Easy dinner

Easy dinner: North African Couscous Soup

I wasn’t very inspired when I got home today and the pantry was a bit on the bare side but I also didn’t want to go shopping. So I started browsing my new favourite cookbook and came across this recipe for North African Couscous Soup. The main ingredients? Celery (or fennel, carrots, zucchini), 1 cup couscous, and a bit of tomato paste. Check, check, check. Seemed too simple to pass. In less than half an hour I had a super tasty meal with enough leftovers for at least another couple of meals. I didn’t take a picture but here’s the recipe:

North African Couscous Soup

3 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 red onion, small, minced
½ cup celery or fennel, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Za’atar (or 2 tsp ground cumin)
1 cup couscous, preferably whole wheat
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 liters vegetable stock or water
salt & freshly ground pepper


1. Put the olive oil in a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. When hot, add the onion and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the za-atar and sprinkle with salt & pepper. Stir constantly to keep the spices from burning and cook until just fragrant, about a minute. Add the couscous and continue stirring and cooking until the couscous begins to toast and darken, 2-3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste until it is evenly distributed and begins to colour, another minute or two; then add the stock and stir to dissolve the tomato paste.

2. Bring the soup to a boil, then turn the heat down to low, cover, and cook without disturbing until the couscous is plump and tender, 5 to 10 minutes. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.

Print version here

Earth Hour, the environment, and the food you eat

I have to confess that Earth Hour this year was just as disappointing as last year, despite all the media attention. We went for dinner at a friend’s place and at 8:30 when we turned off our lights, it seemed like we were the only ones around doing so. But there are better things you can do with your time that will have a far greater effect on the environment as well as the quality of your life than eating by candlelight. Far more important is what you choose to eat. In a recent article on the NYT, Mark Bittman summarized well this position:

To eat well, says Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” means avoiding “edible food-like substances” and sticking to real ingredients, increasingly from the plant kingdom. (Americans each consume an average of nearly two pounds a day of animal products.) There’s plenty of evidence that both a person’s health — as well as the environment’s — will improve with a simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products and what might be called “real food.” (With all due respect to people in the “food movement,” the food need not be “slow,” either.)

From these changes, Americans would reduce the amount of land, water and chemicals used to produce the food we eat, as well as the incidence of lifestyle diseases linked to unhealthy diets, and greenhouse gases from industrial meat production. All without legislation.

And the food would not necessarily have to be organic, which, under the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition, means it is generally free of synthetic substances; contains no antibiotics and hormones; has not been irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge; was raised without the use of most conventional pesticides; and contains no genetically modified ingredients.

Simply put – eat more plants and less animal products and artificial food (“food-like substances” are all those products that a person living 50 years ago wouldn’t recognize as food). When we talk about the need of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the first thing we all think of is the pollution generated by cars and airplanes. But a recent study has shown that producing 1 kg of beef releases the same amount of CO2 than driving for 3 hours or leaving the lights on for twenty days. And that’s without including emissions of farm equipment or transporting the cattle and meat.

I personally believe that there is no need for everybody to become vegetarian and abdicate from meat and animal products altogether. All we need to do is restore meat to its proper place on our diet – that of the special treat, the garnish, rather than the centre-piece of every. single. meal.  By eating meat less often, you’ll also be able to afford better meat, the meat that is grass-fed, raised humanely, and not pumped with hormones. That way you’d help both the environment and your own health in the process.

Reducing your consumption of meat by at least half will make a much stronger statement than turning off the lights for an hour.

Food Matters

I wrote about Mark Bittman before but it was only today that I finally got his newly released book, Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating. Much like Michael Pollan, to whom he often refers in the book, Mark Bittman calls us to be more conscientious of our eating habits and adopt what he calls “sane eating.” There are seven basic guidelines:

  1. Eat fewer animal products than average
  2. Eat all the plants you can manage
  3. Make legumes part of your life
  4. Whole grains beat refined carbs
  5. Snack on nuts or olives
  6. When it comes to fats, embrace olive oil
  7. Everything else is a treat, and you can have treats daily

Numbers 1 & 2 are the hardest for those in a strict meat-and-potatoes kind of diet. But you can cut down gradually, making dishes that combine meat and grains to reduce the proportion of meat. Number 7 will depend on how you feel. If you are feeling fine, losing weight and your doctor is happy, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t indulge on your daily dessert but if you are not getting the results you want, it might be better to reduce the treats.

His plan is not really a diet in a faddish sense. He doesn’t preach we must eat all organic although he admits that eating what is produced locally and in season would be best not only for us but for the environment. And this is where all this eating sanely leads to – better health for us and for the earth we live in. Bittman started becoming more conscious of his eating habits after he read a scientific report that showed that the meat industry was responsible for producing one-fifth of greenhouse gases, much more than the transportation industry. At the same time his doctor raised the red flag telling him his cholesterol and blood sugars were out of wack. By switching the proportions of animal and vegetable products, cutting junk food and prossessed food (anything with more than 5 ingredients or with ingredients with more than five syllables), he lost 15 pounds in the first month, his lab work turned out normal in the second month, and within four months he slept better than ever before, lost 35 pounds (his weight eventually stabilized) and he felt confortable and well with his new eating style.Without counting calories, nutrients, feeling hungry, or rebounding.

Makes a lot of sense to me and I do try to follow many of these tips in my daily life.

Worth a read if you feel your health is below optimal and/or you are concerned about the environment.

Check the Globe and Mail review of the book.