In Conversation with Eco-Chef Louisa Shafia | Civil Eats

In Conversation with Eco-Chef Louisa Shafia

Louisa Shafia is the author of Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life, a cookbook that focuses on the earth-friendly kitchen. Shafia is a teacher, she runs a catering company, and has cooked at restaurants like Aquavit and Pure Food and Wine in New York City, and Millennium and Roxanne’s in San Francisco. I got the chance to talk to her last week about Thanksgiving and the art of eco-eating.

In Lucid Food, you talk about “eco-conscious cooking.” Could you explain what this means?

Eco-conscious cooking is a broad term that simply means making food choices based on the health of the planet as well as your own personal health. So, for example, I stay away from processed foods not only because they are made with unhealthy chemicals and preservatives, but also because they come with lots of packaging that ends up in a landfill and pollutes the earth and our water supply. I avoid white sugar because it makes my blood sugar peak and crash, but also because white sugar production has been linked to environmental destruction, the invasion of indigenous lands, and unsafe working conditions throughout the world. For those reasons, I favor cooking with honey or other less processed sweeteners. When I buy honey at the farmer’s market I know exactly where it came from.

How do you change a person’s mind who thinks locally-focused, eco-conscious cooking means deprivation?

Eating seasonal food isn’t about self-denial and Spartan living; it’s about embracing the treasures that each season has to offer us, and eating the ingredients that taste best at different times of the year.  Our palates are activated before any food actually reaches our mouths; our minds tell us what is going to taste good. If the food on the plate looks beautiful and appealing, we’re a lot more likely to enjoy the taste. For that reason, I like to cook with ingredients that have bright colors. For example, right now I’m really excited about beets—yes, beets! They’re in season right now so they’re affordably priced, they’re really healthy, and they’re gorgeous. My favorites are Chioggia, aka “candy striped” beets; they look like a target inside, perfectly marked with red and white spirals. I try to use these as much as I can right now, especially when cooking with kids, because the vegetable itself looks so stunning you just want to eat it.

Any tips for home cooks who want to prepare an eco-conscious meal this Thanksgiving? Where should they start?

Get a heritage breed turkey from a local farmer! The vast majority of turkeys sold in supermarkets are of the Broad Breasted White variety, but there are many other breeds that are more moist and flavorful than those that are mass-produced on factory farms in unspeakable conditions. Heritage breeds like Narragansetts and Jersey Buffs were once popular in the United States, but disappeared with the demise of the small farm in favor of birds with higher breast meat production and a shorter growing period, traits favored by large, corporate poultry operations.

Visit the farmer’s market. Buying from local farmers helps to support the preservation of small farms and undeveloped land. And not only does local food taste better and have higher nutritional value because of its freshness, but you know exactly what you’re getting—unlike with products from far away, where details about pesticides, land use, and working conditions are hard to come by. In contrast, local farms are transparent places where people are usually welcome to buy goods or take tours.

Does “greening” your diet necessarily have to cost more?

I know that when people hear about eating local and seasonal food, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s unreasonably expensive and unaffordable. I’ll be the first to admit that shopping at the farmer’s market often costs more than shopping at the supermarket. However, I think you have to consider what you’re paying for upfront now, and the hidden costs of cheap food that you’ll have to pay for in the future. If I eat cheap, processed food for many years, I’ll pay back the difference in price with poor health and high medical expenses down the line.

There are options beyond just being a passive consumer, however. I think what many people have realized is that they can’t just sit back and wait for the food system to improve, but that they have to take an active role in changing it, and providing better food for themselves. I just came back from Milwaukee, WI, where Will Allen’s Growing Power urban farm has set a breathtaking example of how people in “food deserts” with a limited amount of food dollars can access fresh, healthy food. Allen has established a model of super-efficient aquaponic farming that can be replicated in any community. Through the active participation of community members, the landscape of the north side of Milwaukee is being transformed into a sustainable urban farming area.

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Aside from the actions that we as individuals can take, our elected representatives could clearly be doing a lot more to subsidize sustainable agriculture so that healthy foods are affordable for everyone. Currently, the U.S. government offers its assistance almost exclusively to the industrial agriculture giants who grow commodities using conventional—and damaging—pesticide control and energy-intensive production methods. Our tax dollars fund these subsidies that allow mega-producers to keep their prices low while small farms struggle on their own with little to no government support. That’s where consumers come in. As more and more people make the switch to healthier, safer, locally grown foods, small farmers and the people who buy their food will have a bigger say in how farm subsidies are doled out. The momentum will build for a fundamental change in the way our leaders approach this crucial issue. Just as importantly, the more consumer demand builds for locally grown products, the more suppliers will bring these goods to the marketplace, helping bring prices down for everyone.

Many people are visiting family this week for Thanksgiving. This can sometimes cause consternation for eco-eaters when family members lack access to good food and/or the will to track it down. Any advice?

When I visit someone else’s home for Thanksgiving, I offer to contribute a couple of dishes to the meal; in case it turns out that I don’t feel good about eating the rest of the spread, at least I know there is something I will feel good about eating. I might contribute a simple dish like mashed sweet potatoes with orange juice and a little butter, fresh cranberry relish, grilled mushrooms, a raw kale salad made with avocado and olive oil, or a from-scratch pumpkin pie. 

Other than that, my general rule is to put a smile on my face, eat whatever I can enthusiastically, and know that in a day or two I’ll be going home and can go back to eating how I like. Diplomacy is a highly valued skill in encouraging others to eat healthy, and I’ve found that a preachy, pedantic attitude is met with resistance. Be quiet, and let your tasty food do the talking. 

I would like to note here that I have the opposite problem when I go home to Philly for Thanksgiving. My whole family eats the same way I do, so I’m asked to cook everything, or to schlep five dishes with me on the train from New York! Like most Americans, I always overeat at this holiday, because I love the feast that my family creates.

Here are three delicious recipes that will shine on Thanksgiving, from Lucid Food:

Cucumber and Pomegranate Salad

The festive colors of this Mediterranean salad brighten a holiday meal, and its light, refreshing character makes it a great counterpoint to hearty winter dishes. It should be served as soon as it’s made, or it can turn soggy. You can prepare the individual ingredients ahead of time and store them in separate bowls, tossing everything together just before serving.

Serves four

2 cucumbers, peeled, halved, and seeds removed
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
1⁄4 cup thinly sliced scallions, green parts only
1 ⁄2 cup fresh cilantro leaves
Juice of 1 lime
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 ⁄2 cup crumbled feta cheese

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Cut the cucumbers into slices 1 ⁄4 inch thick. Put the cucumber slices in a bowl with all but four tablespoons of the pomegranate seeds. Add the scallions, cilantro, lime juice, and olive oil. Toss and season with salt. To serve, divide the salad among bowls and top with the crumbled feta, a tablespoon of pomegranate seeds, and a few grinds of pepper.

Sweet Potato and Cranberry Cornmeal Biscuits

My contribution to my family’s Thanksgiving meal has always been cornbread. In making it so many times, I discovered that it’s a great vehicle for fruit, cooked grains, or vegetables. This variation has a thick batter, so these are more like biscuits than bread. Pale orange and scarlet flecked, these biscuits make a beautiful addition to a holiday table.

Makes 12 biscuits

1 sweet potato, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
2 teaspoons salt
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 1 tablespoon
melted butter for brushing
3 tablespoons maple syrup
1 cup fresh cranberries
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon baking powder

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Grease a baking sheet or muffin tin and set aside. Put the sweet potato in a small saucepan with the orange juice, 1/2 cup water, and 0ne teaspoon of the salt. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat slightly and boil gently, covered, until very soft, about 10 minutes. Coarsely mash the potatoes and cooking liquid with the five tablespoons butter and maple syrup. Stir in the cranberries. Let cool and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and the remaining one teaspoon salt. Stir in the sweet potatoes. Refrigerate for one hour. To form each biscuit, pack the dough to just below the top of a 1/3-cup measuring cup, then invert and tap out onto the backing sheet. Repeat to make 12 biscuits total. Brush the top of each biscuit with a little melted butter. Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate and continue baking until the tops are golden and firm, about five minutes more. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Serve warm or cold.

Persian Stuffed Dumpling Squash with Rose Petals

This dish features aromatic ingredients used in Persian cuisine; barberries and tart cherries are both sweet and sour, the defining flavors of Persian foods. Find these ingredients at the ethnic food stores, or substitute more dried apricots for the barberries and dried cranberries for the cherries. The dried rose petals give this dish its distinct floral taste and stunning appearance. Find them at gourmet and Middle Eastern food stores, or dry your own on a screen.

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Serves six

6 sweet dumpling squash (or substitute acorn squash, or use bell peppers instead)
1/3 cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup cooked basmati rice or barley
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
1/4 cup barberries
1/2 cup dried, pitted tart cherries, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup dried apricots, minced
3 tablespoons dried rose petals, plus more for garnish
3/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1 teaspoon saffron dissolved in
2 tablespoons hot water

Preheat the oven to 425°F. Neatly slice off the top of each squash and set it aside. Check the bottoms to see if they’re level. If not, slice off enough so that they will stand steadily. Scoop out the seeds and place the squash in an oiled baking dish. Rub them inside and out with olive oil until well coated, and season with salt and pepper. Heat a skillet over medium heat and add four tablespoons of the olive oil, followed by the onion and sauté until lightly browned. Add the garlic, rice, walnuts, barberries, cherries, apricots, and rose petals. Stir well and continue cooking for five minutes, adding a little water if the mixture is dry. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Fill each squash with stuffing and replace the tops. Whisk together the orange juice, saffron water, and the remaining oil and pour over the squash. Cover tightly with a dish lid and bake for one hour, basting occasionally with the juice. Uncover, baste, and bake until the squash is golden and tender, about five minutes more. To serve, transfer the squash to a platter and pour the liquid from the baking dish on top. Garnish with rose petals.

Recipes and images reprinted with permission from Lucid Food: Cooking for an Eco-Conscious Life by Louisa Shafia, copyright © 2009. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

Photos: Author photo, Cory Pavitt, food photos, Jennifer Martiné © 2009

Paula Crossfield is a founder and the Editor-at-large of Civil Eats. She is also a co-founder of the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Her reporting has been featured in The Nation, Gastronomica, Index Magazine, The New York Times and more, and she has been a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio. An avid cook and gardener, she currently lives in Oakland. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. David R.
    Wow. I loved this article. It says a lot of great things about being a eco-cook and the recipes sound great.
  2. “eco-conscious cooking" means switching to organic food? Or better yet starting with raw food diet. I assume you agree with me that the key to being healthy is to do away with oxidants, right? Then, "eco-conscious cooking" is the answer. Eco-Chef Louisa Shafia is right.
  3. Okay, I always have to roll my eyes at any book with the words "eco" and "life" together in the title. You shouldn't eat food like this because it is "eco-conscious," you should eat it because it tastes better and is better for you than processed stuff! Also, no one ever seems to recognize that using fresh, whole foods to cook simple meals from scratch is essentially derived from rural farm food, no matter what culture you live in.

    I think that eating seasonally and cooking from scratch with whole foods is more important than finding "eco-conscious" recipes.

    I also find it in bad taste that the author recommends bringing dishes to other peoples' celebrations. This is fine if you are invited to bring a dish, but to bring one without asking is the ultimate faux pas. It's basically saying that you don't trust your host to make good food. If you can't bring yourself to eat other peoples' food - don't go!

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