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Meatless Monday: Better Natured

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A couple times a year, I like to swap my stilettos for a pair of hiking boots and lose myself in nature. To celebrate the centennial anniversary of the National Park system, my husband and just spent a week of hiking in the Smoky Mountains. Home to elk, deer, wild turkeys, Canada geese, rabbits, and black bear, this temperate rain forest has thin topsoil but the ground is so saturated with moisture, it's spongy beneath your feet. The rocks and trees are furred with bright green algae. Skinny pines, some up to 200 feet high, tower overhead, their few upper branches taking in the nourishment of the sun. It feels lush, dense, rich, primeval. Yet much of it was homestead and farmed land until the park system took it over in the 1930s, less than a century ago. The lesson here -- nature can reclaim and heal. But you have to give it a chance.

The same century has wrought changes in us that are not natural, not healing. The Smoky Mountains are rich full-flavored, nutrient-dense, local produce -- every region in our country is. Yet what people flock to are chicken-fried steak and country ham at breakfast, barbecue at lunch and dinner, and fudge, ice cream and pancakes in between. This meat-heavy diet of largely processed food has had very large results. Us. I saw far too many people, both locals and tourists, carrying 50 to 150 pounds of extra weight. This goes far beyond enjoying a vacation treat or two. This kind of obesity adds up to poor health and soaring health costs -- up to $200 billion each year.

My blogs seldom focus on the connection between a plant-based diet and health because I assume the message is already out there. Even the government is coming around to encouraging a diet of nutrient-dense plant-based foods. But clearly, it's a message not everyone has received.

Does a meatless diet sound scary? Restrictive? The alternative -- a life sentence of diabetes, cancer and heart disease -- sounds worse.

Forget healing and nutrient-dense -- a plant-based diet can be downright indulgent. Along the river trail one day, I spotted small mushrooms popping out from the green forest floor -- apricot-colored with broad, flat caps with frilly edges -- chanterelles, aka Tennessee truffles.* With their nutty, umami flavor, and meaty texture, chanterelles are in no ways austere --they're a rare seasonal feast. I also spotted two of my favorite greens-- astringent dandelion and lemony sorrel -- growing wild. Were it not for a very few vegan-friendly dining options (thanks especially to Wild Plum Tea Room), I was ready to start foraging for food the way mountain locals have done for generations.

Nature can heal us, too. It won't take a century. It will take moving away from an animal-rich, processed diet and enjoying what a more plant-based diet offers -- big flavors, big health. "There's more to life than meat and potatoes," as one of the Smoky Mountain guidebooks put it. Start today, Meatless Monday. Let the healing begin. Naturally.

*Food foraging isn't guesswork. Learn how to identify what's safe.


Cat-Heads with Spinach and Mushroom Gravy (and no Cats)

Cat-heads are biscuits, big ones (cat-head-sized, if you're into hyperbole). Beloved in the south, they're tall, fluffy, and alas, traditionally made with lard. This vegan version may upset southern traditionalists, but their slight but pleasing tang and light texture honors the original without pork fat or harm to pig. No traditional milk-and-pork-fat gravy , but a plant-based one. Lemon zest can stand in for harder-to-find sorrel and everyday button mushrooms replace pricy chanterelles.

If like my dad, you prefer sweet to savory, skip the spinach and mushroom gravy, enjoy another southern tradition, biscuits and sorghum syrup.

For the biscuits:

-- Use a light hand with the dough. Even better, use a food processor. The whole batch comes together in minutes.

-- Chilled vegan butter. It keeps the dough cool so the fat melts into the biscuit dough only during baking.

-- Many southern cooks swear by White Lily flour, a soft wheat flour. I've adjusted by adding corn starch to unbleached all-purpose flour for lighter biscuits.

-- Biscuits always taste best fresh out of the oven.

1/2 cup unsweetened soy milk
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1-3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for shaping biscuits
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4-1/2 teaspoon aluminum-free baking powder
pinch sea salt
6 tablespoons) vegan butter or margarine, chilled
1 tablespoon vegan butter or margarine, melted (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk together soy milk and cider vinegar to make vegan buttermilk (mixture will clabber -- it's supposed to). Set aside.

In a food processor, sift together flour, cornstarch, baking powder and salt. Pulse a time or two to combine.

Pulse in the chilled vegan margarine and mix quickly, just until mixture becomes like coarse meal. Pour in vegan buttermilk and give a quick mix to form a damp dough.

Dust rolling surface generously with more flour. Turn out the biscuit dough. Knead oh-so-briefly, working in flour -- a tablespoon or two at a time -- just until dough loses its stickiness. Pat or roll out dough to 1/2-inch thick. Flour the rim of a glass or use a floured 2-inch or 3-inch biscuit cutter to form biscuits.

Place biscuits on the rimmed baking sheet. Brush tops with melted vegan butter, if desired.

Bake for 15 minutes. Biscuit should be lightly golden, pillowy and fragrant. Best served at once, with a generous ladleful of gravy.

Makes 6 to 8 biscuits, serving 6 to 8.

For the spinach and mushroom gravy:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 scallions, green tops and thick white stems, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
4 ounces spinach leaves
1 handful sorrel leaves, if you can get them or 1 lemon, zested
1-1/2 teaspoons nutritional yeast
1/4 cup plain unsweetened soy milk
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add chopped garlic, scallions and mushrooms. Saute, giving the vegetables an occasional stir, for about 4 to 5 minutes, or until they're softened.

Cover and reduce heat to low, cooking another 10 minutes or until mushrooms have darkened and produced a nice amount of broth.

Add spinach leaves by the handful, the sorrel if you can get it, or the lemon zest if you can't. Stir just until the greens go limp, another minute or two.

Pour everything into a blender or food processor, scraping up any mushroom bits that stick to the bottom of the pan. Add soy milk and nutritional yeast. Give a quick puree until sauce thickens and becomes smooth and green. Season with sea salt and pepper. Spoon over biscuits or pair with any fresh vegetable.

Makes roughly 1 cup, serving 4 to 6.