There are any number of reasons a person might choose to go vegetarian. Some people do it for health reasons; some have religious convictions; others have ethical issues about eating animals.
Me? I was just bored and decided I needed a challenge. While I am a fairly good cook, I was tired of making the same things over and over again. My husband thought that it might be a good way for him to lose weight. We both agreed that it might inspire our teenaged daughter to eat less junk food. Given that ground beef is going for $3.63 per pound, we thought it also might be a way to save a little money.
Since neither of us is really into the idea of making New Year's resolutions, we decided to approach this as an experiment. The ground rules going in were simple: I would cook no mammal or fowl for the entire month of January. Dairy and eggs were fine, ditto seafood. Officially, we'd call that semi-vegetarian -- vegan means no animal products at all, ovo-lacto vegetarians will eat eggs and dairy but no actual meat, and by my own personal standards, fish counts as meat, so "semi-vegetarian." If anyone wanted to have a burger or a pepperoni pizza, they were free to do so as long as it wasn't brought into the house. And, we would try a few new things.
That last part would prove to be a challenge. For completely different reasons, my husband John and I are both timid eaters. He grew up in a household where Chef Boyardee canned spaghetti was considered foreign food. A steady diet of overcooked pork chops and limp green beans built a bland palate. On the other hand, I grew up with a parent who routinely served tripe in spaghetti sauce and ate snails (my job was to push the escaping snails back into the pot of boiling water.) My mother's willingness to eat literally anything left me with a profound suspicion of unfamiliar foods.
So, we started out simple. Spaghetti with marinara sauce. Veggie stir-fry. Salads. Grilled cheese sandwiches. Nothing weird or unfamiliar. While you could certainly live on this diet, it wouldn't be long before you died of boredom.
The first foray into the unfamiliar for me was a Gardenburger. John had eaten them before, but I am not a fan of burgers to begin with, so I was leery. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I love Gardenburgers. First of all, they don't claim to taste like meat, a plus in my book. I have an inherent distrust of things that claim to taste "just like" other things. This is also my Mother's fault; years ago, she tried to coerce me to try frog legs by telling me they taste "just like" chicken. Guess what? Frog legs do not taste like chicken. They taste like frog. JUST LIKE frog, in fact.
So anyway –- Gardenburgers. They're burger-shaped, but they're a mix of grains and vegetables. And they taste like a nice mix of grains and vegetables. Of course, when they're on a bun and covered with cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, ketchup and mayo (as mine was) they could taste like anything -– even frog –- and you'd hardly notice.
Emboldened by this success, I took the suggestion of my Intrepid Media cohorts, Jael and Louise, and scouted out Quorn. Yes, it's fungus. So are mushrooms, and I like mushrooms, so I had no real fear on that score. I was shocked to discover that Quorn pressed and breaded "chicken" patties taste amazingly like Tyson's actual pressed and breaded chicken patties. In other words, dry, a little too salty, and kind of bland. Certainly edible, but not anything I'd be in a hurry to try again.
One of my longtime semi-vegetarian friends, Jon, suggested I add Morningstar brand "crumbles" to my spaghetti sauce as a ground beef substitute. The crumbles are textured vegetable protein (a combination of wheat gluten and soy protein also known as TVP.) Since my spaghetti sauce never had meat in it to begin with, I thought this was a silly idea. On the other hand, I usually use ground beef in my chili, so with just a little trepidation, I threw some crumbles into my chili recipe. And it was completely indistinguishable from ground beef. Again, as with the burgers, though, there are so many other ingredients in the chili you could pretty much throw in ground housecat and no one would notice the difference. Well, except perhaps the cat.
I have bought a package of "facon" -– TVP faux-bacon strips, also in the Morningstar product line -– but haven't yet been brave enough to try it. I'll get back to you on that one. The idea of fake bacon makes me laugh, though.
While my husband has been known to go for the occasional order of fish and chips, he's not a seafood fan at all. My daughter and I will both eat crab and shrimp, but neither of us had ventured any further into seafood than that. Again, blame Mom –- I grew up cleaning squid, shucking clams and oysters, and poking snails back into the pot for the traditional Italian seafood Christmas dinners, and that was enough to completely turn me off most varieties of fish. Really, once you've seen the inside of a squid, you're just not that eager to eat the outside. So seafood was pretty much unexplored territory for all of us.
Enter again my semi-vegetarian (and complete sushi freak) friend Jon. On his recommendation, my daughter Kate decided to try sushi. Far braver than her mother, she dove right in and ordered tekka maki –- actual raw fish! I smiled, and quietly ate my (cooked fake-crab) California roll. Being mocked as a coward by Jon doesn't bother me in the least –- but when my own kid turns on me, that's a whole different story. So... I tried it. And I liked it. So I tried the raw mackerel. THAT was a mistake, but I'm no longer afraid of raw fish, anyway. I've even made sushi at home now!
Kate and I have also both developed a fondness for tilapia, a very mild white fish that tastes great pan-fried. We're planning to audition orange roughy next. While John's still not interested in trying fish, he does love baked potatoes topped with veggie chili or salsa and sour cream, so when Kate and I decide to have fish for dinner, we bake a few potatoes and he's cool.
American-mainstream meals tend to be meat-as-main-dish with sides of vegetables and starch, and that's pretty much how I have cooked much of my adult life. Going veggie has inspired me to look outside traditional American cooking into the more-veggie-friendly menus of other cultures. While we'd sampled a little of everything before, we've now cooked Indian food (jaipur vegetables with paneer cheese and curry sauce), Thai food (pahd sea ewe with broccoli rabe, scrambled egg and tofu) and Japanese food (udon noodles stir-fried with peppers and carrots). I've tried dozens of new recipes collected from various friendly sources –- carrots cooked with pistachios from Russ, curried cauliflower from Jon, pan-fried fish with macadamia nuts and parmesan from Carl. I've made butternut squash ravioli, black-bean-and-corn burritos, and spicy mushroom polenta, all to rave reviews.
I thought ordering in restaurants might prove tricky, and that I'd be reduced to eating nothing but salads out, but it really hasn't. Most restaurants, including McDonald's, are more than willing to leave meat out of any dish that isn't, you know, a steak.
This experiment was originally intended to last only through January. We're into March now. I'm still not cooking meat. John and Kate have gone back to eating some, but not nearly as much as they did before, just the occasional grilled chicken sandwich or sausage pizza ordered out. And I have "cheated" a little bit, too –- I had a slice of pepperoni stromboli my friend Linda made for a party, a bite of my friend Rick's steak at a restaurant a few weeks ago, and a single cocktail meatball last weekend at a memorial dinner. I don't dislike meat products, I haven't taken any sudden strides toward PETA, and I'm still wearing leather (yeah baby!) but I think I can officially call myself a semi-vegetarian now. I make no promises to stay that way forever; I make a truly fantastic pepper steak and a great beef stew, and who knows when that craving will hit.
I've been pleasantly surprised by the ease of switching over, and I've very much enjoyed trying new foods and new cooking techniques. I wish all New Year's resolutions were this easy to keep.
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
3.2.06 @ 11:59a
Veggie burgers are great. Some of the products out there do taste like bird food though. Cheese can make almost any vegetarian meal taste wonderful. I would suggest trying some roasted veggie dishes. They are to die for when you bring in some goat's cheese. I could put it on a cake!!
3.3.06 @ 12:30a
I love veggies, and I take spells when I crave meat and when I'm happy without it. Probably comes from growing up in a quintessentially southern household. In the summer we'd make a meal off fresh corn, new potatoes, green beens, field peas and cornbread, along with sliced tomatoes, and cucumbers and onions in vinegar. My grandfather had a huge garden.
Fish recommendations: Salmon, mahi mahi and tuna. All are great marinated, especially in soy sauce-based marinades. Also, spread some mayonnaise on some salmon filets and sprinkle with fresh or dried tarragon, then grill. Sounds weird, tastes great!
3.3.06 @ 7:36a
One of the surprises I've discovered in switching over is that a vegetarian diet is not, in and of itself, necessarily a healthier diet. In general, it's lower in fat and lower in cholesterol, but there's a little work involved in ensuring balance and adequate nutrition. I'd worried about getting enough protein, but that hasn't been an issue. Getting too much sodium HAS been, so I'm watching that now.
3.3.06 @ 7:40a
The physician supervising my anti-cancer regimen has informed me that wild fish should be chosen over farmed fish, and that sardines and and anchovies seem to have the least amount of toxins in them. Since we like really fishy-tasting fish wild mackeral, tuna, snapper and such are on our menu. I'm eating a lot of raw vegetables since all the enzymes and most of the vitamins are destroyed by cooking. Organic broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes, yellow squash, cucumbers, salad greens (other than iceberg lettuce which I HATE) and at least one big glass of carrot juice daily are the big numbers in this veggie dance recital. My favourite sandwich, organic peanut butter, honey and anchovies, makes it on the menu about every other day. (Don't ask.) So far I eat a lot of sardines and anchovies for protein, and all the raw veggies I can stand. Good Seasons makes an Asian sesame and ginger salad dressing which makes it all possible. So far the only really big carb-laden stuff I'm eating are baked sweet potatoes two or three times a week. The main goal in all of this is to eat those things least likely to produce estrogen and/or fat cells which are the big enemies of breast cancer survivors.
3.3.06 @ 8:02a
I think Juli did a great thing here. It allowed her to expand her diet and have a richer variety to choose from. In general, it's extremely helpful to like a wide range of foods when trying to eat healthy.
However, I really have a problem with people who won't eat animals because they feel so strongly about how horrible it is, but then don't hesitate to buy a car with leather seats or take pictures with film (gelatin is needed to make film.)
3.3.06 @ 8:12a
I am VERY good at sticking my head in the sand where meat is concerned. Intellectually, I know that soft, fuzzy animals with pretty, dark eyes have to die for us to have meat, and that the slaughtering process is not pretty by anyone's definition. So I'm very good at convincing myself that meat comes from heaven in nicely-wrapped styro trays. La-la-la, I can't hear you and all that. I also know that humans are designed to be omnivores - it's no longer strictly necessary for us to eat meat to survive, but that IS the way we're made.
I've been fairly fortunate in that I've encountered very few of the strident, frothing-at-the-mouth vegetarians who secretly wear leather. Most of my veggie acquaintances are either pretty quiet about their ethics unless specifically questioned, or they're vegans who DO walk the cruelty-free walk.
3.3.06 @ 9:21a
I've always wondered about vegetarians in leather. Now I see I'm not the only one.
A vegetarian diet can easily be more fattening than an omnivorous one, if only because a 3-ounce block of cheese has more calories and fat in it than a 3-ounce block of chicken. Of course I would rather have the cheese.
Glad you found the Quorn, even if you weren't fond of it. I often use meatless crumbles for taco meat. The texture isn't quite the same as ground beef, but since I don't like the texture of ground beef, that works for me.
So glad to hear about the experiment!
3.3.06 @ 10:44a
i can't wait for the report on facon. one thanksgiving in hollywood (of course) some friends had tofurkey. here's hoping facon is much, much better.
3.3.06 @ 11:03a
Recently, Erik and I have been incorporating tofu into our regular diet. I was dead-set against it to start with, but now I kind of like it. I've decided that it all comes down to the marinade.
3.3.06 @ 11:06a
Tofu is not much of anything, really, flavor-wise. I've thrown the super-firm kind into stir-fries, but while no one gagged or anything, neither did anyone declare a instaneous love of tofu. You know what's yummy, though? Chinese restaurant deep-fried tofu with soy-vinegar dipping sauce.
3.3.06 @ 2:24p
Ah, yes. Fried tofu is good tofu.
For home use I've heard the best thing to do is press it -- weigh it down with something heavy and leave it for an hour or so, to press out the water and make the texture firmer. One of these days I'll get around to trying that.
3.3.06 @ 3:03p
I've been pressing ours for a short time (15 minutes or so), cubing it, and then marinating it for at least an hour. Then it goes into the oil to brown around the edges and firm up some more before I add whatever else is going into the stir-fry.
3.3.06 @ 3:06p
'Good Eats' has a terrific tofu episode. Very interesting. Someday I will consider having more to do with tofu than watching Alton Brown eat it on television.
3.5.06 @ 12:01a
While I do eat meat I try not to think about how it got to my plate. At best I reason, 'it's already dead. I didn't kill it. It's a shame to waste it.' Yeah, a bit heartless, but I'm good at self-deluding thoughts.
My tufo experiences haven't been wonderful. I always find it too soft and mushy. I'm not into soft and mushy.
After reading this, I'm hungry.
3.11.06 @ 3:22p
Two quick updates here: I'm supposed to tell everyone that John has lost six pounds on this diet (not bad, considering he CHEATS!) and the verdict on the "facon" is: it's not real bacon, but it is entirely edible and non-offensive. Better on a BLT than on the side of French toast, but still, not bad.
3.22.06 @ 6:44p
My wife surprised me with some sort of fake sausage patties this morning. They were OK if you took a bite along with some egg, toast and lots of hot sauce. We both rated them "why bother?"
3.23.06 @ 11:47a
I have discovered seitan! Also known as "wheat-meat," it's made from wheat gluten and it's a pretty damn effective meat substitute. It's not terribly flavorful on its own, but like tofu it takes on marinades beautifully. UNLIKE tofu, it has some real texture and body.
Most of the meat substitutes on the market now, including the "facon" and the faux sausage Dathan mentions above, are made from some combination of wheat gluten and soy. And I agree that in most cases, "why bother?" with a meat substitute - if you want to eat meat, eat actual MEAT. If however you have chosen for whatever reason not to eat meat, it's good to know that there are reasonable substitutions available now.
3.23.06 @ 3:35p
Out of curiosity... Is the fake stuff healthy? I know it doesn't have any meat but I try to stay away from overly processed things. Are you ditching meat but eating all kinds of chemicals and sodium?
3.23.06 @ 4:09p
I think it depends. Tofu is pretty darn good for you, full of protein and whatnot. I have noticed some of the fake meats are high in sodium, however. And while Quorn is low in fat compared to real meat, it's still got fat in it, to be sure.
3.23.06 @ 4:52p
Yes, what Jael said. Reading labels helps a lot. Like I said, a veggie diet is not automatically healthier. And I'm with you - given a choice between real food and some chemical cocktail, no matter how tasty, I'll take the actual food, thanks.
Sometimes you have to choose between convenience and nutrition, and I think many of us tend to choose convenience. And, most convenience foods, whether vegetarian or not, are loaded with salt.
For more info on vegetarian nutrition, check this link: http://www.vrg.org/nutrition/
It's a little heavy on the preachiness, but there's some solid information in there.
3.23.06 @ 5:34p
I've been on a 5 ingredient or less kick lately. It's been pretty easy actually.
4.4.06 @ 6:58a
it's a bit late to chime in but tofu and soy isn't that great for you. It's fine in moderate amounts; but soy is a known thyroid depressant; people with thyroid problems shouldn't consume soy and people with healthy thyroids have been known to come down with thyroid problems due to heavy ingestion of soy. Traditionally in asian cultures soy was consumed with iodine (think shell fish) and fermented (think miso and soy sauce) tofu is a relatively new product (within the last 100 years or so) in terms of human consumption. Soy is also the most genetically modified plant on the planet; something like 80% of soy has been modified so stick to the organic brands if you (like I do) have a problem with genetically modified foods. Corn is the second most genetically modified product.
Lastly cancer patients should make an effort to avoid soy as well; newer research has found that soy is not the cancer wonder drug it's been found to be and in certain situations can exacerbate the rate of cancer growth. Your body produces enough estrogens you don't need to injest them in the form of soy (isoflavones are very close to weak estrogens in the body)
As for the earlier poster who said that her doctor said she should stick to wild fish as opposed to farmed fish. The real answer is it depends. Fish are only as clean as the waters they swim in and something like 60% of US waters are polluted beyond safe drinking levels. the Oceans Alive website:
has a list of fish wich are safe to eat and eco-friendly (some fish are toxin free but are seriously overfished)
4.4.06 @ 10:08a
Never too late to chime in, Kendra. My husband is a thyroid cancer survivor (25 years now!) and I am perimenopausal, so information like this about soy is helpful.
I have never heard about the link between soy and thyroid problems. However, my understanding about isoflavones is that the amounts of usable isoflavones in soy are not even remotely adequate to serve as estorgen replacement - there has been some talk in recent years about women using soy for menopause symptoms, and that has been pooh-poohed by several studies. I DO know there's a link between excessive soy consumption and hair loss... but the keyword there seems to be "excessive."
Yes, soy-based foods are often highly processed and modified, but I so think it's a toss-up nutritionally with genetically altered and hormone-fed animal meats.
As our very own Dr. Damsker mentioned above, variety in a diet is the key to healthy eating; and as my great-grandmother always said, "Everything in moderation - including moderation."
4.4.06 @ 11:50a
Yes, Kendra's right. Soy, like spinach, broccoli, strawberries and peaches, have properties that surpress proper thyroid function in those with thyroid conditions. My doctor has told me that while on medication for my hypothyriodism, not to take these foods within 2-4 hours of my medication, otherwise they cancel each other out.
I can, however, have a snack later, but cannot eat them in excess.