Vegetables for sustainability: making a plant-based diet work

Over the past week there has been a lot of media attention on the issue of the US drought, rising food prices, and the necessity for the general population to adopt a more vegetable-centric diet. Currently humans derive 20% of their protein from animal sources on average, but by 2050, this may need to drop to a maximum of 5%. Our planet simply will not be able to sustain the world population if meat is still consumed at such a high rate. It takes between five and ten times as much water to sustain the animals farmed for food as it would to grow crops enough to feed the same number of people. Similar figures apply to grains and vegetables grown to feed animals. Basically, if we eat the grains and vegetables directly, we require a lot less of them to sustain ourselves than if we were to feed them to animals and then eat the animals. And with an ever-increasing population, scientists are saying that this will be the only option. On one hand it makes me happy to know that factory farming will have to decrease, but on the other hand, I wonder if, for the many consumers staunchly determined to consume meat, a plant-based diet will ever become a reality.

Positive changes are taking place – every time I see a omnivorous blog promoting ‘Meatless Mondays’, or find an excellent chickpea salad recipe in the local paper, I feel encouraged. Increasingly as well-known chefs and celebrities embrace vegetables, folks are slowly opening their eyes to the wonderful world of vegetarian food.

At this point you may be thinking that it’s all good and well to eat more vegetarian food, but what about the meals themselves? I don’t know about you, but I come across many omnivores who find the idea of cooking a vegetarian meal, let alone vegan, positively scary! It’s expected not to be satisfying, and there is an underlying assumption that it’ll be missing vital nutrients. Sadly, if ‘vegetarian’ cooking means a bowl full of noodles, white rice or pasta, with a scant mix of vegetables mixed in, that perception is fairly accurate. Refined carbohydrates are nutritionally bankrupt (i.e. junk food), therefore a diet based on them isn’t much good.

So if you’re a health-conscious omnivore, swapping a lean meat and vegetable meal for a carb-heavy vegetarian meal isn’t appealing. One way to avoid this is to think of vegetables as your building blocks rather than refined carbohydrates and starches. Swap in some legumes to add protein and complex carbohydrates, and you’ll end up with a nutrient-dense, delicious, healthy meal.

Case in point: tonight’s lasagne, moussaka, eggplant bake, or whatever you would like to call it. Grilled eggplant slices are layered with leafy greens and creamy pumpkin-tofu filling, baked in a garlicky white sauce and topped with toasted almonds. It’s better than anything with pasta, I promise. It’s also low fat, low carb, high protein and high in all manner of other goodies. Best of all, it tastes absolutely indulgent. Whether you’re already a vego, going vego, or just looking for a delicious vegetarian meal to replace one of your dinners this week, this recipe hits the spot.

I would suggest steaming the pumpkin and grilling the eggplant beforehand if you’re going to make this on a weeknight. None of the steps take very long, but it did make life easy having those ingredients pre-prepared. I’ve discovered that a sandwich press is invaluable for grilling vegetables, especially eggplant. Inch-thick slices pressed between two sheets of baking paper for 5 minutes or so come out perfectly grilled, sans oil and mess.

Creamy Eggplant Pumpkin Bake (serves 2 very hungry people, or 3 more polite people)

Recently it struck me that the seeds I scrape out of my butternut pumpkin are edible. Not only edible, but quite nice. And a total waste to throw away. I’ve been re-thinking my vegetable waste – just because our mothers and grandmothers trimmed and peeled fruits and vegetables within an inch of life, doesn’t mean this is the only way to prepare them. Often the most nutrition is found in the seeds or the skin, so think twice before discarding the ‘scraps’. In this case I left the seeds in the pumpkin for extra texture, and just peeled it to facilitate mashing. If you’re roasting pumpkin rather than mashing it, try leaving the skin on. 

I served this with steamed broccolini, which I topped with a little reserved white sauce. On the side I added two fat handfuls of oak-leaf lettuce each.

Ingredients:

  • 250g butternut pumpkin, peeled and steamed, seeds left in
  • 250g non-GM firm tofu, crumbled
  • Zest of one lemon
  • 1 tsp miso paste
  • 2 tbsp nooch (optional)
  • Unsweetened almond or soy milk
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 eggplant, cut length-ways into 1″ slices and grilled
  • A handful of leafy greens (I only had lettuce on hand, I would recommend using spinach)
  • Garlic white sauce (see below)
  • Toasted slivered almonds

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 200C and line a loaf-tin with baking paper.
  2. Mash the pumpkin, tofu, lemon zest, miso and nooch in a bowl. Add milk, a tablespoon at a time, until the mix has the texture of a soft ricotta. Taste and season until it’s about right.
  3. Line the base of the tin with half of the eggplant slices. Top with half of the pumpkin mix, follow with a layer of leafy greens, then the other half of the pumpkin mix. Top with a final layer of eggplant.
  4. Pour the garlic white sauce over the eggplant, and bake for 10 minutes or until the white sauce has thickened and set.
  5. Sprinkle with almonds and freshly cracked pepper.

Garlic White Sauce

Mix 2 heaped teaspoons of cornflour (a.k.a. cornstarch), 2 tablespoons of nooch, 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice and a few cracks of salt into 1 1/2 cups of unsweetened almond or soy milk. Heat on the stove, stirring until it only just begins to thicken and coat the sides of the pot. Immediately remove from heat and stir in 1 finely smashed and chopped clove of garlic.

p.s. I know I’m a bit late to jump on the bandwagon, but oh my, overnight oats? Why had I never tried them before! They’ve been my breakfast every day this week. Steel-cut oats, ground flaxseed, cinnamon, berries, unsweetened almond milk. Amazing.

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2 thoughts on “Vegetables for sustainability: making a plant-based diet work

  1. Pingback: Cat's Kitchen

  2. Pingback: Sustainability, Hunger and Consumerism: The Quinoa Debate | Cat's Kitchen

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