A Shortage of Water

almonds-face-packsIt’s been a while, I know. My monkey mind gets interested in other things — like making pictures from other pictures, playing with my adorable little dog, and ghost writing for famous dessert mavens —  and my own food writing dries up like parts of California. Meanwhile, I worry about almonds, and apparently I’m not the only one. All I can say is, and not for the first time, is thank God for Mark Bittman. His post in today’s New York Times follows, but first, a recipe for ABC Butter, which is about fifty times better than almond butter.

ABC Butter — Equal parts raw almonds, raw cashews, and raw Brazil nuts. You probably want to start with one cup each, to avoid overtaxing your food processor. Throw all the nuts in the hopper, cover your ears, and process until the clatter dies down and the nuts turn into a grainy paste. This will take several minutes and will test your faith in me and in your food processor, but trust me: it will all come together. I like to drizzle in a tablespoon or so of almond oil, to make it a little creamier. Decant into jars and have at it.



Fear of Almonds

Mark Bittman, New York Times Contributing Op-Ed Writer

June 3, 2015

I can’t tell you how many times in the last month someone has come up to me and said something like, “Do you think I should stop eating almonds?” or “I really miss almond butter, but I just can’t bring myself to buy it anymore.”

It’s typical: We focus on a minuscule part (almonds) of a huge problem (water use in California) and see it as the key to fixing everything: If only we stopped eating almonds, the drought would end! (If only we stopped eating “carbs,” we wouldn’t be overweight.) But there are parts of the state where growing almonds makes sense. Using dry farming techniques that take advantage of residual moisture in the soil and rainfall, there is some ideal almond country in California.

Almonds are not the enemy, and the water-use problem is not going to be fixed by Americans cutting back on them. [italics mine] Or, for that matter, on the other fruits and vegetables (“Oh my God, do you know how much water it takes to grow an avocado?”) of which we don’t eat enough. It’s going to be fixed by more rational policies; by figuring out what makes sense to produce in California and what doesn’t; by at least a partial return to regional agriculture; and — get ready for this — by more expensive food.

Nor is this elitist: More expensive food is more rationally priced food in a world where we stop cheating on environmental and labor costs. Spending under 10 percent of our income on food makes no sense, and yet that’s average for people in this country.bittman-circular-thumbLarge-v4

We can afford to pay the actual price of our food, a noticeable but slight difference for most of us. And if you worry about the effect of fairly priced food on those Americans who experience food insecurity, then join me in working to raise their wages, or in fighting for better subsidies for real food.

Whether driven by market forces or government regulation or — as is virtually guaranteed — by a combination of the two, water prices are going to go up. This is especially true in California, where some water is free or nearly so, and therefore is predictably going scarce. A more accurate term than “drought” might be “a shortage of water caused by misuse.”

Since agriculture uses something like 80 percent of the water in the state, as water becomes scarcer — and as we acknowledge that, and behave as if it’s scarcer — it’s going to become more expensive. And because such a significant fraction of our food is produced in California, problems for California agriculture are problems for all of us.

You can’t grow food without water, so planting crops that can thrive with less means that production of food that needs lots will shift to places with a more bountiful supply. We may import some foods to try to make up the difference, but it’s likely that the prices of those foods will rise also.

Just as using less water for food (“more crop per drop”) is imperative — as many prevailing irrigation techniques waste water — using less California land for agriculture is an option. Further, using the remaining viable agricultural land for foods that we should be eating more of makes perfect sense. How do we get to that place?

What would benefit the general population in the short term? Certainly not an avoidance of almonds, which are about as healthy and “natural” a food as most of us eat. What would rational water use look like? Or, more to the point, what might happen in California, and what might its impact be elsewhere?

Next up is more expensive water, and in many cases a marked increase in the price of foods that use the most: Meat and dairy, by far the thirstiest agricultural products because they’re so high up on the food chain. (Plants such as spinach and almonds “eat” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, minerals from soil, and water; livestock drink water directly, but also eat grains, oilseeds and forage that require lots of water to grow.)

factory_farmFor a variety of reasons, beef prices have steadily increased in recent years, and consumption has steadily dropped. Dairy is a bit more complicated, but Americans continue to drink less milk. Neither of these products is intrinsically “bad,” although production techniques involving animal concentration camps and industrial processing make them less desirable. The point is that as water prices increase, the prices of these products are also likely to rise. Given that California currently produces about a fifth of the country’s milk supply, and a great deal of beef, that’s going to have a profound impact.

There may be a blessing in disguise here, though to see it we have to put affordability aside for a moment. As the price of industrially produced dairy and beef goes up, foods produced more traditionally and in regions where water is not so scarce will become relatively less expensive.

In short, the playing field will level out for more sustainable production methods. If we can make dairy production more profitable in the Northeast and see more grass-fed beef ranging throughout the rest of the country, we’ll have a higher-quality product and we’ll undoubtedly eat less of it.

That will relieve some of the pressure on California water, and allow the state to do what it does best: Raise fruits and vegetables, of which we should be eating more. Yes, including almonds.


I thought I invented ABC Butter, but no. I’m not sure The Jolly Beetroot did either, but she has a lovely blog and I hope she doesn’t mind my reusing her photo. Perhaps my fondness has Australian roots.

Restoration Restaurant

This just in from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

restaurant (n.) 1821, from French restaurant “a restaurant,” originally “food that restores,” noun use of present participle of restaurer “to restore or refresh,” from Old French restorer (see restore).

In 1765 a man by the name of Boulanger, also known as “Champ d’Oiseaux” or “Chantoiseau,” opened a shop near the Louvre (on either the rue des Poulies or the rue Bailleul, depending on which authority one chooses to believe). There he sold what he called restaurants or bouillons restaurants–that is, meat-based consommés intended to “restore” a person’s strength. Ever since the Middle Ages the word restaurant had been used to describe any of a variety of rich bouillons made with chicken, beef, roots of one sort or another, onions, herbs, and, according to some recipes, spices, crystallized sugar, toasted bread, barley, butter, and even exotic ingredients such as dried rose petals, Damascus grapes, and amber. In order to entice customers into his shop, Boulanger had inscribed on his window a line from the Gospels: “Venite ad me omnes qui stomacho laboratis et ego vos restaurabo.” He was not content simply to serve bouillon, however. He also served leg of lamb in white sauce, thereby infringing the monopoly of the caterers’ guild. The guild filed suit, which to everyone’s astonishment ended in a judgment in favor of Boulanger. [Jean-Robert Pitte, “The Rise of the Restaurant,” in “Food: A Culinary History from Antiquity to the Present,” English editor Albert Sonnenfeld, transl. Clarissa Botsford, 1999, Columbia University Press]


The State of Food

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the State of the Union address. The wise and compassionate Mark Bittman, of the New York Times, has some suggestions for him in today’s piece, Let’s Address the State of Food.bittman-circular-thumbLarge-v4

  • Call for a minimum wage of $15.00, because “there are no hungry people with money.”
  • Establish a national food policy, because “the issues that confront most Americans directly are income, food (thereby, agriculture), health and climate change.”


These are all related: You can’t address climate change without fixing agriculture, you can’t fix health without improving diet, you can’t improve diet without addressing income, and so on. The production, marketing and consumption of food is key to nearly everything. (It’s one of the keys to war, too, because large-scale agriculture is dependent on control of global land, oil, minerals and water.)

  • Defend SNAP, “because as usual the program is under siege — despite the fact that the number of people eligible for food stamps has not declined during the so-called economic recovery, which has been largely meaningless for the vast majority of Americans.
  • Defend the Child Nutrition Act, “because by positively influencing eating patterns in young people you positively influence them for life.”


Bittman quotes Michael Pollan on what he’d like to hear from President Obama tonight. All he has to do is recite this paragraph…

I am expanding the portfolio of my new senior policy adviser for nutrition policy, Deb Eschmeyer, to encompass all the policy areas that food touches: agriculture, nutritional health and environmental health. She will be charged with harmonizing our policies across these three areas, so that, for example, our agricultural policies contribute not just to the prosperity of American farmers but to the health of our people and the land.”

A person can dream. When awake, click on this interactive “map the meal” map created by Feeding America to see what hunger looks like in your community. In 2012, almost 2 million Pennsylvanians were food insecure, 49 million in the nation.Check out this interactive "map the meal" map created by Feeding America. In 2012, almost 2 million Pennsylvanians were food insecure.


Humble Pie

My heart took a dive recently when I was asked to speak on the subject of humility, because humility, at least how I understood it as of a few weeks ago, was just about dead last on my list of favorite things. It was altogether too closely associated with bowing and scraping and making oneself pitiful. With not taking credit where credit is due, like women of my generation who were taught to say “oh gosh, it was nothing” of a towering achievement that might have been months or years in the making. And with unattainable role models like Gandhi, with his skinny little butt wrapped in diaper.

Humility is confusing. Definitions are often contradictory and there are a lot of associations floating around about it, a lot of feelings. And to complicate matters further, there’s a sense that we’re supposed to have a measure of it, but not too much. Like pride, and vitamin D. (Pride is confusing too, but on the whole it tends to be celebrated in our culture. It’s The Few, the Proud, not the Few, the Humble.)

imgres-2I looked first to metaphor and came up with Humble Pie. It seemed like a pleasant coincidence that this central image revolved around one of my truly favorite things, food.

Humble Pie, according to Miriam Webster, is “a figurative serving of humiliation usually in the form of a forced submission, apology, or retraction.” We eat humble pie. Etymologically speaking this is a bit off, for the term probably derives from umble pie, made from deer organs, and though that would not be my cup of tea, umble pie doesn’t necessarily connote forced submission.

But notice how potent are the food metaphors around humility, the images mirroring how being proven wrong is hard to swallow. “Eating humble pie” is the least of it. A stronger version is “eat crow,” like the carrion bird. There’s “eat dirt,” “eat your hat,” and of course the still stronger version, eat you-know-what. All of these refer to something awful we do to ourselves to demonstrate just how wrong we really are.

imagesWe could go further here and note the sexual analog – go you-know-what – but what I’d like to point out is how seamlessly we’ve slipped from humility to humiliation. We routinely conflate the two in our culture. They’re just four letters apart and share a certain bowed-head visual. A certain feeling of “less than” or “lower than.” The Oxford Dictionary concurs by defining humility as “a modest or low view of one’s own importance,” and offering meekness, diffidence, and unassertiveness as synonyms.

So let’s tease them apart, shall we – humility and humiliation – and maybe come up with an understanding of what humility really is, and how to live a life of humility that doesn’t have us facedown on the pavement.

Humiliation is a violation of one’s humanity that all too often involves nasty transgressions to the body – whether self-inflicted, as in eating humble pie or swearing allegiance to a god not your own on pain of death – or inflicted upon someone less powerful than the person doing the inflicting. Let me just remind us what we did to prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Humility on the other hand – whatever it is – is somehow a genuine virtue, and indeed one of the top seven – chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility – that stand in opposition to the seven deadly sins. “True humility,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” I guess. But what the heck does it mean, and is it even relevant in the 21st century?

Usage peaked in 1830, declining since then to a mere trickle. These days, humility is mostly the province of religious and ethical circles, where it refers to one’s relationship to God, God’s purpose, and God’s power to fix what’s broken. In Catholic theology, humility is considered the foundation of the spiritual life because it subjects reason and will to God. Indeed, virtually every religion in the world counsels humility before a vastly greater power. So does the Alcoholics Anonymous program that has saved the lives of some of my best friends. The twelve steps begin —

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Aheirloomsnd so on. This is powerful stuff, but aside from religious and spiritual practices, the secular world does little more than give lip service to humility. It’s quaint – a musty antique wrapped in a dishcloth and smelling faintly of white pepper. It’s supposed to be valuable, like Aunt Marion’s china, but we have no clue what it is or what it’s worth.

To the contrary, we value bold individualism, aggression and achievement. We Built That, right? The Few, the Proud. The Greatest Nation on Earth. Where fortune favors the strong, humility is seen as weak, even pathetic.

But humility isn’t pathetic and it isn’t weak. In the work I’ve done recently to understand it, I’ve come to appreciate humility as a fine thing, subtle, necessary, and a great relief. Let me propose a paradigm shift in the way we understand humility. Not as a hierarchical, two-dimensional relationship, with one party down and the other up, but spherical, as it were – where we stand in relation to all that is.

Look at that [pale blue] dot,” writes Carl Sagan. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

palebluedotHarsh, yes, but oddly comforting in that it gives us no choice but to admit we are very, very small and not terribly important. Sagan is not all that different from my husband, who, when I asked him how he understood humility, lifted his cocktail glass and said, “Knowing that we are but a pimple on the ass of time.”

Then I asked my 25-year-old son, Sam, who is given to occasional bouts of colossal arrogance, but is also a student of philosophy who reads Plato in Greek and poses questions at the dinner table along the lines of “What is friendship?” That stuff can send you down the rabbit hole faster than you can say Alice in Wonderland, but I asked nonetheless.

Sam said that humility was knowing one’s worth – not conceited or arrogant, and likewise not too self-deprecating, but just right, like little bear’s porridge. Harder than it sounds, to be sure – and it does beg the question of how worth is determined – but I like how it evokes the sense of knowing one’s place, not in humiliation, like a slave, but balanced in the big, round scheme of things.

I consulted at last the font of wisdom, and so help me it all clicked into place. “Humility,” says Wikipedia, “is variously seen as the act or posture of lowering oneself in relation to others – or conversely, having a clear perspective and respect for one’s place in context.” And here all this time I’d been thinking of it only in the former sense, of lowering oneself in relation to others – and that, either to do it myself or see it done, I could not abide.

But once I made the shift – from humility as “less than” to humility as “in place” – then things started clicking. I began to notice all the ways it showed up.

ferguson-protestsLike many, I felt angry and bewildered by the lack of accountability for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but as I saw the thousands of people streaming into the streets in communities throughout the country, and staying there for days on end, I had to recognize that though I might be sympathetic, and I have a pretty decent imagination, I also have what is often referred to as “white privilege” – the license, the freedoms, the opportunities I take for granted as a Caucasian. I am humbled by the courage I see in those communities and by the fact that I cannot not truly know what it’s like to be a young black man in 21st century America.

I’m also humbled by the recognition that I do not understand what motivates people to go shoot up the offices of a French satirical magazine, or kidnap Nigerian schoolgirls, or blow up an abortion clinic. Trust me, I feel perfectly at liberty to hate them and what they do – the failure of my imagination does not preclude taking a position – but I am not so puffed up that I can’t see that something motivates these folks, even though I don’t understand what it is.

As a matter of fact, there’s a lot I don’t understand – like financial derivatives, or string theory, or how to knit – and I’m OK with that.

I am humbled by yoga, and not just in the classes where everyone else is 40 years younger than I am. I like to think of myself as strong, so I have walked into many a class thinking “I can do this, I can prop myself up on an elbow with one leg wrapped around my tricep and the other leg pointed at the ceiling” … and walked out with my back pinched and my shoulders in agony. Needless to say, this is no way to practice yoga. “Remember again,” says my teacher, and so every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday I go back to square one.

I am humbled by history – by those who suffered so I could vote, by those who took terrible risks so I could be free from disease, by everyone who had and still has the courage to bring forth another child into this terrifying world.

I am humbled by birth and by death, by seeing myself getting older and my kids grow up and away, and knowing that sooner or later, I will turn into compost and live only in the memory of a few people who themselves will eventually be forgotten.

Maybe it’s a choice. Maybe it’s a fragment of wisdom I’ve come to later in life. But I find all this comforting. “There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart,” wrote Saint Augustine, and so help me, I think he was right. It’s such a relief not to be in charge of everything! All that striving to be important and relevant and sure of one’s opinions, all that pretending you’re doing it all yourself, without help – that’s exhausting. I’m not one who believes that God has a plan for me, but I’m relieved nevertheless to sink into my comfy little nook in the universal web of all existence.

We’re really dealing with two questions here. The first is what humility is, and the second, and to me more compelling question is how to practice it, day after day. How are we to understand our own self worth and our place in context, and understanding all that, how are we supposed to put one foot in front of the other?

Carl Sagan answers the question in terms of the pale blue dot. “To me, [the distant image of our tiny world] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

imgres-4To me, the deeper answer is gratitude, the handmaiden of humility. Let’s circle back to food. It’s always my touchstone. I was given a little book for Christmas called How to Eat, by Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful Buddhist spiritual leader.

In some traditions, monastics want to take their minds off food and focus on the virtues of a spiritual life. In my tradition, we do the opposite. We just focus on the food. We see the food as the cosmos. In the Catholic tradition, in the Eucharist, you see the piece of bread as the body of Jesus. In the Buddhist tradition, we see the piece of bread as the body of the cosmos. Everything is there. When you chew it mindfully, without thinking, you can see very well all that the piece of bread contains. That is why, when you take a bite of the bread and chew it mindfully, you are truly in communion with all of life.

Itadakimasu, yo. That’s the name of this blog and the special prayer Japanese people say before each meal, a blessing not only of the food but an expression of thanks to the sun, the rain and the fertile earth, to the farmers, the plants and the animals, to the truckers who drive our food to market, the shopkeepers, the cooks, and those who do the dishes. It is humility and gratitude all wrapped into one little tongue twister.images-1

Say it out loud: EE-TA-DA-KEE-MA-su. Say it loud and clear, with equal emphasis on each syllable until that last little su, which slip in like the shadow of an S. When you say it, imagine yourself as if from a far-away cosmic camera, sitting wherever you are, peering into your screen, maybe about to go have a snack. Imagine yourself as the precious little pixels you are, your tiny body poised to take in cookies, say, made from Nebraskan wheat, the carbon dioxide you exhale wafting out to the ozone hole, beyond which you can see beautiful ringed Saturn and the edges of the Milky Way. And beyond that, maybe 100 billion galaxies, where stars vastly bigger than our sun are being born right this minute. And beyond that – well, just the last decade, astrophysicists have figured out that all planetary and star stuff, all that so-called normal matter, is less than five percent of the universe, the rest being composed of dark matter and dark energy, about which we know almost nothing.

May you be humbled and grateful for your place in the universe and at table. It’s just right.IMG_1590

Do the Math

My local newspaper won’t run the Archie comic strips that include Kevin Keller, a gay character who’s been hanging out in Riverdale with Veronica and Jughead since 2010. Since this same paper serves a community fully one-third obese and thus the 10th fattest metropolitan area in the nation, I was surprised to find the following Non Sequitur sequence in my daily Section D.







Thanks, Wiley Miller!

It’s not that hard

Thank goodness for Mark Bittman and his large media platform. He can reach multitudes with his sensible, Yes-You-Can messages about eating well in a crazy world. Bittman recently offered up a two-step guide embedded in an essay about food policy, reprinted in full below because it seems we can’t hear it often enough. Because people still get bent out of shape when they learn you follow a plant-based diet. Suddenly everyone is a nutritionist, qualified (and entitled) to scold you about not getting enough protein, calcium, calories, whatever. They get skittish about inviting you to dinner at their house, as if you were contagious or an alien much too difficult to please. Thus, I am grateful to those with the power to normalize — and make easily accessible — what seems to me a perfectly normal way to eat. Michael Pollan, of course, has honed it to koan-like elegance. Yes you can.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

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contibutors-bittman-thumbLarge-v2SAN FRANCISCO — To a large extent, you can fix the food system in your world today. Three entities are involved in creating our food choices: business (everything from farmers to PepsiCo), government (elected and appointed officials and their respective organizations) and the one with the greatest leverage, the one that you control: you.

We shouldn’t discount small farms and businesses, nor should we ignore relatively minor officials like the mayor of El Monte, Calif., who tried (and failed) to establish a soda tax to benefit public health. We do not always know where real change will come from, and certainly smaller operations may be more innovative and show us the way.

But for the most part we know where real change doesn’t come from: Big Food, the corporations that supply most of the food and stuff masquerading as food that’s sold in supermarkets, as fast food and in casual dining chains; and government, especially the federal government, which is beholden to and entranced by big business. Nothing new here.

imgresThere often seem to be more happy exceptions in industry than in government. If you look at the relatively new companies that have blazed a path for the food industry, you see, among others, Whole Foods and Chipotle. One demonstrated that supermarkets could sell better ingredients; the other opened the door to non-junkie fast food.

Neither is above criticism, and it’s possible both will be surpassed within a few years by newcomers with fresher and better ways of doing things. Still, it’s comforting to know that at least somewhere in the corners of this food system, market competition is giving opportunities to clever and even well-intentioned people to figure out how to make real money by actually providing the public with better food.

imgres-1I’m especially impressed with the way Whole Foods is innovating in the arena of labeling, gradually extending its own internal labeling system from fish to meats and now to fruits and vegetables. (As I said, though, they’re hardly above criticism.) Marketing is of course part of it, but shoppers who want to talk back to the supply chain by knowing where their food comes from don’t otherwise have a way to do that. If Whole Foods gives them what they want, then despite the “Whole Paycheck” nickname (and there’s some evidence that Whole Foods is starting to compete on price as well), those who can get there and afford it will favor it. This is progress, doing well by doing at least some good, and that can’t be said about most corporations involved in food. See, for example, the too-little-too-late attempt at transparency by McDonald’s.

We can’t rely on even well-intentioned souls in industry, but given the ball-dropping entity that is supposed to be vigilant regarding our health and welfare — the federal government — we have little choice. The legislative branch isn’t worth discussing, and leadership from the executive branch has been disappointing. Two issues could have been improved definitively in the last six years — the marketing of junk to kids and the existence of antibiotics in our food supply — and President Obama has accomplished little in either case. However stymied he may have been, we are looking at a landscape that hasn’t changed much, the exception being the improved but still hotly contested school food programs supported by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.usda-organic-scary

Even worse are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the last of which refuses to ban the routine use of antibiotics in animal production despite knowing that a ban is possible and desirable. It’s also dawdling on mandating an improved nutrition label on packaged food, probably because of industry taking “interest.”

We shouldn’t need to rely on Whole Foods for good labeling. Yet every day I’m asked, “How do I know that what I’m buying is O.K.?” It seems the better educated and more concerned people are about this, the more confused they are. Drill deep enough and the list to worry about becomes overwhelming: organics, genetically modified organisms, carbon footprint, packaging, fair trade, waste, labor, animal welfare and for all I know the quality of the water that’s being used to wash your organic greens.

I get this. I’m a worrier, too, though I tend to expend my neurotic energy on different topics. The overall environment means that you’re pretty much on your own if you try to eat healthfully in spite of the system, and you must take up that battle through a dozen or more decisions each day. But there are two big decisions that can put you on the right path and help you largely steer clear of antibiotics, excess sugar, unwanted chemicals, animal cruelty, and more.

Here then, is your two-step guide for an unassailably powerful personal food policy.

1. Stop eating junk and hyperprocessed food. This eliminates probably 80 percent of the stuff that is being sold as “food.”

2. Eat more plants than you did yesterday, or last year.

If you add “Cook your own food” to this list, it’s even more powerful, but these two steps alone allow you to reduce the amount of antibiotics you’re consuming; pretty much eliminate GMOs from your diet, lighten your carbon footprint; reduce your chances of becoming ill as a result of your diet; save money; cut way back on sugar, other junk and unnecessary and potentially harmful nonfood additives; and so on.

All without relying on corporate benevolence or the government getting things right. The power lies with you.


Can’t help myself. Michele channels Lil Jon while reminding us to eat our veggies and vote.


Winter is Icumen in,
Lhude sing Goddamm.
Raineth drop and staineth slop,
And how the wind doth ramm!
Sing: Goddamm.
Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver,
Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

— Ezra Pound

Winter is icumen in and so is our all but universal desire for carbohydrates. Thanks be to the New York Times’ Melissa Clark for offering up a simple formula for great grain bowls: one or more grains, preferably whole grains; greens; pickles (think kim chee); protein (plant-based eaters will go for tofu, hummus, nuts or nut butter, and will know not to worry); textural surprises such as avocado, nori, seeds; and a sauce to wrap it up with a bow. Her post, Grain Bowls: How to Make Your Own, is printed in full below; click to watch the video. Ezra Pound added for funsies.

Screen Shot 2014-10-14 at 12.03.01 PM

The rice bowl has come a long way. Once relegated to health food restaurants and natural food shops, it was a humble, healthful, often vegetarian one-dish meal reminiscent of Japanese donburi and Korean bibimbap, rice bowls topped with meat or fish, vegetables and pickles.

Now, you’re just as likely to run into a grain bowl, made with the likes of quinoa, farro or freekeh, at the trendiest restaurants as you are at the cafe adjacent to your yoga studio.

Black rice topped with kale, eggplant and salmon at Dimes in Chinatown.

Black rice topped with kale, eggplant and salmon at Dimes in Chinatown.

Case in point: At Dimes, a new restaurant in Chinatown, you will find a barley bowl topped with pickled salmon and cabbage slaw. At Sqirl in Los Angeles, heirloom brown rice is mixed with cumin and Swiss chard and topped with crisp chorizo. At El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on the Lower East Side, grits cooked in cashew milk is topped with slow-roasted pork and pickled onions.

For evidence that the bowl has gone mainstream, look no further than Chipotle, whose burrito bowl is the biggest selling item on the menu.

A Swiss chard rice bowl at Sqirl in Los Angeles.

A Swiss chard rice bowl at Sqirl in Los Angeles.

Bowls are excellent vehicles for leftovers, no matter how motley. They can accommodate the ever-widening variety of available whole grains (quinoa, kamut, farro, freekeh, wheat berries, barley and grits) that we are all supposed to be working into our diet. And they are ideal for picky eaters in the house, who can build it to suit their own tastes while ensuring that none of the toppings touch.

Gerardo Gonzalez, the chef at El Rey, calls a bowl the perfect dish, one in constant movement.

Grits cooked in cashew milk and topped with slow-roasted pork and pickled onions at El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on the Lower East Side.

Grits cooked in cashew milk and topped with slow-roasted pork and pickled onions at El Rey Coffee Bar and Luncheonette on the Lower East Side.

“Eating your way around a bowl is a little like tai chi,” he said. “The perfect bite doesn’t mean you have all the components together on the spoon, it’s about getting the balance of acid, sweet, salty. Every bite is a surprise, a little different from the one before it.”

When assembling a grain bowl at home, Jessica Koslow, the chef and owner of Sqirl, advises embracing variety.

“We change our bowls seasonally, varying the recipes to reflect different ingredients at their prime,” she said.

While the type of grain matters, the real artistry of the bowl is in the combination of toppings. You could spoon almost anything over your grains and call the result a bowl (and some do). But the best bowls have a balanced combination of flavors and textures, and of vegetables, proteins, sauces and garnishes. Ideally, choose a grain that complements the other elements, pairing delicate ingredients (simple steamed vegetables or fish, for example) with milder grains (white rice, grits, barley). But pretty much any grain will work with nearly anything you pile onto it.

As for vegetables, anything goes, but greenery is iconic, be it raw, steamed, roasted or sautéed. At Scratchbread in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, my bowl (served in a paper cup) had grits on the bottom, with raw kale, chunks of crisp bacon, a soft-cooked egg and jalapeño sauce layered on top. I especially like the purity and softness of steamed greens — kale, mustard, chard, collards — against the nubby grains. Feel free to use leftover vegetables on top: Those florets of sautéed cauliflower, cubes of baked beets or silky slivers of roasted red peppers can have no better home.

Now you need a protein. Think of small amounts of braised or roasted meats or fish, whether left over or freshly cooked. Vegetarians can go for tofu, tempeh, seitan or beans. And anyone can add a soft-cooked egg, preferably one with a runny yolk to coat the other ingredients like an instant sauce.

You should also have a sauce on the side for everyone to mix in to taste. Use ingredients that mesh with the flavors of the bowl. Combine soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger and rice vinegar or lime juice for Asian-inspired combinations. Pesto goes nicely with roasted red peppers, eggplant or anything else vaguely Mediterranean. Bottled hot sauce provides spice to the fire-toothed. And a basic vinaigrette will get along with practically anything else.

Once you have the bowl assembled — grains, vegetables, protein and sauce — it’s time to think about garnishes, which add character and depth. Something pickled or pungent (kimchi, preserved lemon, pickled peppers, a dash of fish sauce) keeps things interesting, and something crunchy (sesame seeds, nuts, toasted seaweed) diversifies the textures. Or combine these if you like: crunchy pickled carrots or radish, for example.

Mix and match. Then mix and match again. If you do it right, you need never serve the same bowl twice — not unless you want to, that is.

burrito-bowlP.S. I’m a big fan of Chipotle; they’re one of the few places who have successfully bridged my transition to a plant-based diet. OneGreenPlanet does a “100 percent clean version” of Chipotle’s veggie burrito bowl.


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