The Greenest Way to Cook?

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In this age of locavorism, those of us who are food-conscious are faced with a grim set of facts about the environmental cost of what eat. We've learned that food companies ship food thousands of miles, burning fossil fuels to feed us carrots and lettuce that a farmer nearby could have grown. Worse, the energy used to bring us those veggies represents only about 10 percent of the fossil fuels those long-distance foods need to get to our plates.

If the carbon footprint of a carrot salad doesn't keep you up at night, the UN's warning that more than 18 percent of humanity's greenhouse gas emissions come from the livestock industry just might. It's indisputable: meat is causing climate change. Add to that the alarming results of life cycle analysis (scientific calculations of all the resources and energy consumed at every link of the food chain), which have found that even just cooking your food adds to your environmental footprint.

And so the most eco-virtuous of all cuisines must be the vegetarian slow cooker. When you cut meat from your meal, the carbon toll of your dinner automatically drops. Cook your beans in a slow cooker and you are doing even better. Popular wisdom says that a slow cooker uses only as much energy as a light bulb. The numbers back the theory: seven hours of crock pot cooking uses 0.7 kilowatt-hours of energy, whereas baking the same meal in an electric oven for one hour uses 2.0 kWh.

Conveniently, there are two vegetarian slow cooker cookbooks out this year: Lynn Alley's The Gourmet Vegetarian Slow Cooker: Simple and Sophisticated Meals from Around the World and Judith Findlayson's The Vegetarian Slow Cooker. Each book offers a different approach to the meatless crockpot.

Alley, a freelance food and wine journalist, has written two other slow cooker books as well as one featuring gourmet toaster oven recipes, which brings her serious eco-cuisine cred—a toaster oven uses 0.95 kWh to cook that same meal. Her book is divided into seven sections, each dedicated to a different regional cuisine. There are recipes for two Indian dals—lentil curries, one creamy, one spicy—and a Kashmiri dish called Waari Muth. In the section devoted to France, there is a recipe for scalloped potatoes made with bleu cheese; under the Middle East, there is Lebanese eggplant stew. I made her Italian barley, mushroom, and onion soup, which was easy to prepare and tasted simple—she describes it as a peasant soup.

The title of Alley's book promises gourmet eating and, on the whole, the recipes deliver. Her concoctions are the distant cousin to traditional American crock pot cookery that often calls for a can of mushroom soup, and she offers wine pairings for each recipe. While you don't need a slow cooker to prepare food that doesn't take long to cook—such as a recipe for Japanese-style braised tofu, in which she simmers the tofu for four hours in miso, soy sauce, and sesame oil, that you would likely be better off, energy wise, marinating and then heating quickly on the stove—her use of varied ingredients opens the mind to the crock pot's tasty possibilities.

Findlayson's book covers more ground, from family-style cooking such as lentil sloppy joes, vegetable biryani (baked Indian-style rice), or the Italian childhood favourite risi e bisi (rice and peas) to more elaborate recipes such as Double Tomato Soup with Arugula-Walnut Pesto. The book is almost encyclopaedic, covering soups, vegetables, whole grains, egg-based dishes, legumes, and lentils as well as breakfast (we've been eating the multigrain cereal I tried) and dessert. It's no wonder there is so much variety: Findlayson is a veteran of the slow cooker and her numerous cookbooks have sold more than 600,000 copies.

Where her knowledge really shines is with her recipes for baked goods—yes, you can bake in a slow cooker. The trick, Findlayson explains, is to wrap a tea towel around the lid to absorb the excess liquid so the top of your loaf doesn't become soggy. I made apple-cranberry bread and was surprised by its nice texture and how good it tasted. And the slow cooker is a perfect alternative to using the oven on a hot day—or any day for that matter, since we should be shrinking our carbon footprint.

Now match those vegetarian slow cooker recipes with ingredients grown locally and sustainably, and you can invite Jonathan Safran Foer or Michael Pollan over for dinner.

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