Friday, May 27, 2011

Tomato tapenade

Inspired by a romantic lunch at a Spanish restaurant, tomato tapenade is a chunky delicacy that is delicious when served on warm French bread or crackers.

2 large tomatoes, 1/2 inch dice, strain out extra water
1 cup green olives, 1/4 inch dice
1 Tbs capers, drained
1 Tbs garlic, minced
1 Tbs olive oil

Fold together ingredients, mix with cracked paper and serve.

Preparation time:  10 minutes

Friday, May 20, 2011

Blue cheese stuffed poblano chilies

Grilled chilies stuffed with cheese are an easy, yet unexpected starter.  The secret is to grill them just enough so that you can easily remove the skins.  Once you’ve got the skins off stuffing them with blue cheese adds a nice tang to each bite.
8 fresh poblano chilies (you can use Anaheim chilies if you want something a bit spicier)
1 cup crumbled blue cheese
Grill the chilies, turning occasionally until the skin is blackened.  They can be grilled on a gas range, under a broiler, or on a barbeque.  Remove and put into a large glass or metal bowl and cover with cling film for 15 minutes.  Remove from the bowl and remove the skin.   Rinse the chilies and pat dry.  Make a small slit in the side of the chili and remove the seeds.  Stuff the chilies with a 1-2 Tbs of cheese, and grill on a hot non-stick skillet with just a touch of oil until the cheese starts to melt and the chilies warm.  Either serve one per plate, or slice each chili horizontally into bite-sized pieces.  This can be served immediately, or you can let them cool and serve later. 
Preparation time:  30 minutes
Comments:  You can avoid using cling film if you can put the chiles into a pot with a tight fitting lid; the goal is to create a sealed environment where the water vapor will condense.  Eliminating plastic from our lives is difficult.  Visit for reasons why we should try.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

King Corn

I just watched King Corn, a 2007 documentary about the corn industry (we just got Netflix again after a long absence--I think we'll be watching a lot of food documentaries!).  It's thought provoking and enjoyable.  Two Boston-based film makers go to Iowa to spend a year growing an acre of corn and following its fate.  Like Michael Pollen (who was interviewed), it tells the tale of how since the 1970s we've been producing as much corn that can be grown and how it's bad for the farmers, the livestock who eat it, and us.  Ironically, the film interviews farmers and ranchers who agree that feeding corn to cattle is bad for the cattle but they find themselves stuck in a system where the economy drives them to do it.  One compelling statement referred to the fact that many Americans have never eaten a hamburger that wasn't corn fed.

Eating grass-fed beef, which is healthier for us, the animals, and the environment, tastes different.  I recall a conversation last summer with a rancher in Gunnison County, Colorado who said that American's don't have the taste for grass-fed beef and that's why ranchers growing healthy and nutritious grass-fed beef have to 'finish' their cattle on feedlots.

What's the problem?  Our food system has been remarkably efficient at producing inexpensive food.  Indeed, as one interviewee in the film noted, cheap food has allowed us to spend money on other things that have grown the economy.  Hard to argue with that.  Yet, we now suffer an unprecedented set of food-related maladies (like diabetes).  How can we ratchet back and pay more for food?  What would your life be like if you paid 5% more for food?  How about 10% more?

What to do?  Develop a taste for grass fed beef.  It's much more expensive, but many of us probably eat too much meat anyway.

Ground rules for stimulating dinner party conversations

I teach an Ecological Ethics course at The University of California Los Angeles and encourage students to debate very controversial topics. Some students have strong moral positions about some of our topics and start off not respecting other opinions. For instance, a vegetarian who has strong beliefs about harming animals may not have a lot of respect for someone who believes it is OK to eat animals. I encourage plurality and respect. I tell students (and this dates me) that they’re not able to start their rebuttals with “Jane you ignorant slut” (for those too young to remember early Saturday Night Live—Google it and have a laugh!). Sometimes walking in someone else’s shoes is a good way to gain respect for another position.

Indeed, I assign roles to the students and if someone has an a priori opinion, I’ll ask them to argue the other side. Some of the ecological issues are topics that my students don’t really have a good opinion on because they’ve never thought about it (Are zoos ethically defensible? Is it ethical to genetically modify a species to save it from extinction? Is it ethical to reintroduce a species to its former range when you know that many individuals will die in the process?). I encourage them to read and learn. As we read and learn more, and as we think about the ecology of the problem (ecology is the study of why we see species where we see them, what determines their numbers, and how they interact with other species) we find that some opinions are more difficult to support than others.

There is one ground rule in the course, and I suggest one ground rule for your dinner parties: listen to and respect others’ positions. Put yourselves in your guests’ shoes. Try to understand why they feel the way they do. Gently ask people to explain why they feel a particular way. Don’t be pushy, be polite. Be empathetic.

Empathy is an important thing that defines us as humans. Empathy is essential for a truly civil and civilized society. And, as Paul Ehrlich and Robert Ornstein have recently discussed in their book—Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future—the loss of empathy has been associated with the horrific genocides of the twentieth century. If by hosting dinner parties and talking we become more empathetic and respectful of other’s opinions, this book will have succeeded in its goals. If by increasing empathy we are then able to work together to solve our collective problems, we will all be better off.

Good decisions come from a diverse set of opinions. Ian Mitroff and Abraham Silvers argue in Dirty Rotten Strategies: How We Trick Ourselves and Others into Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely that we need a diverse set of ideas to be aired to properly solve problems. If you have a diverse guest list, encourage contrary opinions and seriously consider them. If your guest list isn’t so diverse, ask what a person from a particular religious background might think. Or what a very left-wing liberal or right-wing conservative might think. Ask what an engineer might think about a problem or what a psychologist might think. Such role playing is a tool to get diverse opinions aired, and the diversity of opinions will lead to better solutions.

A professor and chef from France once told me that the thing that is notable about French dinner parties is that people argue and often adopt strong positions. Voices are raised. Tables are pounded. Yet they stay at the table and come back for more. Learning to argue without holding a grudge is an important lesson in civility. One that requires practice. And one that we desperately need to practice now.

As an academic, I’ve been trained to take criticism without feeling (too) upset. View an impassioned argument as a challenge to logically develop and present your position. Use the feedback you get to improve your argument. And, ultimately, enjoy the process by which your argument gets honed. However, also realize that we’re humans and, despite our assertions to the contrary, we’re not the most logical of beasts. Toast to the things that make us human. And while you’re at it, toast to Lilly Tomlin who once said that “Man invented language to celebrate his deep need to complain”.

Hosting a Dinner Party

Having a dinner party can be fun, if you’re properly prepared. Preparation shouldn’t be onerous, but avoid shopping at 6 PM for a party that starts at 7! My more elaborate parties are on weekends, when I can be sure that all of the ingredients are lined up and that I have sufficient time to cook. However, if the time is right, don’t fear having a less elaborate one on a weekday. Rather than preparing eight to ten dishes, I might just do four. Or, I’ll buy my appetizers and opt for pre-prepared desserts. The key is to enjoy the process and have fun.

I like to serve a lot of small bites of food to 6-8 people. The Spanish would call this tapas, but whatever you call it, the first bite or two are the most flavorful. Typically, guests are poured drinks while we’re waiting for everyone to arrive. Folks hang out in the kitchen or living room chatting. When everyone’s arrived, we all sit down to the appetizers laid out across the table. Typically they are mildly spiced so that future dishes (and wines!) are fully tasted. As they begin to disappear, I’ll bring out a small soup dish, followed up by one or more main dishes, a salad course, a cheese plate and perhaps a dessert. However, you should feel free to mix and match as you wish.

What if you have fewer or more guests? Just adjust the number of dishes you prepare. What about kids? If they’re adventurous include them in the party. If they’re older, include them in the party because they’re going to be part of the solution. If they’re young and having a good time, just make a batch of pasta and let them play. If you’re rushed, cook fewer courses and have bigger portions. However, by having a variety of courses, there will (hopefully) be something for everyone and all guests get to experience a variety of different flavors. But ultimately, cooking should be fun, not a chore. And eating with your friends and neighbors should be enjoyable and stimulating, not a daunting task.

The book is arranged by courses: drinks, tapas/appetizers, soups, mains, salads, desserts. Pick and chose what you want to prepare. I serve a lot of wine with dinners. Some of our friends often start with a sparkling wine, a custom that I should embrace. White and sparkling wines are less likely to numb your taste buds than strong drinks or heavy red wines early in a dinner. Salads, with taste-bud dampening dressings, are served later to preserve the palate as well. If we have a cheese course, I often end with a California zinfandel. I provide filtered tap water because bottled water has a huge carbon footprint. I’ve recently discovered the gas bottle kits that allow you to make fizzy water out of your tap water. We drink much more water now that we have an endless supply of lightly bubbled water.

While this is a book about hosting dinner parties you can cook these recipes any day and use them for lunches and dinners. Indeed, you may wish to cook them once for yourself before cooking them for guests just so that you can figure out your own timing and thus better plan your meal. Cooking and eating can be fun. Salude! Enjoy!

Book Peface

The loss of civility that plagues modern America is alarming. The Internet and talk radio has created a culture of tuning into what we already believe (or think we believe) and not listening to others with different opinions. This selective listening threatens the roots of our democratic republic. If we don’t listen to others, how will we get new ideas about solving new problems? Humans are remarkably adept at creating new technologies and cooperating to accomplish things that are mutually beneficial. Cooperation is essential to solve our collective problems.

Global warming, better called the less-cozy sounding “climate disruption,” is probably the largest collective action problem humanity has ever faced.
Collective action problems are those where the cumulative set of actions by individuals behaving in self interested ways cause the overall system to fail. Each of our decisions about what to eat, how to travel to work, where to vacation, what sized house we live in, together may be rational as an individual decision, but collectively have created a huge problem—human caused climate change--that requires a collective solution. Why? Because no matter what your skin color, or the ‘color’ of your state, or your political affiliations, each and every one of us will pay the costs of human-caused global warming.

I’d like to suggest a small step towards solving our collective problems: hosting fun and thoughtful dinner parties with those we know and with those who we don’t know that well.
Why? Because communities are made up of people with different beliefs and different backgrounds and they’ll work better when people get to know each other. Why? Because many of us live isolated existences surrounded by strangers. The loss of the neighborhood and the loss of discourse are intertwined. As Robert Putnam writes in Bowling Alone, the rise of suburbia has isolated many of us. We no longer have time to talk with our neighbors or listen to others in our communities. Jane Jacobs, writing in her 1961 masterpiece—The Death and Life of Great American Cities—noted that vibrant and healthy neighborhoods are those with mixed business and a mix of people and it is this mix that helps create safety and vibrancy. Cocooning around our entertainment centers has isolated us and not made us particularly happy. How to address this isolation?

We all have to eat, why not eat together?
I believe that eating together can help us solve our collective problems. How? By talking. And listening. And sharing. And laughing. You know, the stuff of dinner parties.

I will suggest a number of conversation topics to get readers started.
And, I’m going to share some of the recipes that I cook when my wife, Janice, and I have people over. Most of these are relatively easy (I’m not a professional chef). Most of these are relatively ‘green’. I’m going to suggest how and why readers should think about what to eat and serve. I’m also going to share with readers my struggle over food decisions--I don’t exclusively eat organic food; I’m not exclusively vegetarian—but if we don’t know what our goals are, we’ll never get there. And we might find that we can get there together and have fun in the process.

I shall focus on ‘green issues’ because this is a greenish cookbook designed to get us to think about what we’re eating and how we’re acting.
I believe that by sharing meals with others, we can politely discuss issues that are often called ‘political’. For instance, are fisheries sustainable and should we eat fish? Or more generally, is it ethical to kill other animals for food? Should we eat meat and if so, what types?

I’m going to encourage us to talk about some issues that we have to put on the table—is it ethical to travel by airplanes?
Is it ethical to buy that newest gadget and throw away the old ones? Or even the more tricky ones – is it ethical to have more than two children in a world already badly overpopulated.

Nobody’s perfect.
I fly and sometimes, but not always, I buy carbon-offset credits. Our house is cluttered with plastic toys—most of them junky and from China. However, knowing what a target should be allows us to reach it if we wish to.

The inspiration of this book emerged from many meals—all home cooked—with friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
We cooked, ate, argued, drank, and ate more. We had a good time. And we learned. You can too and have fun doing so.

I think hosting dinner parties is a recipe to solve our problems.
Cook for others and eat with them. Break bread and break the ice. Work in your community to solve local problems and you may find that we are then closer to solving some important global problems.

Utopian? Sure. Let’s get cooking! Let’s get eating! Let’s have fun! Let’s have a party!

Further Readings

Here are some of the books and papers that were influential in writing the book.

Bekoff, M. 2007. Animals matter: A biologist explains why we should treat animals with compassion and respect. Shambhala, Boston, MA. A thought-provoking book filled with essays to get us thinking about how and why we use animals.

Bekoff, M. 2010. The animal manifesto: Six reasons for expanding our compassion footprint. New World Library, Novato, CA. A manifesto, in six meditations, on why we should care about animal welfare.

Berners-Lee, M. 2010. How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything. Profile Books, London. A sometimes surprising guide to the energy required to produce a variety of foods and services.
Blumstein, D.T. & Saylan, C.S. 2007. Essay: The failure of environmental education (and how we can fix it). Public Library of Science—Biology 5(5): e120. An essay about what a proper environmental education should do—instill a sense of wonder in children and prepare them to be engaged and politically active citizens.
Bloom, J. 2010. American wasteland: How America throws away nearly half of its food. Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA. Extensive and expansive look at how we waste food at every stage of production and consumption and numerous suggestions on how to reduce food waste.
Ehrlich, P.R. & Ehrlich, A.H. 2008. The dominant animal: Human evolution and the environment. Island Press, Washington, DC. A wonderful synthesis of topics that the Ehrlich’s have been writing about for the past 40 years—over-population, over-consumption, and environmental degradation.
Ehrlich, P.R. & Holdren, J.P. 1971. Impact of population growth. Science 171: 1212-1217. The source of the original I=PAT equation.

Ehrlich, P.R. & Ornstein, R.E. 2010. Humanity on a tightrope: Thoughts on empathy, family and big changes for a viable future. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, MD. Thoughtful book about how and why we must increase (and in some cases are) our empathy to solve our collective problems.

Froyer, J.S. 2009. Eating animals. Little Brown, New York. A thoughtful and sometimes alarming book about how we grow and kill animals by an acclaimed fiction writer. If reading this makes you feel uncomfortable eating animals, try eating fewer.

Greenpeace. 2010. Carting away the oceans. Provides data on the fish sold by supermarkets. Pressure from Greenpeace has encouraged some markets (e.g., Target) to shift towards selling only sustainable harvested fish.
Hall, K.D., Guo, J., Dore, M. & Chow, C.C. 2009. The progressive increase of food waste in America and its environmental impact. Public Library of Science-One 4(11): e7940. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007940 Shows how food waste is increasing and documents its costs.

Hardin, G. 1968. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162: 1243-1248. Classic paper on the challenges in managing common resources.

Harte, J. & Harte, M.E. 2008. Cool the Earth, save the economy: Solving the climate crisis is EASY. An integrative look at possible solutions to solve our climate crisis.

Hopkins, R. 2008. The transition handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience. Green Books Ltd., Totnes, Devon, UK. A vision of a possible future. As a citizen of a Los Angeles, a megalopolis, I’m concerned about what we can do in cities. Read it and discuss options.

Jackson, J.B.C., et al. 2001. Historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems. Science 293: 629-637. Well documented study showing how overfishing has been responsible for widespread ecological change in coastal ecosystems.

Jackson, J.B.C. 2008. Ecological extinction and evolution in the brave new ocean. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA 105: 11458-11465. Alarming review of how our over-fishing, and many other sources of human-caused environmental damage, is creating unpredictable behavior in our fisheries. In the future, we’ll likely be eating more jellyfish unless we work to protect our oceans.

Jacobs, J. 1961. The death and life of great American cities. Random House, New York. Describes the characteristics that make vibrant and healthy cities—mixed-purpose neighborhoods where citizens take an active role in each others comings and goings.

Kaiser, R.G. 2009. So damn much money: The triumph of lobbying and the corrosion of American government. Knopf, New York, NY. Illustrates the corruption of our political system by corporate lobbyists. Don’t like it: lobby to change it!

Kunstler, J.H. 2006. The long emergency: Surviving the converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century. Grove Press, New York, NY. One of many dystopic future scenarios. Makes you think about running out of oil though. Read it and discuss what we can do to prevent this scenario from coming to pass.

Louv, R. 2005. Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC. An inspiring book about how and why we need to get kids outside so that they can learn to appreciate nature.

Mitroff, I.I. & Silvers, A. 2009. Dirty rotten strategies: How we trick ourselves and others into solving the wrong problems precisely. Stanford University Press, Sanford. An interesting book that provides a number of examples about why it’s important to have different perspectives represented when solving complex problems.

Nestle, M. 2006. 2006. What to eat. North Point Press, New York. Comprehensive, witty, and highly informed guide about all things food. I find this to be an indispensable resource.

Nestle, M. 2007. Food politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health, 2nd edition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. A shocking look at the effect of corporate lobbying on the US food industry. Don’t like it: lobby to change it!

Ostrom, E. 1990. Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Original ideas from a Nobel-prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom on how common resources can be successfully managed by framing the questions about their use differently.
Pauly, D., Christensen, V., Dalsgaard, J., Froese, R., & Torres, F. Jr. 1998. Fishing down marine food webs. Science 279: 860-863. Documents the collapse of fisheries around the world.
Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 2009. Climate change 101: Understanding and responding to global climate change. background information on climate change.
Pollan, M. 2006. An omnivore’s dilemma: A natural history of four meals. The Penguin Press, New York. A wonderful and thought-provoking look at modern American agriculture and some alternatives.
Pollan, M. 2008. In defense of food: An eater’s manifesto. Penguin Books, New York. As Pollan writes “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. A thoughtful and concise gem.
Putnam, R.D. 2000. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, New York. Documents (in extraordinary quantitative detail) how the rise of suburbia has isolated many of us. We are more isolated and no longer have time to talk with our neighbors or listen to others in our communities.
Saylan, C. & Blumstein, D.T. 2011. The failure of environmental education (and how we can fix it). University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. A book-length manefesto about how we must improve our education to create environmentally-savvy children who are prepared to work to improve our future.
Schlosser, E. 2001. Fast food nation: The dark side of the all-American meal. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
Singer, P. 1975. Animal liberation: A new ethics for our treatment of animals. Avon Books, New York. Classic and eye-opening look at how we use and sometimes abuse animals in our name. Began the modern movement in animal welfare and animal rights.
Singer, P. & Mason, J. 2006. The way we eat: Why our food choices matter. Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA. An eye-opening look at modern agriculture and how and why we should eat more compassionately.
Thaler, R.H. & Sunstein, C.R. 2008. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin Books, London.