I’m sure my teenage self blushed the first time I heard it. After devouring some sincere meatless dish I had concocted in my mother’s kitchen, a family friend said, “I could be vegetarian with food like this.”
Even folks who love bacon can find delight in meatless meals, if they just take a bite with an open mind.
Over the years, as a cookbook author and culinary instructor with a vegetarian focus, I thought I could persuade people to go without their daily meat. But the truth is, most people aren’t ready to make dramatic changes at dinnertime. That’s why I love the Meatless Monday campaign.
No grand-scale life makeover. No commitments. Just one day a week of no meat.
You know the reasons: lowering any alarming numbers you get from the doctor. Reducing your carbon footprint. Relying on protein from sources that require less energy and water to produce. Reducing food costs. It’s a familiar mantra to many of us.
But here’s the secret to meatless meals: They taste great. We’re not going without anything. We are eating well.
Even the most committed omnivores can take a break and go on a global food adventure, and sample the fare of plant-forward cuisines, from India to the Mediterranean, Thailand to Mexico and beyond. The great thing about making them at home is that you can customize them to suit your tastes. If you love Thai food but have a tender palate, you can use fewer chiles at home. If you have a craving for lasagna, chili or other often-meaty dish, creating a meatless version might give you a new favorite. You can even edit for your family’s tastes, subbing for vegetables that they don’t like, or amping up the spice.
For today’s recipes, I picked some of my greatest hits, inspired by the foods of Italy, India and China. These calzones are made with a heartier whole wheat crust than usual, and filled with ready ricotta, spiked with intensely concentrated sun-dried tomatoes.
An Indian classic, Red Lentil Dal, gets a few more vegetables and just a hint of heat, so everyone can enjoy it. Turning to the land where tofu was born, I put Chinese flavors into a stir-fry, and topped with sesame-crusted, baked tofu sticks, for a dish that just might seduce you to love tofu.
Today we have access to a wealth of once-exotic flavors, as well as wonderful local delicacies. We can mine the secrets of spicing and flavor, combining what has been perfected by cooks over the centuries, and make food so flavorful that you won’t miss the meat.
We don’t even have to do it on Mondays.
Join me twice a month as I explore the meatless world.
Red Lentil Dal with Coriander-Pear Raita
Serves 6 (makes about 8 cups).
Note: Some of the best meatless cuisine comes from India, where long traditions of plant-based cookery have given us flavor combinations that satisfy. To clean lentils, pour them on a sheet pan and sort through them with your fingers, looking for any foreign objects. Place in a fine mesh strainer and rinse briefly. From Robin Asbell.
• 1 tbsp. canola oil
• 1 medium onion, chopped
• 1 tbsp. fresh minced ginger
• 2 tsp. brown mustard seeds
• 1 tsp. cumin seeds
• 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
• 1 tsp. turmeric
• 1 c. red lentils (see Note)
• 5 c. water
• 1 whole carrot, chopped
• 1 1/2 c. chopped turnip (1 medium)
• 2 c. cauliflower, small florets
• 1 tsp. lemon juice
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1/2 c. fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
• 1 c. plain yogurt (or nondairy yogurt)
• 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
• 1/2 small red pear, chopped
To make the dal: In a large pot, heat the canola oil and add the onion and ginger. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, until softened. Add the mustard seeds, cumin seeds and red pepper flakes, and stir over medium heat until they are fragrant. Add the turmeric and stir for 1 minute.
Add the lentils, 5 cups water, carrots, turnips and cauliflower, and turn the heat to high to bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and partly cover. Let simmer, stirring every 10 minutes or so, for about an hour. Check to make sure there is enough water; if it starts to get too thick, add more.
When the lentils are falling apart and tender to the bite, add the lemon juice, cinnamon and salt. Stir and simmer for about 5 minutes. Adjust seasonings and add the cilantro just before serving.
To make the raita: In a medium bowl, combine the yogurt, coriander and pear, and stir.
Serve 1 cup of dal topped with 3 tablespoons of raita.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 196 Fat 4 g Sodium 470 mg
Carbohydrates 31 g Saturated fat 1 g Total sugars 8 g
Protein 12 g Cholesterol 2 mg Dietary fiber 8 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 2 starch, 1 lean protein, ½ fat.
Arugula and Sun-Dried Tomato Calzones
Makes 8 calzones.
Note: Everybody loves Italian flavors, especially when you get your own personal meal in a pocket. Arugula is a bargain compared with fresh basil this time of year, and gives you a wonderful herbal note. If you don’t want to make your own dough, you have the option of purchasing frozen whole-wheat roll dough, and pressing two (2-ounce) portions of dough into one piece for each calzone. For this recipe, you would thaw 16 pieces. From Robin Asbell.
• 2 oz. (about 2 c., or 18 pieces) sun-dried tomato halves
To make calzone dough (see Note) :
• 2 c. unbleached flour
• 1 1/2 c. white whole-wheat flour
• 2 tsp. instant yeast
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 1/4 c. hot water
• 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
To make filling:
• 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 medium onions, chopped
• 1 tsp. salt
• 3 c. arugula (about 2 1/2 oz.), chopped
• 1 lb. ricotta cheese
• 1 c. shredded Parmesan cheese, plus more for topping
• 1 egg, for topping
Pour warm water over the sun-dried tomatoes to rehydrate, let stand while you make the dough.
To make calzone dough: In a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, or in a large bowl, combine the unbleached flour, white whole-wheat flour, yeast and 1 teaspoon salt, and stir to mix.
In a small bowl, combine the hot water and 1/4 cup olive oil, and mix into the flour mixture. Stir to make a soft dough, and knead for 3 minutes if using a dough hook and 5 minutes if using your hands. Oil a large bowl, and transfer the dough to the bowl, then cover loosely with a damp towel. Let rise for an hour.
(If using frozen dough, count out 16 pieces and thaw according to package instructions.)
In a large sauté pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium high heat and add the onions. Stir until they sizzle, then reduce to medium-low. Stir in 1 teaspoon salt. When the onions are tender and golden, about 8 minutes, spoon half of them into a medium bowl. To the pan, add the arugula and stir until just wilted, then scrape into a large bowl. Add the ricotta and Parmesan. Drain the sun-dried tomatoes and wring out, then chop finely. Add to the sautéed onions in the medium bowl and mix well; reserve.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line 2 sheet pans with parchment.
Lightly flour a counter, and divide the dough into 8 equal portions. Shape each into a ball and place on the counter to rest while you shape the calzones. (If using frozen dough, press 2 portions together to form each ball, then proceed.) Roll out each ball to a 5- by 6-inch oval, and portion 1/3 cup of the ricotta filling on the bottom half of each, then measure 2 tablespoons of the sun-dried tomato mixture on top. Dampen the exposed edge at the bottom, and fold the dough over, pressing the dough to seal. Use the tines of a fork to seal the dough, then transfer each to a prepared sheet pan, and pierce the top once with the fork. Leave 2 inches between calzones. Continue until all are filled and formed. Let the calzones rise for about 20 minutes.
Crack the egg into a cup and whisk, then brush the tops of the calzones, if desired. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Bake for 20 minutes, reversing the position of the pans at 10 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Nutrition information per calzone:
Calories 460 Fat 21 g Sodium 99 mg
Carbohydrates 49 g Saturated fat 9 g Total sugars 6 g
Protein 20 g Cholesterol 56 mg Dietary fiber 5 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 3 starch, 2 medium-fat, 2 fat protein, 2 ½ fat.
Sesame Crusted Tofu and Vegetables with Honey Sriracha Sauce
Note: If you order tofu in a Chinese restaurant, it will probably be fried in a generous amount of oil. That is delicious. This version has a coating of sesame seeds and it’s baked on a lightly oiled sheet pan, creating a crispy exterior and a fluffy, tender center. While the tofu bakes, you stir-fry some crunchy vegetables and glaze them in a sweet and spicy sauce. Black rice, sometimes called “Forbidden Rice,” is a whole-grain rice that cooks in about 20 minutes, making it almost as fast as white rice to prepare. It’s available at natural food stores and many supermarkets, usually found with either the rice or in the bulk section. Black sesame seeds are often sold with Asian foods; if unavailable, substitute the more common white ones. From Robin Asbell.
• 1 c. black rice (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. canola oil, divided
• 1 lb. extra-firm tofu, drained
• 3 tbsp. arrowroot or cornstarch
• 2 tbsp. soy sauce, divided
• 1/4 c. sesame seeds
• 1/4 c. black sesame seeds (see Note)
• 2 tbsp. honey
• 2 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
• 1 tsp. dark sesame oil
• 1 tsp. Sriracha sauce, plus more for the table
• 1 large carrot, halved and sliced
• 1/2 large red bell pepper, seeded and sliced
• 6 oz. snap peas (3 c.), trimmed
• 2 large green onions, sliced on a diagonal
To cook the rice, bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil over high heat in a 1-quart pot. Add the rice and return to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cover tightly. Cook for 20 minutes, until the water is all absorbed and the rice is tender. Keep warm on the back of the stove until time to serve.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spread 1 tablespoon canola oil on a sheet pan and set aside. Drain tofu and wrap in a kitchen towel, then press under a cutting board as you prep the vegetables (5 or 10 minutes is fine).
In a medium bowl, combine the arrowroot or cornstarch, 2 tablespoons water, and 1 tablespoon soy sauce. In another medium bowl, mix both kinds of sesame seeds.
Slice the tofu into 4 long slices, then stack the slices and cut into 4 even piles. Dip the slices of tofu into the arrowroot mixture, then dredge in the sesame seeds. Place on the oiled sheet pan. When all are coated, bake for 15 minutes, then use a spatula to turn the slices, and bake for 15 minutes more.
While the tofu bakes, combine the honey, ginger, sesame oil, Sriracha sauce and remaining 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Whisk until smooth.
Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat for a few seconds, then swirl in the remaining 1 tablespoon canola oil. Add the carrots and bell pepper, and stir for a few seconds, then add the snap peas. When the peas are a slightly darker shade of green and the carrots are crisp-tender, stir the sauce and pour over the vegetables. Stir and cook; the liquids will evaporate and glaze the vegetables.
To serve, top each plate with rice, and then with vegetables and tofu. Top all with green onions and drizzle with more Sriracha sauce, if desired.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 545 Fat 28 g Sodium 500 mg
Carbohydrates 60 g Saturated fat 3 g Total sugars 14 g
Protein 22 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 8 g
Diabetic exchanges per serving: 1 vegetable, 2 starch, 1 ½ carb, 2 medium-fat protein, 3 ½ fat.
Robin Asbell, of Minneapolis, is the author of “Big Vegan,” “The Whole Grain Promise” and “Great Bowls of Food.” Find her at robinasbell.com.