RECIPES: Alsation Onion Cake, Braised Eggplant with Garlic Sauce, Dandelion Fritatta, Eggplant and Tomato Gratin, Eggplant Curry, Indian Cauliflower and Potato Curry, Mediterranean Tart, Papa O's Eggplant Parmesan with Fresh Mozzarella, Squash Blossom Quesadillas, Egyptian Edamame Stew, Indian Vegetarian Stew, Chickpea Burgers with Tahini Sauce, Cheese and Spinach Stuffed Portobellos, Spicy Black Bean Filled Pita with Chipotle Sauce, Stir Fried Kabocha with Tofu and Basil, Tomato Mozzarella Tart with Basil Garlic Crust
Resolved to eat less meat this year? Going “meatless” doesn’t have to be a deprivation exercise – not only is it healthier for the environment, meatless meals significantly lower your caloric and fat intake. Replacing meat in dishes with veggies or grains can mean eating one third less fat (and 80% less saturated fat) while beneficially increasing your fiber intake. My husband likes to joke that he’s an “econotarian” when asked about his meat or veggie diet preference, but it’s true: replacing a few meat-based meals each month may have some rewarding financial benefits for the budget, too!
In my bistro days, one of the most important aspects of running a successful food business was learning how to control food costs. 25% was considered the “right” ratio in the overall budget. (And, as most restaurateurs know, meat accounts for the lion's share of food costs.) Living in Santa Cruz and knowing that many locals preferred a non-meat diet, we also had to make certain that a portion of our menu included vegetarian or vegan offerings.
At first it was challenging for the chef and me (gasp – both carnivores!) to develop an interesting menu that included non-traditional vegetarian fare – but we embraced the task and turned to “world cuisine” for inspiration. Marlena Spieler, a renowned cookbook author, prolific food writer and broadcaster, became our favorite muse. We used several of her early books, Hot and Spicy: Innovative Recipes from the World’s Fiery Cuisine, Sun Drenched Cuisine and The Flavor of California as our go-to sources for delicious, sassy dishes. It was our goal to create non-meat dishes that were not only tasty, but would appeal to our “meat eaters” as well, without “broadcasting” that the dish was meatless or vegetarian. We also decided not to have any special designation on the menu for the vegetarian entrées. The vegetarian offerings would be listed with our meat based dishes.
To our surprise, the “challenge” to create satisfying vegetarian dishes using seasonal ingredients from the farmers market became our most enjoyable weekly task. Most of the vegetarian main courses, that initially we struggled to develop, became the most well-loved entrées on the menu, by both vegetarians and meat eaters! We learned it didn’t matter whether the dish was meat centric or vegetarian – what mattered most was serving well-seasoned, flavorful dishes that everyone enjoyed. Our menu offerings became primarily vegetarian by “popular demand.” Meat, poultry and seafood items were the exception, not the rule.
And, did I mention that our food costs dropped under 20%, an almost unheard of feat in the business? Using fresh vegetables purchased directly from the farmers at the farmers market instead of a commercial restaurant supplier not only proved to be economical, but we also had less waste and spoilage due to the freshness of the vegetables and fruits.
Today, I no longer think in terms of “vegetarian” or non-vegetarian when it comes to meal planning or entertaining. My goal is simply to serve a nourishing meal with fresh wholesome ingredients that evoke excitement with a little world flavor flair. I am more inclined to serve a whole grain side dish with a vegetarian dish, too. The rich flavors and textures just seem to pair well together – and whole grains just happen to be very nutritious. A wide selection of bulk whole grains are available at many of our local markets, from ancient grains like quinoa and spelt, to millet, whole wheat berries, and barley.
So whether you’re a dyed in the wool vegetarian or a confirmed carnivore, here are some favorite meatless entrées that will liven up a few winter meals and will be easy on the budget, too. And, you won’t miss the meat. Promise.