Secretly, I could live on chocolate and coffee. But don't tell anyone, since I make my living writing about vegetables. And my darkest secret is this: My favorite thing in the whole world is (or was) chicken pan drippings. This is the stuff the French call fond, though growing up in my family, we called it "crispy," and fought over who'd get to scrape it off the bottom of the roasting pan. Whatever you call it, it's the deeply caramelized juices that have gathered beneath a roasting bird and reduced down into a rich, mahogany salty-sweetish treat that's not only more satisfying to nibble on than the best potato chips, but also is the foundation for the tastiest gravy.
That's why I'm so happy I went to the home of a great cook for Thanksgiving dinner; her gravy, made from the deepest, darkest of pan drippings, was nirvana. Or at least the closest to gravy nirvana I may come for a while, as I think my meat-eating days may be numbered.
Like watching the dark clouds of a gathering storm, I have been reading, reading, reading about the horrors of factory farming over the last couple of years, knowing full well that the truth would soon be upon me like a sudden downpour. Little by little, I've stopped buying meat at the grocery store -- unless I'm lucky enough to find some with either the Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved label on it -- and taken more and more comfort in the pasture-raised beef, pork, and chicken I can buy at two nearby farms (even though it's a little more expensive).
But right before Thanksgiving, I (like a lot of HuffPosters) decided to read Jonathan Saffran Foer's Eating Animals. A few pages in, I knew my storm had finally arrived. And it wasn't the showers I expected; it was more like hail. I'd figured I'd learn more about the inhumane practices of factory farms; what I didn't anticipate was Foer's exploration of the inherent suffering of all animals (including fish) raised and killed for human consumption. Ack. And Foer is not subtle. With all due respect to Foer, I sometimes felt like the book was written in capital letters. Every night as I read a few pages before bedtime, I had the urge to put it down and pick up my copy of Mary Karr's new alcoholism memoir, Lit. I figured it'd be cheerier.
But I held on, and like most people who just barely escape serious storm damage, I've determined to build my house a little stronger. I will be even more vigilant about sourcing my meat (and any kind of meat product, including that ubiquitous canned broth). Ultimately, though, despite Foer's provocations, I decided I'm not yet ready to go vegetarian. For a couple reasons. One, I still believe that the natural world thrives on balance, and that the small diversified family farm is key to a balanced ecosystem. I want to support small farmers. (Read Nicole Hahn Niman's "The Carnivore's Dilemma" for more on this.)
But secondly, and maybe more importantly, as a cook and a food writer, I feel like the most responsible thing I can do at this point is to take up the middle ground (never the sexy choice) of eating less meat rather than no meat. We need big change fast: The latest studies estimate that our current system of intensive livestock farming is responsible for 51% of greenhouse gases. We Americans eat, on average, 200 pounds of meat per year. Realistically, we are not going to convert a nation of meat-eaters to vegetarians overnight. (If you're the cook in the family, you know what I'm talking about). But there are some pretty easy steps that we can take to cut back, to cut down--maybe even greatly reduce--the amount of meat we eat. If you're a meat eater hoping to eat more consciously, I offer a few of the strategies I'm trying in my own quest for a balanced, sustainable diet. (I'm sorry, but these tips aren't for vegans or vegetarians.)
1. Eat meat at no more than one meal a day. If you have bacon or sausage for breakfast, don't have a turkey sandwich for lunch and pork tenderloin for dinner. Lately, I've found that a steamy bowl of soup makes a satisfying breakfast--not traditional, but filling. Grilled or roasted vegetables make great sandwich fillings for lunch.
2. Eat meatless dinners twice a week. Try having a make-your-own-pizza night at home with good store-bought dough and lots of vegetarian toppings like sundried tomatoes, caramelized onions, and sautéed mushrooms. Making custom fried rice (kids love "7-treasure" rice) or custom pasta toppings are fun vegetarian dinner options.
3. Redesign your dinner plate. Serve a portion of meat that's no more than 4 ounces, and make three-quarters of your plate vegetables and grains.
4. Use meat as a flavoring rather than a main dish. To make vegetable dishes feel more substantial, start by sautéing just a small amount of meat, like sausage or ham, along with onions and garlic, before adding greens or other vegetables. Serve over polenta as a main dish.
5. Learn to make a few good one-pot meals that stretch meat. I recently made a big batch of spaghetti sauce with 3 pounds of local beef, and it yielded a generous 12 servings, which I froze in portions for weeknight pasta dinners. Chilis, lasagnas, pasta sauces, and stews are good meat-stretchers.
6. Turn eggs into meals. Eggs are incredibly versatile, so instead of confining them to breakfast, think of them in main dishes: frittatas, stratas, and savory bread puddings are easy to make and leftovers are perfect for lunch. (Be sure to find a local source for your eggs.)
7. Eat shellfish. If you're not a coastal dweller, it may seem anathema to you to eat mussels or oysters. But they're both on Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watches Super Green list, so they make a good sustainable fish choice. Farmed mussels, in particular, are widely available now, and they're inexpensive, delicious, filling, and versatile (add them to just about any soup base).
8. Turn salad into dinner. A warm salad can be really satisfying and is a good meat-stretcher too. Start with a quick sauté or stir fry of a bit of meat and some veggies and turn out over greens. Dress with vinaigrette warmed in the pan. Serve with crusty bread.
9. Bring your lunch to work. Forget the deli or fast food. You will feel so much better and more satisfied if you bring your own: Think soup, salad, frittata, or even a ploughman's lunch of cheese, fruit, and bread.
10. Spend more time in the kitchen. There is no getting around this one. By eating less meat, you'll be cooking more vegetables and grains, which take more prep. Set aside a Sunday afternoon to cook ahead, too, and refrigerate or freeze for the week. Use your new commitment as a good excuse to take some cooking classes; cooking from scratch is about the best thing you can do for both your well-being and the environment.