It’s not worth trying to persuade anyone to become vegan, for a couple of very good reasons: one, it’s a losing battle, and two, it’s far from certain that a diet with no animal products is best for everyone. It’s increasingly evident, however, that a part-time vegan diet — one that emphasizes minimally processed plant food at the expense of everything else — is the direction that will do the most to benefit human health, increase animal welfare and reduce environmental impact. The remaining challenge, an undeniably big one, is to figure out how to make such a diet, which you might also call “flexitarian,” the standard.
My own diet, which I call Vegan Before 6 (and wrote a book about), is one way of tackling part-time veganism, but it isn’t the only way. An intelligent adaptation of the Mediterranean diet, one of the popular “fast today, feast tomorrow” diets or even a so-called paleo diet — one that stresses vegetables rather than animal products (our great ancestors, after all, were gatherer-hunters who saw meat not as routine but as an occasion to feast) — can put you on the right track.
As can this: a day of your choosing when you just go vegan.
There are, of course, true vegans who will say that part-time veganism is a little-bit-pregnant kind of thing; that is, impossible. But since the word means a diet without animal products, it can be used to describe something as part-time as a meal: a salad is, after all, a vegan meal. (I am aware, having had this argument dozens of times in the last few years, that many full-time vegans’ primary concern is animal welfare, and that’s a different discussion.)
Being a vegan is not my point, and anyway, it’s as easy to create an unhealthy full-time vegan diet as it is to eat brilliantly as a part-time vegan. It just takes a little thought and a little will, though perhaps less will than you might think at first. Many cooked dishes that contain animal products can be and traditionally have been made without them, usually out of want. The problem for most people in developed countries is not a lack of opportunity to eat animal products but a superabundance.
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It isn’t as if vegetables are in short supply. Yes, local or organic produce is expensive (and so inconveniently seasonal!), but if you are going to eat it, now is your chance. It isn’t a coincidence that this column is appearing in September; to me, the period between Labor Day and Thanksgiving is the best time of year to cook — warm enough to grill and cool enough to braise, with the farmers’ market still an absolute paradigm of abundance. Take advantage: in a few months, there may be little more than root vegetables, apple cider and hand-dyed yarn.
When fruits and vegetables are at their best, they give you insight into how the vegan thing can work for you, if only for a day. And given a moderate degree of freshness, most conventional vegetables from ordinary supermarkets can be made to taste good when gardens go dormant.
Plant-based meals contain more than vegetables, of course: Stock the pantry with good grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, oils, vinegars and other classic condiments, and you’re set to make an infinite number of dishes that don’t ruffle a single animal’s feathers, hide or fin.
Here then are some recipes for what you might call A Vegan Day. I don’t pretend that you’re likely to eat all five in the same day, or even that they have much relationship to one another, but they’re each a representation of the kind of thing you might be eating at a given moment. Some are simple, traditional peasant food: hoecakes made from little but corn and water may seem ascetic until you recognize that this is polenta in a fast, crunchy form, filled with flavor and perfect to bury under a pile of fruit. (You can jazz them up if you like: a little sugar, a little baking powder, a little nondairy milk, maybe some maple syrup, and they start to resemble something far richer and more common. I happen to like the ultraminimalist version.)
Some are elaborate, and designed to satisfy an open-minded if devoted meat-eater at the biggest meal of the day. This ratatouille with chickpeas and fennel is among the best I’ve ever made, and bow ties with bulgur and what amounts to a salad is as good at room temperature as any pasta I know. The others are creatively simple: carrot candy is as much fun to eat as it is to look at; broiled melon is a lovely and unusual dessert.
The options are infinite: I love jook for breakfast, as well as more conventional porridge (or mush) or something more modern, like quinoa cooked in almond milk. Chopped salad may have become a cliché, but there may not be a better vegan lunch (you might try one with a Thai- or Japanese-flavored dressing for variety). A snack can, of course, be as simple as popcorn jazzed up with nuts and raisins. Dinner? I could live on pasta with vegetables for weeks. You might try it, if only for a day.
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