Photo via Flickr: Cuttlefish

My mouth was watering when I read last week’s New York Times Dining piece featuring some of the best veggie burgers around the country, but it also dropped wide open when I came across this statistic in the article:

According to Mintel, a market research firm, there was a 26 percent increase in menu items labeled vegetarian or vegan between the last quarter of 2008 and the same quarter in 2010.

Twenty-six percent? That’s huge. The big question, though, is: What’s driving the demand? And, is this a fad like the low-carb craze, or are these numbers really here to stay?

I followed up with Mintel, but they’ve yet to look into reasons for the increase. My guess is that the still-sucky economy is playing a role; after all, meatless menu items are typically less pricey than meaty ones.

But I think the bigger piece of the puzzle is increased awareness that a meat-heavy diet simply isn’t sustainable — for our health and the planet’s. When Oprah goes vegan, when Wendi Murdoch convinces her media magnate husband to have a Meatless Monday at home, when celebs from Carrie Underwood to Forest Whitaker talk about going veg — these are seeds that sow into the public consciousness.

–Jennifer Grayson

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Photo via Flickr: Kevin Krejci

Got some good news yesterday: My husband and I will be receiving a sizable tax refund this year. For now, we’ll be saving the money for necessities and a rainy day — these are uncertain times, after all. But a funny thing happened once I allowed myself to start daydreaming about the possibilities. I started thinking like a (gasp!) consumer.

My thought trail went something like this: Oh, those are cute dresses on that website. And pretty affordable, too. With the refund money, I could probably get a few. But then, I should probably neaten up my closet first before I buy anything new, so maybe I’ll finally get those space-saving hangers I saw at Bed Bath & Beyond. Ooh, and my husband’s birthday is coming up, so I can get him a really nice present… And so on and so on until I spent all the money and then some.

Now obviously, this is a fantasy. But my theoretical shopping spree got me thinking: When you’re a have-not, it’s easy to be thrifty; to seek out experiences instead of stuff; to be mindful of the fact that as Americans, we are 5 percent of the world’s population yet consume 30 percent of its resources; to be forced by mere circumstance to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. But how do you keep consumption in check when you suddenly become a have?

–Jennifer Grayson

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If there’s one good thing that came out of my bout with a nasty flu-like virus for the past week-plus, it’s this: My hands look amazing.

That’s because I’ve been obsessively washing my germy digits with a giant-sized pump bottle of California Baby Natural Antibacterial Blend Moisturizing Handwash, which I had received as a gift last fall when my daughter was born. (Thanks goodness I remembered I had stashed the bottle in the back of the closet, because I had run out of hand soap and wasn’t about to go out and get more with a 102-degree fever.)

Now normally, this kind of attention to asepsis would spell disaster for my skin, since my hands are usually cracked and bleeding to begin with. (Like the person with questionable breath who’s always being extended a mint, friends are forever offering me hand lotion.) But something magical happened with the California Baby wash: The more I washed my hands, the softer they got.

Is it the non-stripping and biodegradable vegetable cleansers? The essential oils used in lieu of  hormone-disrupting synthetic fragrances and toxic triclosan? The addition of coconut oil and gardenia flowers as natural moisturizers? I’ll never know. But this will be a must-have in my bathroom long after flu season has flown.

–Jennifer Grayson

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In my real life, I’m not on food stamps (that was an experiment for last week’s Eco Etiquette column on HuffPost), but I do regularly cook up a big batch of the “kitchen sink stew” I feature in this video. It’s pretty much perfection in a pot, and it’s virtually idiot-proof: You throw in whatever combo of veggies/dried beans/meat you have on hand (preferably organic); toss in water and a can of tomato paste; stick a lid on it and turn the heat to low; and magic! Three hours later, you have the most magnificently beautiful and tasty stew you could ever imagine.

As long as you stick to the basic outline, the possibilities are endless. One of my favorite combos to date used white beans, chicken sausage, butternut squash, and rosemary (no tomato paste). It can also easily be made vegetarian — perfect for Meatless Monday.

Kitchen Sink Stew

Makes 8 servings

Swirl of extra virgin olive oil
3 carrots, peeled and diced
3 stalks celery, peeled and diced
1 large onion
1 pound meat or vegetarian substitute (ground turkey, stew beef, sausage removed from casing, crumbled extra firm tofu — it all works!)
1 pound dried beans, any variety, rinsed and sorted (no need to soak)
Assorted chopped veggies (cabbage, spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, squash — whatever!), enough to come near the top of a large pot or French oven
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
8 cups water
Assorted spices, plus salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add carrots, onion, and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add meat and brown on all sides (if using ground meat, stir until cooked through). Add dried beans, assorted chopped veggies, can of tomato paste, water and spices, and stir. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook three hours, or until beans are plump yet firm and the whole thing has melded into a proper stew, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary. Serve with a side of rice, pasta, or crusty bread.

–Jennifer Grayson

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The Japan quake and tsunami was so powerful that it moved Japan's coast in some areas by 8 feet -- and shifted the Earth's axis. Photo via Flickr: Nasa Goddard Photo and Video

As if a death toll approaching 10,000 and nuclear meltdown aren’t evidence enough of the violence of the magnitude 8.9 earthquake that devastated Japan last Friday, there’s now been buzz about how the earth’s axis has shifted as a result of the event.

That sounds incredibly dramatic; but what does that mean, exactly? Before you have nightmares of our beautiful blue planet being flung like an out-of-control top toward the outer reaches of our solar system (admittedly what flashed in my mind when I first heard this), read the below. It’s the best explanation I’ve found for all us lay scientists out there:

From CNN:

A large quake shifts massive amounts of rock and alters the distribution of mass on the planet. When that distribution changes, it changes the rate at which the planet rotates. And the rotation rate determines the length of a day. “Any worldly event that involves the movement of mass affects the Earth’s rotation,” Benjamin Fong Chao, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said while explaining the phenomenon in 2005.

Worldly events such as the 2010 Chile earthquake, which the description above is actually referencing. Or the 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami, which shifted enough mass to shorten the length of days by 6.8 microseconds. (Scientists are estimating the Japan quake may have shortened the day by 1.8 microseconds.)

But don’t worry: It’s been speculated that increasing amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere could slow down the rotation of the earth, lengthening out those days once again.

–Jennifer Grayson

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Lud's Church, identified by Luddites as the Green Chapel of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.' Photo via Flickr: Smabs Sputzer

For years, I’ve been fighting a losing battle. Against technology, that is. Kind of ironic, since I’m a blogger and also write about green tech for two national publications; but it’s true: I’ve always been a Luddite. I wrote research papers on a typewriter instead of a computer halfway through high school. I stubbornly tried to make it through my junior year pre-calculus class sans graphing calculator. I refused to give into the cell phone “craze” until my college graduation (mind you: I graduated in 2001).

And, most notably, last year: I gave up my BlackBerry for Earth Day.

Why do I subject myself to this seeming torture, you ask? Well, for me, being a real tree hugger means I shouldn’t need all these gadgets and gizmos. I want to be hiking in Redwood National Park. Or camping in a tent somewhere. Or raising a basketball team of children (not very eco, I know) on a self-sustaining organic farm in central Oregon.

Except I’m not doing any of those things at present. I live in Los Angeles. I write on a computer for a living. And for now, my livelihood depends on tweeting and texting and generally doing all those tech-y things that I’ve been pushing against for so long.

So until I get that organic farm, I’m adopting a new attitude: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. I’m going to stop looking at all this technology as an obstacle to my ideal green life, and start embracing it as a way to get the word out about all the green things I love.

To show that I’m serious, I’ve made a bet that I’ll be able to get 1,000 new Twitter followers by next Thursday. Will you help me?

–Jennifer Grayson

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