Here’s a great recipe I threw together last night for dinner. It’s completely meatless, using only the weekend’s leftovers and normal pantry items:

  • I heated a tablespoon of sesame chili oil in the wok and added 2 cloves minced garlic. Cooked that together for a few minutes over medium heat, then
  • Added half an open package of pine nuts. Stirred constantly until the nuts were looking golden and not burned, then
  • Tossed in corn cut off a leftover roasted cob (from Friday’s dinner) and a chopped yellow summer squash (not sure how I ended up with just one). Cooked that together for a few minutes, then
  • Added several cups leftover white rice (also from Friday’s dinner). Stirred together, then added a tablespoon hoisin sauce (finishing the jar) and a couple tablespoons fish sauce.
  • I baked the last of my frozen eggplant cutlets and served the rice over the eggplant.

The corn and pine nuts added a satisfying crunch; the hoisin and fish sauces gave it a nice depth of color, and the sesame chili oil and garlic combo gave it heat and zing that made the dish feel complete. I don’t know that the eggplant was necessary, but it was a decent base.

I’ve never been tempted to become a vegetarian for health or for ethical reason. I suppose I heed Julia Child’s quote, “Everything in moderation . . . including moderation.” Having written that, though, I also need to stress that I do care about quality – both of life for the animal and of ingredient for me. I look for the free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free, happily-raised-animal version of all the meat I buy. Yes, it’s more expensive. For example, a pound of ground meat is plenty for burgers for the four of us, and a pound of grass-fed ground buffalo is about $6.00. That comes out to $1.50 per person per meat course – easily twice as expensive as the more fatty corn-fed ground chuck. But an additional $0.75 per person seems is a small price to pay for what I think of as healthier, happier, cleaner meat. (And still comes in way under the price of a restaurant burger.)

But yet. . . I’ve recently come across a point that can convince me to take that conscious step to reduce our meat intake, especially red meat. The April 2010 issue of National Geographic Magazine, Water: Our Thirsty World, compares virtual water use, the water used in product manufacture, across different categories. I did know there was such a thing; once I did a project for the amazing environmental studies professor Dr. Robert R. Curry in which I calculated it took approximately 5 gallons of water to manufacture one double-ply roll of Quilted Northern Bath Tissue.

A typical single-family home in the City of Santa Cruz uses 226 gallons of water per day, half the national average due to water conservation programs. According the National Geographic’s figures, 226 gallons is about as much as it takes to grow two pounds of corn or six pounds of strawberries, both thirsty crops. It’s also half the amount of water you’d need to put a pound of chicken in the supermarket, a fourth of what you’d need for a pound of pork, but – ready for this? – only 8% of the water you’d need to grow a pound of beef. I don’t know if my bucolically grazing buffalo uses much less water than a feedlot cow or if my free-roaming, pasture-pecking chicken uses much less than the plants full of poultry packed into tight cages – I certainly home so. But get right down to it and it takes a tremendous amount of water to produce meat.

Water is rarely where you need it, when you need it. Tennessee is experiencing disastrous flooding this month but most of the Western U. S. is perennially threatened by drought. (Read Cadillac Desert sometime for an interesting history of Western water politics and flow.) I often think of the scene in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake in which Gogol’s Bengali-born father scolds his mother if she boils too much water for tea, therefore wasting it – the most vivid illustration of respecting clean water I’ve ever read.

We follow advice to actively conserve water here at home and think about the quality of our water. Low-flow faucets in the house, drip systems on the veggies outside. Native plants in the garden get their water from the fog and salt air – if it needs extra water it doesn’t go in the ground. We wash our cars at the self-serve so their gunk doesn’t flow into the ocean. So it seems to me the next logical step to support respecting and conserving water, our biggest natural resource – is choosing to cook with less thirsty food. Right?