Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Fresh, Local Pasta in a Tomato-Red Chili Sauce

What is it about labels that makes us feel so comfortable?

We define ourselves as Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, Agnostic, or simply "Spiritual." We're Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and Independents (interestingly, a label for those who are anti-label; a group for the anti-group). We laugh about how we were a "nerdy drama geek" or " the shy artsy kid" in high school.

And we even group ourselves according to culinary preference: omnivore, meat-lover, vegan, picky eater, garbage disposal. I even met someone this weekend who declared himself "not really a food person" (needless to say, we didn't have much to say to one another).

I might as well make public the ongoing personal battle that has been waging inside my head for several months now: I am considering becoming a vegetarian. I've hesitated to talk about it much, only because I don't want to declare myself henceforth a non-meat-eater, only to one day stumble drunkenly (or soberly) with ten of my friends into Taco Bell and order a Grilled Stuffed Beef Burrito. The fear of hypocrisy is a major concern of mine.

However, I have been earnestly mulling this over, reading up on the lifestyle, and talking to my vegetarian friends about why they made the decision and how it's been going for them. I was truly ready to make the leap - until I read Michael Pollan's excellent "In Defense of Food," where he delineates a group of people called "flexitarians" - loosely defined as people who eat meat less than once a day. I had a visceral reaction; it was something between a deep sigh of relief, and the indescribable joy of having found one's tribe.

Why it took a word - a label - to make me feel OK about what I've been most of my life anyway, I have no idea. But I now feel comfortable about the way I've chosen to eat as of late. My personal reasons for going veg have a lot to with health, and according to Pollan's book, flexitarians enjoy the same health benefits as full vegetarians. I am pleased that consuming less meat will have a positive impact on the environment, but to me personally, that is secondary to reaping the physical benefits.

Some years ago, I would've made a horribly unhealthy vegetarian; I'm sure I would've noshed on little more than Doritos, Snickers bars, and cheesy pasta. Nowadays, I trust myself to eat actual vegetables, building my meals much as I currently do - around a whole grain and vegetables, with meat or dairy used sparingly to accent the flavor of the meal, but not star in it.

That said, I'm going to share with all of you my first week of official Flexitarianism, recipes and all.

Yesterday, I treated myself to a (vegetarian) meal of Indian-spiced fare at Whole Foods, then bought a not-very-well-thought-out (but super healthy) assortment of non-meat goodies. I have a pack of pepperoni in my fridge that never made it onto a pizza, but will show up later in the week in calzones, hopefully. Other than that, I may have meat occasionally if I eat out, but I'll be eating lots and lots of veggies this week.

My shopping cart included:

- collard greens
- ricotta cheese
- natural peanut butter
- a slew of tomatoes
- carrots
- turnips
- chevre from a local farm
- bananas
- walnuts
- bulghur
- red lentils
- mozzarella cheese
- broccoli
- coconut milk
- curry powder
- a potato
- red chili peppers
- peaches
- apples
- a lovely pineapple
- and my one real splurge: fresh tri-color fettuccine made by a local pasta company

I got right to work when I got home baking a loaf of bread for the week (subbing in soymilk for regular); I forgot to add the butter to the bread dough, so we'll see how my dairy-free concoction comes out.

Day One:

Breakfast: 2 scrambled eggs

Lunch: heirloom tomato sandwich on the homemade soy-milk bread*, peach, carrots, and walnuts

*The bread, by the way, came out much better last time. The soy milk made it a bit too sweet, and I don't know if it was the soy milk or the lack of butter, but it basically refused to become loaf-shaped, baking instead into a strangely mashed loaf-like lump. It's definitely edible, and I'll use it anyway. However, I think I might put bread-making aside for awhile and go back to buying the amazing Seeduction bread at Whole Foods. I'm going to focus on perfecting my pizza dough technique instead.

And now for dinner: I call this dish "The Local" - locally made fresh tri-color fettuccine in a spicy tomato, chili, red onion and spinach sauce, topped with chunks of fresh mozzarella.

THE LOCAL (feel free to sub in non-local ingredients if you have to)


(makes about 3 servings)

1 lb. fresh fettuccine or other pasta
1 c. dry white wine
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 red chili, seeded, ribs removed, and finely sliced
1 pint grape tomatoes
8-10 kalamata olives, sliced
4 T. olive oil
1 T. butter
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
handful fresh spinach leaves, chopped
2 small balls fresh mozzarella, halved and sliced
freshly chopped Italian parsley
coarse kosher salt


Put the pasta water (salted) on to boil. Meanwhile, in a nonstick skillet, heat 2 T. of the olive oil over medium heat. Saute the chili until it's tender. Remove from pan and set aside, leaving the oil in the pan. Add the butter and let it melt.


Cook the onions over medium heat, seasoning with salt, until lightly caramelized. One minute before they're done, stir in the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the white wine and bring to a boil, cooking for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes, parsley, olives, and the cooked chili and cover. Cook until the tomatoes have almost all burst, making a very rough, chunky tomato sauce (break up some of the tomatoes with a wooden spoon as they begin to cook more, but leave some whole for texture if you want).


Boil the fettuccine until it's just less than al dente (where it will only require about 1 more minute of cooking to get perfectly done). Stir the spinach leaves into the sauce until they're lightly wilted. Then toss in the pasta, and cook for another 1-2 minutes, covered, until it's al dente. Stir in the remaining olive oil, and another splash of wine if all the liquid gets absorbed, tossing to coat. Season with a little more kosher salt. When you place it in serving bowls, nestle some mozzarella pieces into each dish and allow to melt from the heat of the pasta. Enjoy!

The Local came out delicious! It was light, fresh, and had just a hint of heat running throughout. Fresh basil would take this to over-the-top incredible territory. You could of course leave out the cheese (and the butter) and sub in a non-egg noodle to make it a stunning vegan treat. If you wanted to add meat, Italian sausage, chicken sausage, pancetta, or grilled chicken would all be nice. You could also keep it vegetarian but pump up the protein by adding cannellini beans.

After my first official day as a "flexitarian," I feel great. Everything I ate today was fresh, wholesome, unprocessed, and - the best part - delicious.

I'll leave you with a quote from "In Defense of Food" that really hit home with me:

"The cook does not need to know, as the scientists have recently informed us, that cooking the tomatoes with olive oil makes the lycopene in them more available to our bodies. No, the cook already knew that olive oil with tomatoes is a really good idea....The cook in the kitchen preparing a meal from plants and animals at the end of this shortest of food chains has a great many things to worry about, but 'health' is simply not one of them, because it is a given."

Thanks for reading! More soon...

1 comment:

Trish Demarest Johnson said...

Wow! That looks really delicious (and healthy)! I have personally struggled with labels my whole life. I HATE choosing sides, but I feel so much more comfortable once I make boundaries for myself and reside within them. It must be how we are wired. I think "flexitarian" is a nice open label for people like us who don't want to be hypocrites (despite the fact that we can't avoid being just that). I myself do not eat meat at every meal, and have recently desided to limit myself on pork and shellfish (because they are nature's garbage disposers)to once a week or less, but I don't want to say I will NEVER again eat pepperoni or shrimp. For the same reasons, I am a non-denominational Christian. I simply want to be known as a follower of Christ. This is pretty hard because there are several interpretations of the Bible. Instead of just researching one, I have to look at all of the interpretations and find articles about the original texts and decide which ones line up. Most issues I pray for a while about and end up getting my answers from God Himself. I don't have the luxury of just believing whatever my denomination has decided they believe. My church focuses on the first two commandments: putting God before everything else and loving others as we love ourselves. The Oasis really focuses on living for God by letting Him live through you by having a personal connection with Him (which can be strengthened through reading and understanding His word). They use several different translations, depending on which one is easiest to understand. I feel like I have found a home with them. And it looks like you have found a home with the flexitarians :) God bless and can't wait for more natural recipes!

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