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Meatless Monday: Eating To Let the Healing Begin

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At sundown tonight, Jews all over the world will celebrate Passover by retelling of our escape from slavery and suffering in Egypt and by giving thanks for freedom. It's observed by a seder, a ritual feast in the home involving prayer and symbolic foods, followed, quite frequently, by brisket.

It may be traditional in your family and I'm sure your mother's brisket is the best brisket, or maybe she makes a mean roast chicken. However, there's a tradition that goes back even further. One of Judaism's precepts is tikkun olam, repairing the world. Tall order. Just look around -- hate's hot, there's war, want, poverty, pestilence, prejudice, politics, a planet in peril, as many plagues as the Jews faced centuries ago when they decided they were done with Egypt.

God, you'd imagine, could fix this mess up in a minute. But if you read the fine print on our contract, it explains tikkun olam is humanity's job. The fact this concept goes back at least as far as the 16th century shows the world has going to hell in a handbasket for a long, long time. And we can assume those who came before us haven't done such a bang-up job of repairing the world, because there's still a lot of work left to be done. How we're supposed to approach the task is vague, not to mention overwhelming. Where to begin?

One true, healing thing we can do is eat mindfully and meatlessly. Cutting back on cow may seem a like rad concept at a time when meat consumption is only growing, but the concept of a plant-based diet, like tikkun olam, predates your mother's cooking. It's right there in Genesis 1:29 -- God gives Adam and Eve "every seed-bearing plant that is upon the earth and every tree that has a seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food." Nothing in the contract about eating brisket or chicken, about eating anything other than plants. We've been in contractual violation. No wonder Adam and Eve got tossed out of Eden.

Not to get all Biblical on your backside, but we don't want the same fate. Eating animals won't heal the planet, the animals or us. Hanging onto concepts that harm the planet and us is its own kind of enslavement. Passover, like Easter, is a spring holiday, marking the season of renewal and rebirth. It's time to rethink our priorities and our traditions. And meat consumption really is a case where less is more. Cutting out meat one day a week -- on, say, Mondays -- makes a difference to the environment.

It also makes a difference where we can feel it -- our wallets. A plant-based diet is "absolutely cheaper," agrees New York Times food journalist Mark Bittman. Think a buck for burger's a good deal? That same buck can get you a one-pound bag of lentils, which feeds at least four, rather than just one. Nor does it stress the system -- the planet's or yours -- in the process.

If you're really ready for the healing to begin, chef, former Washington Post columnist and fellow Culinate contributor Kim O'Donnel is encouraging fans of her weekly Culinate web chat to take the T&T Challenge -- trying tempeh and tofu at home. Sure you know cutting back on meat has positive impact on both the environment and you, but there's definite tofuphobia out there. Her week-long challenge begins April 5. I'll be cheering you on along with plant-powered culinary celebrities like Moosewood Cookbook author Mollie Katzen, Vegan Soul chef Bryant Terry and Veganomicon's Isa Chandra Moskowitz. We'll post tips, recipes and psychological counseling Kim's Licking Your Chops blog. Five readers will be selected to blog about their T&T kitchen experiments on her website True/Slant. And you can count on a tofu or tempeh recipe here next Monday.

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint or your waistline, if you want to save money or save the world, all roads may lead to a plant-based diet. On the other hand, there is no malady on earth where the answer is brisket. No, not even your mother's.


Alt Veggie Paella for Passover -- And All Other Nights

Paella is traditionally made with rice, which, like other grains, is out for Ashkenazic Jews at Passover. It's also made with meat, fowl and/or seafood, all of which are out when you're meatless. So here's a Passover paella for everyone. It's made from quinoa. Usually considered a grain, quinoa is actually a grass, high in protein and fiber, low in calories and suitable for seders. A bit fussier to make than many of my recipes, there's definite payoff. It's heady with saffron, light and bright with spring veggies and it feeds a crowd.

1 mild dried red chili, like an ancho
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon paprika, sweet or smoked
2 good pinches saffron (about 1/2 teaspoon)
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes
4 carrots, chopped
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 bunch scallions or 1 spring onion, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
4 cups vegetable broth or water, divided use
2 cups quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 15-ounce can artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained, quartered
2 roasted red peppers (jarred are fine), cut into strips
12 cherry or grape tomatoes
chopped parsley and fennel fronds for garnish

Soak chili in a small bowl of hot water for 20 minutes, or until softened. Chop.

In a deep, large skillet or Spanish cazuela, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add chopped dried chili and garlic. Stir a few minutes, until garlic turns golden. Add the paprika and 1 pinch of saffron. Stir in canned tomatoes. Cook for another couple minutes, stirring, unil thick and fragrant.

Process in a blender or food processor, until thick and smooth.

Do not clean skillet. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add chopped carrots, fennel and scallions or spring onion. Cook, stirring, about 5 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and continue cooking, for another 5 minutes. Return tomato-chili mixture to pot and stir on 1 cup of the water or vegetable broth. Stir till it forms a thickish sauce.

Rinse dried quinoa well of its saponin, a natural bitter coating. Drain. Add to skillet, along with an additional cup of water or broth. Stir gently, then reduce heat to medium and let the mixture cook without stirring, turning the skillet occasionally to distribut the heat evenly. After 10 minutes, add the remaining water or broth. Keep cooking another 10 minutes, until all liquid is absorbed and quinoa grains have popped and expanded.

Arrange quartered artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes and red pepper strips on top of the paella. Be artsy. Press gently into place.

Remove paella pan from heat. Cover with a lid or wrap tightly with foil. Let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.

Garnish with chopped parsley or feathery fennel fronds.

Serves 6 to 8.

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