Meatless Monday: Oldways, New Vegetarian and Vegan Diet Pyramid

The old ways are new again -- and even more vital. That's why Oldways, the Boston-based nonprofit advocating health through heritage, traditional foods and foodways just released its new vegetarian and vegan diet pyramid.

There's nothing new about the health benefits of a produce-rich diet. Back around 400 B.C. or so, Hippocrates was saying let food be thy medicine and medicine thy food -- and he lived into his 80s. What's new "is the science," says Oldways president Sara Baer-Sinnott. "The science gets better." Among the latest compelling stats is a JAMA study linking a meatless diet to lower risk of mortality. Info like that, coupled with the growing interest in a meatless diet prompted Oldways to update its vegetarian pyramid of 1997, which, despite its focus, was shy about trumpeting the power of produce. The images of fresh fruits and vegetables were few and were shunted off into the corner.

Produce gets its due with the new version, with a rainbow cornucopia of vegetables and fruits comprising the broad base of the pyramid. "It's beautifully illustrated, and one of the most astonishing thing to me is if you put your finger over the top" (where dairy resides, at the tip of the triangle), "it's vegan. In the past, we didn't really account for vegans," admits Baer-Sinnott. "Personally, I love cheese. But here, there's not much difference between vegetarian and vegan."

From the vegetables and fruits at the bottom to the little triangle of dairy at the top, the foods of Oldways' pyramid are whole, unprocessed, traditional. "We're not about food fads, we're about traditions, taking the best of the past and bringing it forward. It's delicious, not expensive and it brings family and community together."

Like Slow Food International, Oldways was founded in the 90s, in the dark days of low-carb, low-fat and processed food. Oldways takes a holistic and deliciously old school approach to health and nutrition, focusing on "the importance of preserving old ways, the food traditions that are healthy for people, good for the earth, also for culture."

All these old ways were fairly new for Baer-Sinnott when she came to the nonprofit twenty years ago after working in publishing. "I've really learned about the power of healthy eating and the pleasure of eating," she says, just back from a tour of Madrid. It's all part of the job and the nonprofit's mission "to inspire people, to get them excited." These annual Oldways culinaria trips do inspire people to take what they've learned -- and eaten -- in different regions and apply it at home in melting pot America. "Twenty years ago, when we introduced Mediterranean olive oil" (as part of Oldways' Mediterranean Diet Pyramid), "olive oil was a weird product."

In the same way, Oldways' vegetarian and vegan diet pyramid aims to make a traditional vegetarian and plant-based diets less mystifying and more accessible to people accustomed to the Standard American Diet. "People may think it's a lot more complicated. We're trying to provide tools to make them feel more confident and show the foods are exciting and delicious."

From personal health to global sustainability to animal rights, "there are so many reasons why people choose vegetarian and vegan eating," says Baer-Sinnott. "They're all good reasons."

Lentil Puree with Wilted Greens

One of Baer-Sinnott's favorite plant-based dishes -- and mine -- is beans and bitter greens. This is not a glamorous dish. Rather, it's the kind of food known as cucina povera, poor man's grub, a cheap, traditional meal that leaves you happy, energized and sated. Served with crusty whole grain bread, it is unbeatable.

In Puglia, it may be fava beans with turnip greens or broccoli rabe. In France, it's flageolets sur pissenlit (or piss-in-the-bed, as dandelion greens are called. You gotta love the French). It translates beautifully here. Use whatever beans and fresh greens you like.

The beans are slow-cooked to a divine beanly sludge. The greens take only minutes and should be done just before you're ready to eat.

For the beans

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, diced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 stalk celery, diced
12 ounces basic brown lentils (2-1/2 cups)
4 cups water or vegetable broth, plus more as needed for consistency
1 small dried red pepper, crumbled or a pinch dried red pepper flakes
bay leaf
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
a small handful fresh thyme leaves
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

In a large soup pot, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the diced onion and carrot and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables soften slightly and get a nice coating from the oil -- about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and celery and continue cooking for another 3-5 minutes, giving them a stir so everyone is happy together.

Add the lentils, water or vegetable broth, crushed red pepper and bay leaf. Stir and let mixture come to a boil.

Reduce heat to low and let the beans simmer, with the pot lid on slightly ajar, so allow a little steam to escape. Cook for about an hour, until lentils are quite tender.

Set aside to cool slightly. Fish out the red pepper and bay leaf, then puree using an immersion blender or food processor for a minute or two, until the mixture is uniform. You can blitz until quite creamy or leave it a little chunky, depending on personal preference.

Add thyme leaves, balsamic vinegar and remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Process briefly again to combine. Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.

For the greens

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 crushed red pepper or a good pinch of red pepper flakes
6 cups chopped assorted leafy greens -- I used arugula and spinach from my garden, you can use kale, chard, mustard or turnip greens, broccoli rabe, whatever you like
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. When it starts to shimmer with the heat, add the chopped garlic. Stir briefly, until it just starts to soften. Add the crushed red pepper or pepper flakes.

Add chopped greens by the handful. Lower the heat to medium and stir gently, letting the greens wilt just a little. This takes less than 5 minutes for softer leaves like spinach and arugula. Tougher greens like turnip greens or broccoli rabe take a little bit longer. When the greens are just tender but still bright green, remove from burner.

Squeeze juice of 1 lemon over all and season with sea salt and fresh pepper to taste.
Spoon the bean puree onto a plate or shallow bowl. Mound the greens on top. Enjoy.

Serves 6.