MOTHER's Kitchen: Whether you're an eco-soldier or your belt's just a bit snug, a break from meat cooking vegetarian style might make you feel better.
The first tune I converted to a vegetarian lifestyle was in the early '70s, during my magical-mystery-tour phase. While others at that time may have embraced vegetarianism out of their concern for our furry friends, I didn't really care if Wilber ended up as a package of bacon. My self-centered quest was simply to feel and look better. This was an era of vegetarian dining in which tofu was king and alfalfa sprouts crowned everything. Since fat hadn't as yet become evil, most meatless dishes could be found somewhere under a mound of melted cheese. And a vegetarian over age 30? Extremely rare.
But times have changed. I'm more or less a vegetarian again, only now I'm on a middle-age-mystery tour ... and finding out that I'm not alone. According to Vegetarian Times magazine, there are more than 12 million vegetarians in the United States. So what's the definition of a vegetarian in this day and age anyway? Many folks calling themselves vegetarians are really semi-vegetarians, eating poultry or fish occasionally. (I fall into this category.) Then there are the ovo-lacto vegetarians, who exclude meat but include dairy products and eggs in their diet. Finally, there are the vegans, who don't use any dairy products but rely solely on grains and legumes for protein sources. Should vegetarians be concerned about getting enough protein? If they're eating a variety of foods throughout the day so that they're getting some complete protein, then it shouldn't be a problem. The average American eats twice as much protein as is needed for optimal nutrition. In this case more isn't better, because excess protein is linked to cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney stress, and a shorter life span.
Aside from the money saved by cutting meat out of the grocery bill, there are other reasons that motivate folks to make the switch.
· Diet and health: For maintaining your ideal weight, low-fat eating is easier if you subtract the meat, because most of its calories are fat calories. After finally waking up to the fact that our high-fat, meat-based diets were killing us, the U.S.D.A. did away with the famous "four food groups" in favor of the new "food pyramid." (But not without a fuss from the beef and dairy industries.) The pyramid advocates a diet based mostly on plant proteins, which aren't associated with any health risks except pesticides, but that's another story. Studies have shown that cancer deaths are 40 percent less common among vegetarians than meat-eaters. Vegetarians are also at lower risk for diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and kidney stones and gallstones. A high-fiber diet can also prevent (ahem) constipation.
· Food safety: The world is full of bacteria and bacteria loves meat. One third of all food poisoning comes from poultry and red meat. At least half of the poultry that's sold contains salmonella. Also, most of our country's meat is raised with the "help" of antibiotics and growth hormones. Because of this, deaths due to penicillin and tetracycline residues in meat occur every year. Sure, food-borne pathogens do appear on vegetables, but it's not as common. (The most recent outbreak was some apple cider with traces of E. Coli that was made from apples that fell on the ground.)
· Earth smarts: Cutting back on our meat consumption is not only smart for our bodies, but also for the environment. Oxygen-producing forests are chopped down to make room for cattle grazing. Since it takes eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, the grain we feed to livestock could feed five times our country's population. We may be diligently recycling our cans, but are we concerned about the waste that's perpetuated by our meat consumption?
A vegetarian (or almost vegetarian) diet doesn't have to be tofu-burgers and sprouts. Here are some meatless meals that you can really sink your teeth into.
The great thing about quesadillas is that they can be filled with any ingredient that you have on hand. Try serving them at room temperature for snacks when unexpected guests come over. For a vegan version, use soy cheese or omit the cheese and smear a little salsa on one side of the tortilla to make your vegetable sandwich stick together. I use sheep or goat's milk feta (domestic feta is made with cow's milk) for this quesadilla.
4 whole wheat flour tortillas (8-inch size)
About 6 ounces imported feta cheese, crumbled
1 small red pepper, sliced into thin strips
1 small red onion, sliced into thin circles
2 cups fresh spinach leaves, stems removed and cut into thin strips
Pour a drop of oil into a large frying pan (nonstick is better) and saute the peppers and onions. Remove from the pan and set aside. Smear a few more drops of oil in the pan and heat on medium until hot. Place a tortilla in the pan and sprinkle on some cheese, peppers, onions, and spinach. Place another tortilla on top.
Saute until the bottom tortilla is medium brown, then flip over. Brown that side, remove from the pan, and slice into quarters or eighths. Makes two quesadillas.
This is an easy dish for entertaining, because the sauce and polenta can be made a day in advance. For a vegan version, omit the cheese and sprinkle with fresh herbs.
1 cup coarsely ground yellow cornmeal (polenta*)
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups cold water
Whisk together the cornmeal, salt, and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low, and simmer uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes until it thickens and pulls away from the sides of the pan, continuing to stir every few minutes. Spread the polenta into an 8- or 9-inch square cake pan and refrigerate for at least one hour. Remove when well chilled and slice into four squares. Slice the squares in half diagonally into eight triangles. Turn on the broiler. Brush the triangles on top and bottom with olive oil and place on a foil-covered baking sheet. Broil until crispy and lightly browned, watching carefully so they don't burn. Flip over and broil on the other side. Place the triangles in a baking or lasagna pan a half inch apart. Set aside.
*Polenta can be purchased where Italian foods are sold, or at a health food store.
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, minced
6—8 fresh plum tomatoes or 4-5 garden tomatoes (or drained, canned plum tomatoes)
1/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste (Freeze the rest in a baggie.)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste
If you're using fresh tomatoes, bring a pot of water to a boil. Turn off the heat and place the tomatoes in the water for about two minutes (to loosen the skins). Remove the tomatoes and slide off the skins, discarding them. Chop the tomatoes into half-inch pieces. In the pot, saute the onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer uncovered for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the sauce isn't thick enough, add a little extra tomato paste.
1 medium eggplant, cut into 1/4-inch circles
1 to 1-1/2 cups skim mozzarella cheese, grated
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
Chopped fresh herbs such as basil, oregano, and thyme (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a foil-lined baking sheet with olive oil. Place the eggplant slices on the foil and lightly brush with olive oil. Bake for about 10 minutes until the tops are lightly browned. Flip over and bake for another 10 minutes until tender. Remove the eggplant and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lay the eggplant slices on top of the polenta triangles. Spoon on the sauce and sprinkle with mozzarella and then Parmesan. Bake for about 20 minutes until the cheese is lightly browned. Served topped with fresh herbs.
This hearty stew will fill you up so you won't miss the meat.
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled, and minced
1 teaspoon minced jalapeno pepper, seeded
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons curry powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper
3 small sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into1-inch chunks
6 small red or white-skinned potatoes, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups vegetable broth or water
1 small eggplant, cut into 1-inch pieces (about 2 cups)
2 cups cauliflower, cut into 1-inch flowers
1 cup canned garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Saute the garlic, ginger, and jalapeno in a large pot for about 30 seconds. Stir in the rest of the spices. Add both the potatoes and broth. Cover the pan and simmer for about 30 minutes until the potatoes are almost done. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer with the lid ajar for about 20 minutes until the vegetables are just tender, being careful not to let them get mushy. While they're cooking, prepare the couscous.
2 cups whole wheat or regular couscous
1-1/2 cups boiling water
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Place the couscous and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl or pot. Pour the boiling water on the couscous and stir just to mix. Cover with a lid and let sit untouched for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the couscous with a fork. Serve topped with the curry and fresh parsley.
*Couscous can be purchased at health food stores and the ethnic-food section of the supermarket.
Instead of the usual vegetarian beans and rice, try this high-protein salad.
2 tablespoons mild oil (canola)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/3 cup fresh lime juice
A few dashes of hot sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 package (16 oz.) firm or extra firm tofu, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes
4 cups cooked brown rice (I use basmati rice.)
1 cup fresh or frozen cooked corn
1 15-oz. can red beans, rinsed, drained
1 poblano or green pepper, chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
Grated cheddar cheese, chopped tomatoes, chopped green onion
Prepare the rice the day before and refrigerate so it won't be sticky. Whisk the dressing ingredients together in a large bowl. Toss the tofu cubes into the dressing and then toss in the rest of the ingredients. Serve with toppings if desired.
*Basmati rice can be found in the ethnic-food section of the supermarket.
This easy, low-fat cake bakes best on a low humidity, cool day. For a two-layer cake, double the recipe using two pans.
Line the bottoms with wax paper cut to fit.
Cake: One Layer
2 tablespoons mild oil (canola)
1/3 cup real maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder (optional)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 package "Mori-Nu" silken tofu (10.5 oz.), save the other half
3/4 cup mashed bananas (about two)
1-1/2 cups plus 1 tablespoon sifted whole wheat pastry flour or unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease the bottom of an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan. Pulse together all the ingredients up to and including bananas in a food processor (or blender). Blend until smooth. Add the flour, baking powder, soda, and pulse just until blended. Don't overmix. Pour into the pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, just until light brown and an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Don't overbake - the cake should be moist.
1/2 package silken tofu (the other half)
1/2 cup nondairy, barley malt sweetened chocolate chips (If you eat dairy, you could also use regular chocolate chips.)
2 tablespoons real maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
Place the chocolate chips and maple syrup in a glass measuring cup. Cook the chocolate, with two inches of water, in a microwave or a saucepan, just until melted. Blend all the ingredients in the food processor until smooth. Taste for additional sweetener. Pour into a bowl and refrigerate for about one hour until it thickens. (You can speed up this process if you stick it in the freezer and stir every few minutes.) After the cake has cooled, spread on the frosting.
If you're making a layer cake, remove the layers from the pans by loosening with a butter knife. Peel off the wax paper. Frost the bottom layer, then the top and let the frosting drip down the sides a bit. Decorate the top with chocolate chips or a few strawberry halves around the edge.
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