Friday, May 15, 2009

Ok - Maybe I'm a Groupie

I am no longer feeling guilty about purchasing that asparagus last week for $8.00/lb. Those of you who actually know the price of asparagus off the top of your heads are now thinking I have completely lost my mind. While I did purchase it at a store and, therefore, paid some markup (I have since bought some right from a farmer at a farm stand for about $6.00 per pound), it was some of the sweetest, freshest asparagus I've ever had. It was grown nearby, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been picked fresh. Maybe it was my imagination working overtime to justify the price, but it almost seemed like a different vegetable. Sweeter and less of the bite we usually associate with the tip of the asparagus. The first night I roasted the spears with olive oil and a little kosher salt. The second, I simply steamed them as I wanted to really taste the asparagus flavor without any distractions. This week I tried this faux risotto so that my family would have a little variety.

Friday evening I saw Michael Pollan speak about his book In Defense of Food, and I realized that purchasing that asparagus was among the sanest things I've done in the last four weeks. His message is clear and convincing: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This is the subtitle of his book which has just been released in paperback. The book tour for this release brought him to the DC area courtesy of Politics and Prose bookstore, though the talk was actually held in the Round House Theater in Bethesda to allow for a larger crowd.

I had read In Defense of Food some time ago when the hardcover version first came out. Pollan said that he wrote this book to provide people with a more positive approach to food than his earlier Omnivore's Dilemma depicts. He wanted to provide people with an idea of what they can eat if they are concerned with health. He consulted many experts, and read many studies and came up with the credo above. Loosely, his definition of "food" generally means non-processed food - that which our grandparents (or great-grandparents) might recognize - and not artificially prevented from "going bad" by numerous chemical additives.

His approach is to acknowledge the link between nutrition and health without going overboard and focusing too heavily on the individual nutrients in each food. He suggests paying more for better food, eating less of it in the process. His feeling is that high quality foods, prepared well, and eaten in an enjoyable manner, is infinitely healthier and will be as emotionally as satisfying to us as an all you can eat buffet filled with high fat, high sodium "edible foodlike substances."

His suggestion is that rather than trying to find a wonder nutrient and then adding that nutrient to every item in the supermarket, we reject the Western diet in favor of foods that are closer to their natural state. Other than processed foods, he does not advocate rejecting any food groups in favor of others and rather than suggesting a particular type of diet, reminds us that many traditional methods of eating all around the world seem to be healthier than the Western diet. This quote about the Western diet, which our government is wedded to as a result of the pressure of the big lobbies, says it all:

"All of our uncertainties about nutrition should not obscure the plain fact that the chronic diseases that now kill most of us can be traced directly to the industrialization of our food: the rise of highly processed foods and refined grains: the use of chemicals to raise plants and animals in huge monocultures; the superabundance of cheap calories of sugar and fat produced by modern agriculture; and the narrowing of the biological diversity of the human diet to a tiny handful of staple crops, notably wheat, corn and soy. These changes have given us the Western diet that we take for granted: lots of processed foods and meat, lots of added fat and sugar, lots of everything - except vegetable, fruits, and whole grains" (In Defense of Food, p. 10).

As I noted when I discussed Susan Allport's book The Queen of Fats (which Michael Pollan references in his book), perhaps spending more money on healthy food now, could decrease spending on health care later. This seems to be an area the Federal government as well as the states should investigate. As a system, if helping all people, even the poor, to be able to purchase higher quality, healthy food will avoid the sky high medical expenses we incur for diabetes, heart disease and cancer, then isn't it an obvious approach to at least try? Our government should not be beholden to big business and chain restaurants whose only interest is to find ways to sell us more and more fake food. It's really shameful.

Now I get down off my soapbox.

Whole Wheat Orzo "Risotto" with Asparagus and Mushrooms

(serves 4 - 6 as a side dish)

3 tablespoons olive oil, divided (you will use 1 tablespoon and then the other two)

1 shallot
8 oz. crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
three sprigs of thyme
1 pound fresh asparagus, ends snapped off and cut into 1 inch pieces
32 oz. low sodium chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 lb. whole wheat orzo (can substitute regular orzo) - this is about 3/4 package.
1/4 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Warm a saute pan over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and then add the shallot and garlic. Stir regularly and after about one minute, add the mushrooms. Let those cook for five minutes or so, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

While the mushrooms cook, briefly steam or microwave the asparagus so that it can go into the pan partly cooked and won't get mushy in with the orzo. Bring it just to a bright green and then plunge into cold water to stop the cooking.

Once the mushrooms are softened, empty the contents of the pan into a bowl and wipe out the pan.

Put the pan back over the medium heat and add the rest of the olive oil. Add the orzo and stir until the orzo is coated with the oil. Add a sprinkle of kosher salt. Add just enough broth to cover the orzo and bring to a boil. Once it boils, immediately turn the burner down to a simmer. Stir often so the orzo doesn't stick to the pan!

Once the pan seems dry, add more broth to cover the orzo and repeat as above. Once that broth cooks down, add the rest of the broth 1 cup at a time (using water if you run out of broth), until the orzo is al dente or soft with a slight resistance in the inside.

Add the mushroom/shallot mix back into the pan along with any accompanying juices. Add the asparagus in as well, stir gently and cook for another minute or two.

Add in the parmigiano reggiano and stir until melted.

Taste for salt and enjoy!

1 comment:

  1. I like to chop up and saute fresh asparagus in a little olive oil and salt. (Operative word...little). I saute until the asparagus starts to that point it ends up tasting sweet and as if it just came off the grill. Yum.