Pirello 'Mad as Hell' about processed food

Christina Pirello offers lots of complaints in her new book. The South Philadelphia health-food guru then proposes solutions.
Christina Pirello offers lots of complaints in her new book. The South Philadelphia health-food guru then proposes solutions. (AMANDA STEVENSON)
Posted: February 02, 2012

OK, now Christina Pirello is angry.

Mad as hell, to crib a portion of the title of the South Philadelphia health-food guru's new book, an indictment of Big Food wrapped in a vegan cookbook.

"What the food industry has done to us is criminal." . . . "Let's take a look at some of this toxic waste masquerading as breakfast food on our supermarket shelves."

She is just warming up.

This is not the happy vegan chef extolling the qualities of brown rice vinegar and sea salt on the PBS show Christina Cooks.

Pirello's previous books have been chipper celebrations of whole foods and a vegan diet, which she says contends helped rid her of cancer when she was in her 20s. In her 1997 debut, Cooking the Whole Foods Way, she posed for the cover with a Carmen Miranda-style vegetable basket perched jauntily on her head as she mugged with a chile pepper.

Contrast that to the cover of I'm Mad as Hell, and I'm Not Going to Eat it Anymore! (Perigee), which features an illustration of Pirello, mouth agape, eyes narrowed, as she threateningly holds a rolling pin in one hand and a spoon in the other.

Pirello begins I'm Mad with a short course in U.S. history, in which she cites the Industrial Age and the 1903 invention of trans fats as the beginning of the end of wholesome eating. Processed food - pumped through with lab-created flavorings and polysyllabic preservatives - is the evil. Ethnic diets that sustained people healthfully for thousands of years were no match for the Western diet.

And the government, she contends, is complicit by allowing manufacturers too much leeway in labeling.

Pirello was talking to her publisher, ranting about Lucky Charms being called a "good source of whole grain," she said in an interview.

Although that claim passes muster with the Whole Grains Council, Pirello believes the amount of true whole grain in a serving of Lucky Charms - and most other "whole grain" breakfast cereals - is much less than it should be to qualify as healthful. "That wording arrangement came as a result of an FDA deal with a lobby group," she said.

Called to testify at the Agriculture Department as an expert on the benefits of a plant-based diet, she said she realized that every other expert had been paid to testify on behalf of powerful lobbies, including the beef, poultry, sugar, and grocery industries. "Lobbies would have you believe that there is a place in a healthy diet for processed foods," she writes. "It's hard not to be fat today."

Pirello was on the line with her publisher, who suggested that she write a book about her gripes.

"Michael Pollan does that," she said she replied, referring to the best-selling consumer writer. "When you close any one of those books, you ask, 'What do I do?' "

"I decided to write the diatribe and offer the solution at the end," she said. About a third of the way into I'm Mad, just when readers might be tempted to starve themselves to death rather than eat anything else ever again, the screed stops.

It gives way to advice and recipes.

"It does sound depressing," she said in the interview. "But the end of the book is where I offer great solutions that [involve] food your family will actually eat."

Much as author Mark Bittman did in his 2008 book Food Matters, Pirello makes a simple point in I'm Mad: To take control of your life, you need to get into the kitchen and cook for yourself - to see and value what is in what you are eating.

To do this, Pirello suggests cleaning house - literally scrubbing the kitchen - and restocking it with more wholesome ingredients, which she itemizes. Many of the 125 recipes, which skip milk/cream and eggs, are vegan re-creations of family favorites such as mac and cheese and burgers.

But try as she might, she has found no substitute for crème fraîche, and she struggles with creating a tasty white frosting. "They taste like there's tofu in them," she said, crestfallen.

Mad? It's just the price she has to pay.


Mac and Cheese

Makes 4 to 5 servings

3 tablespoons vegan buttery spread, like Earth Balance

2 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour

8 ounces vegan mozzarella-style cheese

2 cups unsweetened almond milk

Sea salt

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon paprika

1 tablespoon turmeric

Cracked black pepper

1 pound elbow macaroni

For the topping:

2 tablespoons vegan buttery spread, like Earth Balance

½ cup whole wheat bread crumbs

½ cup almond meal

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bring a pot of water to a boil with a generous pinch of salt.

2. Place vegan spread in an oven-proof Dutch oven over medium heat. As the spread melts, stir in flour, vegan cheese, and almond milk. Whisk into a smooth paste. Season to taste with sea salt and whisk in garlic powder, paprika, turmeric, and black pepper to taste. Whisk very well.

3. While the sauce cooks and when the water boils, cook macaroni until about 80 percent done. Stir pasta into sauce, mixing gently to coat evenly.

4. In a small saucepan, melt vegan spread and mix in bread crumbs and almond meal. Top the macaroni mixture with the bread crumb mixture and bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cheese is bubbling and the topping is browned.

-

From I'm Mad As Hell (Perigree) By Christina Pirello

Note: There are lots of vegan recipes for mac and cheese but a lot of them have ingredients that I don't really like. They're complicated and the results make the dish seem unfamiliar. In this version, the techniques are the same but the ingredients are healthier and just as delicious.

Per serving (based on 5): 672 calories, 35 grams protein, 86 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 24 milligrams cholesterol, 491 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber'.


Cool Chocolate Mousse

Makes 2 servings

1 package silken tofu

2/3 cup cocoa powder

1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup pitted Medjool dates

Chopped nuts, shredded coconut, or fresh

raspberries, for topping.

1. Combine first 4 ingredients in a food processor and puree until smooth and creamy.

2. Spoon into 2 individual dishes and chill completely.

3. Serve topped with chopped nuts, shredded coconut, or fresh raspberries.

- From I'm Mad As Hell (Perigee) By Christina Pirello

Note: This is so easy, so creamy, rich, and chocolatey, you will make it all the time. You are four ingredients away from a most excellent antioxidant-rich dark chocolate mousse.

Per serving: 367 calories, 10 grams protein, 83 grams carbohydrates, 57 grams sugar, 6 grams fat, no cholesterol, 8 milligrams sodium, 16 grams dietary fiber.


Sloppy Joe the Vegan Sandwich

Makes 4 sandwiches

2 tablespoons avocado oil

1/2 small red onion, finely chopped

2 minced garlic cloves

Sea salt

1 (8-ounce) package tempeh,  crumbled

1 roasted red pepper, diced

1/4 cup tomato sauce (no sugar added)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 tablespoons brown rice syrup

Scant pinch chili powder

Scant pinch cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon celery seed

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

Sea salt

Cracked black pepper

4 whole-grain hamburger buns

1. Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Saute the onion and garlic with a pinch of salt for 2-3 minutes. Stir in crumbled tempeh and cook, stirring, until the tempeh begins to brown. Add peppers and saute for 1 minute. Stir in tomato sauce, soy sauce, syrup, spices, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10-15 minutes.

2. While the tempeh mixture cooks, heat a lightly oiled griddle and lay the hamburger buns, cut side down, on the hot griddle to lightly toast them.

3. To serve, spoon hot tempeh mixture onto buns and serve with lots of napkins.

- From I'm Mad as Hell, and I'm Not Going to Eat It Anymore! by Christina Pirello (Perigee,)

Note: There is something about a messy, meaty sandwich that has stolen America's heart - and health. In this version, the filling is lean, meat- and saturated-fat-free, but loaded with the taste and texture we have come to adore, as well as the nutrients we need.

Per sandwich: 258 calories, 15 grams protein, 36 grams carbohydrates, 11 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, no cholesterol, 609 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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