“Being a little bit vegan might be like being a little bit pregnant,” said Mark Bittman, whose The VB6 Cookbook came out on May 6. That evening, he appeared on a panel at a benefit for Farm Sanctuary, a non-profit that combats factory farming and operates sanctuaries where farm animals can live out their days. The event, called “Conscientious Table,” outlined the consequences of our country’s food system — climate change, animal suffering, health crises — that are undoubtedly grim, but the overall mood was optimistic. Change, the speakers agreed, is still possible, and Bittman’s quasi-vegan approach may be one solution to a host of complicated issues.
Bittman’s latest book stems from a previous Vegan Before 6, a more philosophical volume in which he lays out a diet he adopted upon a doctor’s recommendation, after gaining weight and facing the onset of diabetes. The idea is to make two meals a day plant-based, while allowing for flexibility at dinner time. But is this flexitarian method enough to address the tolls of industrial agriculture upon both personal and global well-being?
It’s a move in the right direction, the panel agreed. At the talk, held before a full house in The Foundry, a gorgeous restored space in Long Island City, the speakers acknowledged that insisting Americans go totally vegan may be too daunting a proposition. Dr. Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, said that veganism exists on spectrum. “All or nothing thinking can really get in our way,” she said. “It’s about moving from apathy to empathy.”
Empathy for animals is certainly a strong motivation for vegetarians and vegans, but the environmental wages of our food system, too, are a major concern. Speakers noted that industrial agriculture is a known producer of greenhouse gases, a force behind climate change. Farm Sanctuary President Gene Baur cited other costs that most people don’t consider, like the depletion of water and fossil fuels. Moreover, “70 percent of our health care costs would be eliminated if we shifted to whole food, plant based diets,” he said.
“There is a greening trend in America,” Bittman said. “The writing is on the wall that we’re all going to eat a more plant-based diet.” However, there are significant political roadblocks to encouraging Americans to eat more “real food,” which Bittman defines as “food that has no ingredients, because it is an ingredient.” Climate change denial persists within Congress, for instance, and election season begins in Iowa, a major agricultural center.
Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said that the blame leveled against farmers is misplaced: “The problem is a food system run by a very small number of companies,” she said. And those companies aggressively market junk food to children, setting them up for lifelong addiction.
The obstacles to fixing a food system that contributes to poor diet and pollution are daunting, the speakers said. But it’s possible to take action on a local and personal level: “You can be a part-time vegan if you want to be,” Bittman said. The VB6 diet, with its emphasis on unprocessed foods, is one step. Bittman also encouraged the audience to consider how food is sold and marketed in their towns, and to ask contenders for local office to state their position on the food system. “It should be a proving ground for political candidates,” he said.
Gene Stone, author of Forks Over Knives, agreed. “Everyone has some skill they can apply to address the issue,” he said.
Bittman’s skills were evident in the dishes served at the event, all made from recipes in the new cookbook. After the jump, find one of those recipes from The VB6 Cookbook to try at home.
Makes 4 servings
Time: 20 to 45 minutes, depending on the desired texture
Soft corn tortillas make a perfect vehicle for this tofu “chorizo,” which is so good you’ll find a lot of other uses for it too. Make it as soft or as crisp as you like, but use a nonstick pan for the best results; cast-iron is a good second choice. Since it’s easy to double the batch well ahead of time, you might think about making this dish the next time you have a brunch.
Eight 6-inch corn tortillas
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small red onion, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1½ pounds firm tofu (1½ blocks)
1 red bell pepper, chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 limes, 1 halved,
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
¼ cup chopped scallions, for garnish
1. Heat the oven to 400°F. Stack the tortillas on a large square of foil and wrap them loosely.
2. Put the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic; sprinkle with the salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally until the vegetables soften, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Crumble the tofu into the pan with your hands. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom of the skillet occasionally, and adjusting the heat as necessary, until the tofu browns and crisps as much or as little as you like it, anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.
4. When the tofu is almost ready, put the tortillas in the oven.
5. Add the bell pepper to the pan if you’re using it. Sprinkle the mixture with the chili powder; stir, and cook, continuing to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan until the mixture is fragrant, less than a minute. Squeeze the juice of the halved lime over all, garnish with cilantro and scallions, and serve with the tortillas and lime quarters.
For a little more kick without being too fiery, try 1 or 2 poblano chiles instead of the bell pepper. • Substitute 3 cups well-drained cooked or canned black or pinto beans for the tofu. (If you’re using canned beans, rinse them before draining.) • Use tempeh instead of tofu. It will be tangier and slightly more dense, closer to the texture of ground meat. • Small whole wheat tortillas are good, here, too. Soften them the same way as described above.
From The VB6 Cookbook by Mark Bittman