine
1 tablespoon honey or molasses
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 one-pound rib-eye steak from grass-fed or pasture-raised beef
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon Champagne vinegar or white wine vinegar
1/4 cup chopped tender fresh herbs, such as chives, flat-leaf parsley, chervil and/or tarragon
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Instructions:

1. Combine the cardamom, garlic, bay leaves, star anise, vinegar, wine, honey and soy sauce. Stir until the honey is dissolved. Place the beef in an airtight bag or container with the marinade. Marinate for 8 hours, turning once.

2. Scrape the marinade from the beef; pat meat dry. Discard marinade. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a skillet over medium-low heat for 30 seconds, until hot but not simmering. Place the beef in the center of the pan. Cook for 10 minutes without disturbing. Turn; cook 5 minutes more. Transfer the meat to a board to let it rest for 5 minutes.

3. Whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, the Champagne vinegar and herbs. Season with salt and pepper. Slice the beef thinly, and serve dressed with the vinaigrette.

Chickpea Dip

Ingredients:

1 and 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas or one 14-ounce can, drained
Pinch crushed red pepper
2 tablespoons sour cream
1 scallion, chopped fine
1 tablespoon chopped roasted red bell pepper (bottled peppers are fine)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Instructions:

1. In a food processor, combine the chickpeas, red pepper, sour cream, scallion, roasted pepper, cumin, vinegar and garlic. Pulse until smooth.

2. Fold in the chopped cilantro with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Season liberally with salt and black pepper. Serve with warm breads or tortillas.
 
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