A Part-Time Vegan – Learning from Mark Bittman

Mark Bittman Food Matters
(Mark Bittman photos by: Gordon Ho)

I have a massive food crush on Mark Bittman.  I love his simplistic approach to food and his acerbic wit.  It was an episode of his show on PBS that inspired me to order the Florentine Steak during my visit to Montepulciano in Tuscany.  So the irony is not lost on me that his new book, Food Matters moved me to try Vegetarianism for a week.
As a yoga instructor, I have been surrounded by vegetarians. I love restaurants like Candle 79, Candle Café and Sacred Chow. I even dated a vegetarian briefly, but I never felt like I could give up meat.  Well, last week I went to a reading/cooking demo/book signing with Mark Bittman.  He outlined shocking figures about the source of calories our nation is consuming as a whole –12% from sweets/desserts, 8% from bread, rolls, crackers and 7% from soda alone.  He also spoke of the horrific environmental and health impacts of U.S. meat production.

In order to lower his consumption of animal products he became a ‘part-time vegan’ two years ago. As he uttered the words I gasped!  Mark Bittman, my food hero, was advocating a vegan diet of sorts?  How could this be?  I had been known to mock veganism as a socially acceptable version of anorexia…

Well, it turns out he only follows a vegan diet from dawn ‘til dusk and then eats whatever he wants at dinner, including meat, dairy, eggs etc.  He isn’t advocating a vegan diet per se, but rather shifting our current consumption to “eat fewer animal products and more plants.”  What works for him is to follow a vegan diet during the day and eat what he wants at night.  I was intrigued.  I took the book home with me and proceeded to devour it on a few extended subway rides.

While gradual changes to my diet and food choices have come from reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, this was my first foray into vegetarianism.  I decided to give it a try for a week.  (I contemplated veganism for about 2 seconds, but the siren call of eggs, milk, cheese and yogurt was too strong for me to resist.)  I already subscribed to two of the basic tenets of the Food Matters diet – heavy on vegetables, low on processed foods.  I just needed to get the ‘light on animal products’ part down.

It was an interesting experiment.  I maintained my workout schedule and felt sustained until the end of the week.  By Friday I was really craving protein though in theory I was getting enough from the beans, veggies and dairy I was consuming. One of the aspects of yoga I most appreciate is learning to listen to your body. I went out on Saturday and bought a big piece of fish to end my ‘meat fast.’ All in all – it was a valuable week.  I learned that a savory breakfast of whole grains is delightful – sorghum and black beans with cumin, cilantro and a splash of almond milk was my favorite.  I also discovered how ridiculously easy it is to make a homemade bean soup.

How will I take this into the future?  I am going to make higher- quality protein choices when I can. I will buy wild fish rather than farm-raised and cut out meat on other nights. Ranch Gordo beans will be an even bigger part of my diet.  Sorghum and quinoa will be appearing more often. Meat becomes a condiment – something to be savored and truly enjoyed when I do consume it but not the focus of my day-to-day meals. I am trying to be more conscious of the food choices I make. That may sound a little crazy since as I person with diabetes and celiac disease I am constantly aware of what I am eating, but I haven’t been truly conscientious of the broader environmental impact. For every person and family, the situation is different. .  My friends and family all have different ways of approaching it. It’s important to find the balance that works for you.  What works for me is different than what works for Mark Bittman, though I thank him for moving me to make changes, however small the impact.

Here is the bean soup I made with so little effort I can hardly believe it.  I made it twice this week, and the first time was accidental.
Gluten-Free bean and hominy soup recipe
Gluten-Free Bean and Hominy Soup Recipe

Ingredients (approx):
3/4 cup dried beans
1/2 cup dried hominy
1/2 small red onion cut in wedges
salt and pepper to taste
optional – cumin, avocado, cilantro

Rinse and soak beans and hominy in water at room temperature 6-12 hours
In a medium saucepan, boil hominy and onion in water for 20-30 minutes.  Add beans and continue to boil over medium heat for 60-90 minutes, adding water as it starts to evaporate.  Test the beans and hominy for texture and add water whenever it begins to boil off (I had to add water 2-3 times, I didn’t want to add too much since I wanted a soup that wasn’t too watery at the end).  Add salt, pepper and cumin to taste.  Garnish with slices of avocado and chopped cilantro. 

Gluten-Free Bean and Hominy Soup
While it sounds like a lot of time, I was busy doing other things as it cooked down – the ‘hands on’ time is very low and requires very little chopping or preparation (I have an irrational hatred of chopping for weeknight meals).  The level of satisfaction and extremely flavorful results were shocking even to me.  After my first ‘accidental’ soup early in the week, I was craving it for dinner later in the week.  This will definitely be a new staple in my ‘meat-lite’ diet.

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