Sustainability Ultra-marathon

If you want go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.

But what to do when you need to go far, fast? This is the question before conservationists and the sustainability community in general. It is clear to all who are paying attention that our voracious consumer desires and prodigious growth are quickly outpacing the rate at which resources can be renewed. Ocean stocks are dwindling as demand increases, forests are being leveled to make way for ranches and mono-crop plantations. Ask anyone who is paying attention, and they will tell you that we need to get far and we need to get there fast.

The conflict comes not in the if but in the how – a tension succinctly captured by World Wildlife Fund vice-president Jason Clay in his TED talk, where he lays out his vision of a sustainable economy. One where sustainability is not a consumer choice but an industry standard:

When you listen to him speak, it is easy to agree that we need to corral the 100 dominant businesses controlling the food system into making better choices. But maybe it makes you, like me, wonder if this just perpetuates a food system where 100 companies control the profits. We have seen what this model has to offer – and despite efficiencies – it’s not good.

Many would argue that we need to remake the food system – that we need to divest our dollars from McDonalds and Sysco, Cargill and Tyson; investing them in our local food economies instead. That we should be spending them directly on home-baked and family farm-grown. Indeed, regional food economies are growing at a rapid and inspirational rate.

And so you have to choose. Do you support McDonald’s in their promises to move toward ‘sustainable beef production’ and laude Pepsi’s commitments to end agricultural land grabs for sugar cane plantations in Brazil? Or do you advocate for local growers, family farmers, alternative agriculture and small-scale production? Do you get behind impact or authenticity? If you are Jason Clay, you have to choose. If you are an educator, an activist, a grower, a producer – you have to choose. But maybe as a society, we might not have to choose. In our growing, ever-shifting dynamic society we can push McDonald’s to adopt better practices and work to decrease their market share. Which is lucky for us – because we need to get far, and we need to get there fast.

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Is it edible? Dinner on a bed of kale

When I was in high school, I waited tables at a local diner. By-the-Way family restaurant sat along a bare stretch of single-lane state highway, sharing its parking lot with an auto-body shop; a view of pre-fab log cabin homes, “priced affordably” “come in and check one out today”, ever-present from the front glass windows.

We served all-you-can eat spaghetti on Wednesdays and haddock crunch, battered in corn flakes, on Fridays. We served the food that grandparents and truck drivers wanted to eat, because those were the customers that filled our booths and the stools at the long counter, running the length of By-the-Way family restaurant.

Every plate we served, save for the belgian waffles towering with whipped cream and the slender slices of pie, was served with a garnish: one piece of curly green kale and one thin orange slice. The kale sat rinsed and chopped into aesthetically-appropriate hunks in a white gallon bucket next to the serving line. And every plate of food we served, save for the belgian waffles towering with whipped cream and the slender slices of pie, came back to the dishwasher with one appropriately-sized hunk of raw, green kale. This routine we repeated, on every plate, every day, for years, without ever giving it a second thought.

Until one day, a little boy inquired as I set his plate of chicken fingers and french fries in front of him: “Is this thing edible?”, holding the adornment aloft. “Ummmm, I don’t know. Let me find out.” Back to the kitchen, where I was met with a series of white-coated shoulder shrugs. “I guess you could but I don’t know why you’d want to.” I popped a piece in my mouth for good measure and shook my head in a grimace – not exactly what I’d call “edible”.

And this was everything I knew about kale. Until I got to college and discovered kale lightly sauteed with lemon, balsamic vinegar kale with slivered almonds, and raw massaged kale salad. Until I discovered that the favorite food of yogis and Vermonters was not just a plate garnish, after all. All of this is to say that I just made dinner and it was delicious. And it was cheap. And it had kale in it. So, I thought I’d share it with y’all.

Ravioli, tossed in vodka sauce, on a bed of prosciutto, kale, and pan-roasted cherry tomatoes.

Sounds fancy, right? And expensive. Fortunately, looks can be deceiving. In addition to being delicious, the second and third best parts of this meal were that it took less than 20 minutes and cost about $2. Make this dish when cherry tomatoes are on sale, and vodka sauce, and really – I promise – you only need the tiniest bit of proscuitto.

Recipe (for one, because I’m a single grad-school gal):
A handful of frozen cheese ravioli (6 or 7)
A little less than an ounce of prosciutto, minced
A few leafs of kale, ribs removed, sliced very thin
A small handful of cherry tomatoes, halved
About 1/4c of vodka sauce, enough to coat the ravioli
A dash of italian cheese, if you like

Put your water on to boil and heat a small amount of oil (olive, grapeseed, canola, whatever is on hand) in a skillet. Throw in your minced prosciutto and saute over medium heat for a minute or two. Add your kale, cooking until it starts to become tender and the bright green color comes out. Push to the side of your skillet and throw in your halved cherry tomatoes, sprinkling them with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and anything else your heart desires. Once the skin on the tomatoes starts to blister or brown, mix everything together and put it on your plate.

Meanwhile the water has come to boil, and you’ve thrown in the ravioli, which only takes three minutes to cook – because sometimes things are magic like that. The square pockets of pasta will start to rise to the top of the boil, to let you know they’re done. Strain ’em, throw ’em back in the still-hot pot, and toss to coat with vodka sauce. Pour over your kale mixture, top with a sprinkle of parm, and viola — delicious.

What makes this dish so good is its complementary flavors – the saltiness of the prosciutto, the richness of ricotta, the sweet flavor of roasted cherry tomatoes. In the right proportions the flavors complement each other, none overpowering the other.

Cheers, to a little Wednesday night indulgence and a plate full of edible kale. Happy eating!