This month, I will have been a vegetarian for nine years.
On Easter Sunday nine years ago, some college friends and I collaborated on a meal of Cornish game hens, homemade mashed potatoes with turkey gravy, biscuits and a large salad. We ate like it was Thanksgiving, and the next morning, I headed off for a morning shift at the coffee shop where I worked part-time.
Once I’d done the shop’s opening routine, I began to make my usual breakfast — an English muffin with a fried egg, a sausage patty and a slice of American.
Except I didn’t use a sausage patty. Or bacon.
I had been kicking around the idea of giving up meat for months, and that morning, I just decided to load up my egg muffin with spinach, tomato and avocado instead of meat. It was delicious, and I thought, I can do this. I’m gonna give it a shot.
Originally, I planned to give up all meat, but I went back to fish after a few months at the suggestion of my doctor. Technically, I’m a pesco-lacto-ovo vegetarian, meaning that I consume fish, dairy and eggs.
My cravings for meat dropped off after only a couple weeks, and disappeared completely after no more than two months.
On restaurant outings and trips to the grocery store, I tried to pick one fruit or vegetable that I’d either never tried before or thought I didn’t like. I learned that almost every vegetable tastes amazing when oven-roasted, and that whether steamed or sauteed, I like my veggies crisp, almost raw. For years, though, I’d been buying canned vegetables, then not eating them because I knew they’d be soggy and mushy. Fresh or frozen, however, those same foods began to taste amazing to me.
Finding new ways to prepare “old” foods was one of the challenges I faced when giving up meat, but it was a fun one. (Not-so-fun challenges included explaining my choice to the diehard carnivores and deer hunters in my life and trying to find a tasty substitute for bacon.)
Rather than post actual recipes, here are some veggie-friendly foods and preparation techniques that have become staples in my kitchen, and helped me transition to a heart-healthier diet:
- Boca and Morningstar are not the only meat substitutes. A large portabella mushroom cap, marinated in a vinaigrette or Italian dressing and then pan-friend or grilled, is an excellent substitute for a beef burger. They have the bite and texture of lean meat, an earthy flavor and plenty of nutritional value. Use a spatula to press out extra liquid so your bun doesn’t get soggy. I like my ’bella burgers with pesto, red onions and provolone.
- Reenvision your plate. Where the meat used to go, put a second vegetable, or even a third. I aim for two vegetables per meal at the very least. Variety is as important as quantity.
- Veggies + a whole grain + a complete protein in a pile. You can’t go wrong with this equation. Garden rotini (pasta made with spinach and carrots) with broccoli and pine nuts, cous cous with garbanzo beans and zucchini, wild grain rice with mushrooms, snap peas and sprouts — these are one-dish meals that are fast, flavorful and filling.
- Stuff everything. Take the equation above, but make the vegetable your vehicle. Red or yellow peppers taste great with beans and rice, and thinly sliced eggplant can replace manicotti noodles when rolled around a dollop of ricotta. Even small mushrooms can be stuffed with spoonfuls of cheesy rice or seafood salad. In the fall, I love to hollow out an acorn squash and fill it with a mixture of orzo, feta cheese, dried figs and some of the squash pulp.
- Quiche is amazingly versatile.Practically any cheese and veggie combination
you can conceive of tastes good in a quiche. My favorite is spinach and sharp cheddar, with crimini mushrooms and smoked gouda a close second. Saute your veggies and drain off any liquid, then spread them in an even layer over the bottom of a store-bought (or homemade, but I’m going for fast and easy here) pie crust you’ve pressed into a pie dish, season and grate cheese over the veggies, pour on a mixture of four or five eggs beaten with one cup of milk or cream, and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. So. Good.
- Wraps rule, too. It’s hard to keep chunks of fresh vegetables between two slices of bread. But you can fit almost anything into a pita pocket or flour tortilla. Egg and olive salad pitas and bean and pepper burritos are great lunches, but can also be solid dinners when paired with a veggie-heavy soup (try a butternut squash bisque or a spicy, Southwest-inspired corn chowder, respectively).
- Using ALL of fruits and veggies means multiple meals and money saved. When I chop veggies for a stir fry, I try to remember to put the ends of carrots, celery, peppers and onions into a large Tupperware container and freeze them. When the container is full, I throw those ends into a big pot of water and let them simmer all afternoon. Voila, homemade vegetable stock, which is one of the most expensive stocks in the store. Do the same thing with fruits for smoothies. If you don’t use all of a can of beans, puree the rest to thicken soups or sauces.
Omnivore or vegetarian, what’s your favorite meat-free dish?