WE LIKE MEAT! (& The Food Matters Cookbook)

{Yes, I’m still away! This review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Flourish magazine.}

My family and I love meat. If the answer to “what’s for dinner?” is remotely carnivorous, my sons and husband are thrilled, and, I must say, I am too. During each of my pregnancies, I craved nothing so much as meat, especially red meat. But I’m also a little wary of meat, for lots of reasons—namely, the environmental destruction caused by factory farming, the treatment of meatpacking workers that isn’t any better today than it was when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, the health risks that are associated with eating too much meat—particularly the factory farmed kind—as well as the more acute risk of E coli O157:H7.

Both on my own and with my family, I’ve had extended periods of de facto vegetarianism—but I still love meat. And I think that there are some good reasons for continuing to eat it, although I try only to eat meat from animals that have been raised and slaughtered in ways that are responsible and humane. Of course, the price of this kind of meat accurately reflects its value, so we eat much less of it. Cooking and eating this way makes sense to us, and it’s making sense to more and more people—“flexitarians”—who choose to consciously limit their intake of meat while not foregoing it altogether.

Vegetarian cookbooks are of value to flexitarian types, in large part because they invite you to reconsider what a good meal looks like. For many Americans, a meal without meat seems incomplete, because meat is so often cooked and served as the “main” dish, while veggies and starches are “side dishes.” Mashed potatoes and broccoli seem lonely without a slab of animal protein to keep them company; sometimes people turning toward vegetarianism look to commercially produced meat substitutes to fill that gap. But those products are not always so healthy, they can be expensive, and as anyone who has eaten Quorn can tell you, they’re not guaranteed to be incredibly appetizing.

That’s where vegetarian cookbooks like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian come in—showing you that great meals don’t have to center around meat or meat substitutes. But what about those of us who don’t want to be vegetarian, but simply to eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and eat meat in moderation?

Bittman’s newest offering, The Food Matters Cookbook, does just that; it’s a treasury of more than 500 less-meat (but not meatless!) recipes following up on his 2009 book Food Matters, which told the story of Bittman’s own culinary conversion. Despite having been a professional food writer for nearly 30 years, despite even having written a vegetarian cookbook, at age 57, Bittman was 35 pounds overweight with high cholesterol, high blood sugar, sleep apnea, and serious knee problems. His doctor told him to go vegan, and go vegan he did: for breakfast and lunch. He still eats like an omnivore for dinner, but he’s changed the overall way he eats—many more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, much less meat, dairy, sugar, and anything that isn’t “real food.” At the same time, Bittman became aware of the multiple environmental concerns surrounding meat production and processed food (producing one can of calorie-free diet soda consumes 2,200 calories of energy.) Happily, on his new way of eating, Bittman saw his health improve—and those of us who watched his weekly videos at nytimes.com were able to see him grow much thinner and younger-looking in a relatively short span of time. Now, we can enjoy many of the recipes that helped him get there.

The best thing about Bittman’s recipes in general—and this book in particular—is that he teaches you how to substitute things to suit your tastes and what you may have on hand, and how to use one technique in various ways: One recipe, not three, shows you how to make baked tortilla chips, pita chips, and croutons. (“I think these might change my life,” my dad said of the tortilla chips. They were delicious.)

In this book he also offers guidance on choosing and substituting seasonally and locally available produce and tells you when you can substitute frozen vegetables, which is handy, since frozen vegetables can actually be a tastier, healthier, and more sustainable option in the winter months. Sweet Potato and Corn Fritters with Thai Dipping Sauce made with frozen corn brought a bit of sunshine into our winter meals, and we’ve eaten more variations on the whole-grain Sweet Potato Muffins than I can remember—carrot and spice, blueberry (from frozen blueberries), and coconut are just a few among them. Bittman also explains how to omit or include small amounts of meat or fish in many dishes.

While culinary professionals and purists sometimes criticize Bittman for supposed sloppiness, one of the things I value highly in this cookbook is the effort he has put into making wholesome home cooking accessible, easy, and fun: The Chipotle Black Bean Quinoa, for example, takes only a little while to put together and is healthy, delicious, and economical; Chickpea Tagine with Bulgur and Chicken was similarly simple and unusually tasty. And it’s hard not to love recipes like Vegetables au Vin with Coq, Chili con poco Carne, and the TLB: Tomato, Lettuce, and Bacon Sandwiches—recipes that take old favorites and retool them for those who, like me, want to continue to enjoy meat—but for the sake of creation, humanity, and health—not too much of it.

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