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Going Vegan, from the Oregonian

Grant Butler

May 25, 2010 (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News delivered by Newstex) -- During the annual James Beard Foundation Awards earlier this month in New York, reporters asked many of the nation's best chefs to predict the next big cooking trend, now that the bizarre fixation with bacon in mainstream restaurants is on the wane. Their answer was resounding: vegetables.

Recipes included with this story: White House No-Cream Creamed Spinach, Swiss Chard and Garbanzo Bean Soup

This was the same weekend that celebrated molecular gastronomist Jose Andres was profiled on "60 Minutes," and the chef made a statement that startled host Anderson Cooper: "I believe the future is vegetables and fruit. They are so much more sexier than a piece of chicken. Think about it for a second. Let's compare the best chicken breast from the best farm with a beautiful pineapple. Cut the pineapple and already the aromas are inundating the entire kitchen. It has acidity, a sour after-note, touches of passionfruit. And the chicken breast? It's OK, but I think meat is slightly overrated. Meat, to me, is slightly boring."

The very next day, celebrity chef Mario Batali announced that each of his 14 restaurants would begin observing Meatless Mondays, with vegetables and grains taking on larger roles throughout the rest of the week as well. All this comes on the heels of Jamie Oliver's "Food Revolution" reality show, which got surprisingly large ratings this spring for a Friday-night program about making school lunches healthier by serving more fresh vegetables.

If it feels like we've suddenly entered a plant-based moment in time, we can thank first lady Michelle Obama, who launched the White House garden last year and used it to start a nationwide discussion about nutrition, and how instrumental fruits and vegetables can be in the fight against obesity, diabetes and heart disease. While the Obama family isn't vegan, the first lady's message resonates with people who are.

"What I've learned from being a mom, in trying to feed my girls, is that it is so important for them to get regular fruits and vegetables in their diet," Obama said last year. "They have nutrients. They make you strong. They are brain food."

And there's plenty of food for thought in the just-released "A White House Garden Cookbook" ($24.95, Red Rock Press, 160 pages), by Clara Silverstein. The book features many recipes created by chefs working in the White House, as well as updated recipes from previous administrations, going all the way back to Martha Washington. Also included are recipes from community gardens and organic farms across the nation that were inspired by the White House garden's symbolic message about eating well, and which feature ingredients that were part of the garden's first harvest.

The cookbook includes details about the long history of gardening at the White House, including tidbits about Thomas Jefferson's obsession with fresh peas, and how Abraham Lincoln used his small garden plot to help feed Union troops who camped out on the lawn during the Civil War. But White House gardens faded as we shifted from being a nation of farmers to city dwellers. The last garden, the Roosevelt Victory Garden, was planted almost 70 years ago.

But the heart of the book is its recipes, and many of them are vegan or easily adaptable by substituting margarine for the small amounts of butter that are called for. Three of the recipes come from Northwest cooks, including a Milwaukie schoolteacher's pear-fennel salad, and a Eugene school group's orange juice-glazed baby carrots. The standout, Swiss Chard and Garbanzo Bean Soup, comes from Blue Earth Farms in Chehalis, Wash., and it's loaded with flavor and has very little fat.

In fact, most of the recipes emphasize low-fat cooking techniques, which is in step with the garden's healthy mission. Of the White House recipes, the No-Cream Creamed Spinach, stands out for its calorie-cutting approach, using pureed spinach instead of the hefty amounts of butter and cream that are traditionally used to give the dish its creamy mouth feel.

Michelle Obama concedes that changing America's diet won't happen overnight, but she has said she hopes the White House garden can be a catalyst. Clearly a lot of the country's top chefs are listening, and this cookbook should help the seeds of change take root everywhere, helping people eat a more plant-focused diet, even if they don't identify themselves as vegan.
-- Grant Butler


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