Connections: Vegging Out

We were ready, and old enough, to give serious consideration to alternative ways of improving our health

    About 20 years ago, when my husband and I were courting, we came across one of Dr. Dean Ornish’s  books, “Eat More, Weigh Less.” The word  “wellness” was not in the air at the time, but we were ready, and old enough, to give serious consideration to alternative ways of improving our health.

    The book is comprehensive, with tables on such things as the nutritional content of various foods and sections on motivation and meditation. Dr. Ornish spurns the word “diet,” saying that what he offers is a life-choice program. He makes a strong case for eliminating almost all fats.

    Years later, he was accused — perhaps unfairly? — of contributing to Steve Jobs’s death because Jobs reportedly followed Dr. Ornish’s regime.

    We weren’t swayed by Dr. Ornish for very long. Although we had dog-eared pages with such recipes as couscous with a vegetable tagine and a ragout of lentils, squash, and apricots, I can’t remember making these virtuous meals. As far as I was concerned, Dr. Ornish might as well have called his book “Vegetables, Vegetables, Vegetables.”

    Don’t get me wrong. I love vegetables; I’d rather order broccoli with garlic sauce than almost anything else on a Chinese takeout menu. But my husband and I do frequently feast on the foods Dr. Ornish advises his readers to avoid like poison: red meat, poultry, and fish. (If it has, or had, a face — or a mother and father, as the vegans like to say — Dr. Ornish really doesn’t want it on your plate.)

    Fast forward to 2013. An inveterate reader of The New York Times, my husband was intrigued last summer when he read that Americans were  cooking their way  through “Jerusalem: A Cookbook,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, in the same way they had taken up “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” or “The Silver Palate Cookbook” in decades past. He bought a copy and began cooking his way through it.

    “Jerusalem” concentrates on the vegetables and grains that Dr. Ornish touted — lots of eggplant, kohlrabi, chard, sorrel, and so forth, plus a few extremely difficult-to-find items like barberries or dried limes, but it also calls for a lot of chicken and lamb. Chris ordered some of its exotic mixtures of spices, like baharat and ras el hanout, by mail and began preparing more than his usual share of dinners, which was certainly fine by me. An excellent dish of eggplant with bulgur and yogurt, a barley risotto with marinated feta, and turkey and zucchini burgers with green onion and cumin were among the highlights.

    Inspired (or perhaps not to be outdone), I began digging out the vegetable recipes I’d held onto for years. I now have followed Chris’s lead, finding and making an old Florence Fabricant recipe from The New York Times for a curried eggplant casserole (very tasty) and a ratatouille with butternut squash from Nigella Lawson (terrific). The other day, though, as we drove by a local fish market I wondered if we had taken the healthy eating too far: We hadn’t had any fish in weeks! There has to be something wrong with that.

    We have two friends who tell us their not-so-incidental ailments have been cured by vegan diets. Much as we admire them, we aren’t apt to head in that direction. Just last night I wantonly added sausage to a dish of chickpeas and spinach. Dr. Ornish would probably have a very grim opinion of this, but if age has taught me anything, it’s moderation in all things.