THE BLOG

Meatless Monday: Burning Down the House

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The earth is our home. It's been letting us live here rent free for six million years. The least we can do is not trash the place. Please -- that behavior is so '80s rock star. But that, in our ignorance, is what we've been doing.

Food, from sourcing to saucing, accounts for one third of global greenhouse emissions (and in the US, we generate 5 percent of it all by ourselves). We crank out carbon and burn up fossil fuel with farming equipment. We burn by shipping the food from farm to table. We heat things up more when processing foods. Cows do it by virtue of their own natural processsing -- cow farts. That's the way they're made -- they're methane machines. Add it up and we're literally burning down the house.

Sweden, the country that gave us Abba, Volvo and Ingmar Bergman, has once again shown it's ahead of the game, with food labeling that includes not just nutritional information but carbon output.

It's one thing to know we're accountable for global climate change, it's another thing to see just how much carbon goes into making your lunch. The Swedish National Food Administration anticipates informing consumers may cut carbon emissions by up to 50 percent. We may not have the labeling yet, but you can get a good idea about the greenhouse gases making up your macaroni and cheese by checking out www.eatlowcarbon.org/.

Created by the eco-minded folk at Bon Appetit Management, this graphic drag and drop program lets you choose your meal -- be it chow mein or chili, macaroni or meatloaf -- and the program tabulates the carbon values. The point system has been assessed by an Ecotrust team of scientists, who sifted through 40 peer review studies so you don't have to. How cool is that?

Here's what else is cool -- most foods made from locally grown produce, beans and grains. They're the lowest, carbon-wise. Vegetarian chili, for example, has 86 carbon points. A cheeseburger, on the other hand, is a triple threat involving beef, dairy and processing. It racks up a red-hot 2,826 points. According to the program, eating 4,500 points a day puts you in the high carbon range. That burger gets you more than halfway there without even trying. That mac and cheese? Nine hundred and six points.

I learned about the eat low carbon program from John Ash. Named 2008 Cooking Teacher of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, he's been my source for culinary cool things for years. As chef at John Ash & Co. and the Vintner's Inn, he was one of Sonoma's driving forces back in the '80s, always able to connect what's on the plate with where and how it's grown.

John grew up on his grandparents' Colorado cattle ranch. "We were poor mountain folk," he jokes. "But literally nothing was wasted because we produced most of what we ate." With the environmental toll from cattle farming staring them in the face, they practiced the things we need to figure out if we're not going to burn up -- eating closer to home, reducing waste and enjoying the foods the seasons bring us.

Talking about her new it's-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novel The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood says, "The big question for human beings is: What are we going to eat?" Now we have the big answer -- plants. Eat less meat less frequently, do with less dairy and pass on processed food. Choose foods that reduce, not boost, carbon emissions and everybody wins. Cool.

Low Carbon, No Carne Vegetarian Chili

Hot spice-wise but cool carbon-wise, this veggie chili is a beautiful thing, with unsweetened cocoa adding depth and earthiness. Garnish with cheddar or sour cream for a little carbon impact, or chopped scallionr or cilantro or roasted pumpkin seeds for even less. Use the very seeds you scooped and saved from your Halloween jack o' lantern. Of course you didn't waste. That would be wrong.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1 onion
1 red or green pepper
1/2 jalapeno
2 celery ribs
1 zucchini
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 15-ounce can black beans or pinto beans (or 2 cups prepared beans)
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes (or 2 good-sized tomatoes, diced)
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
sea salt to taste
garnishes including grated cheddar, sour cream, chopped scallions, chopped cilantro, and/or roasted pumpkin seeds

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Mince garlic and chop onion, add to oil and saute until just tender, about 8 minutes.

Reduce heat to medium-low and stir in cumin, coriander and chili powder.

Chop pepper, jalapeno,celery and zucchini, and add to onion-spice mixture. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, until the peppers soften. You can add a little juice from the canned tomatoes if the mixture seems too dry.

Stir in tomatoes, beans and cocoa. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Season with sea salt to taste.

Garnish as desired.

Covered well, it keeps in the fridge for up to 5 days and flavor improves over time. Keeps in the freezer almost indefinitely.

Serves 4.