Meatless Mondays Don't Have to Suck

Falafel with tahini, quite possibly the world's most perfect foodEating like a vegetarian or vegan more often is no longer relegated to the fringes of society, now it's a real and realistic goal for many of us who want to lessen our impact and eat more sustainably. But, so many of us are quite accustomed to reaching for meat or meat-based products to flavor, to add body, to get that deep-down-satisfying.

So what's an omnivore to reach for when trying to give Meatless Mondays (and maybe more days) a chance?

Having enthusiastically endorsed removing the beasts (or at least meat) from our diets at least a couple to few days a week, I figured it was time to offer something more than finger wagging. So, here are some great ideas for eating well without bothering any beasts in the process.

And, as an added side benefit, most of them are crazy cheap and quite easy to make, too.  Food WIN!

Curried veggies, the best side-dish, everNow, many people might tell you right off to go reaching for meat substitutes. In my opinion, that's where prosthelytizing vegans and vegetarians go off the rails with many omnivores. As you'll be having beastie-based eats soon enough, there's really no need to go for the pale look-alikes. They will most likely only make your mouth feel very sad.

Go for what tastes good and makes you feel satisfied and fuck the rest!

When we're doing our meatless days, the very first go-to ingredient I'm reaching for is legumes. They not only taste fantastic, but also offer the meatiness we carnivorous folks kinda like in our food. With lots of variety of textures and flavors, you really can't go wrong.


Legumes

Chick peas/Garbanzos -

There are few things I crave like falafel. It really is one of the world's perfect foods. Mind you, I'll not be giving the guys at Al Wazir a run for their money any time soon, but at least can whip up something tasty and beastie-free here in our kitchen. Granted, I'm still working on perfecting that whole staying-together thing without adding binders to the mix, but the taste is good and has a bit more punch than your average falafel joint's offerings, since I can make it as we like it instead of for the common palate.

Here's what I put in for a single batch the other night (makes about 15-16 1"-2" balls)
1/2 lb chick peas - soaked 24 hours
1/4 cup each - sliced scallion, finely chopped mint, finely chopped parsley, and finely chopped cilantro
8 cloves finely minced garlic (We like garlic A LOT!)
2 TBSP turmeric
1 TBSP ground dried lemon (because we were out of fresh lemons - *tsk tsk, me*)
1 TBSP Aleppo pepper
1 TBSP sumac
*just a note: It's really important to finely dice the add-ins ahead of time so you don't have to over-process the chick peas to get them processed as fine as you'd like, too.

I processed the chick peas on pulse until they were almost to the size of bread crumbs, then added the extra stuff and pulsed just until blended. Then I chilled the mix, pulled it out to form little balls, and chilled briefly again. Then, I deep fried them until crispy, golden done. This time out, I only lost 2 to the deep-fry gods so that wasn't too bad. If anyone has a sure-fire way to prevent crumbling, I'd love to hear it!

Also great with falafel, as well as a great, hearty dip for fresh veggies or pita, is tahini sauce. I just mixed equal parts tahini paste and yoghurt (yes, not vegan, but vegetarian ... baby steps!), then added a bit of ground lemon (would've used fresh lemon, were I not too lazy to go to the store last minute) and garlic, then slowly added a bit of water until it was at the consistency I wanted. Super-easy and really tasty without meat. It's also a really flexible dip for adding chilis, herbs, whatever. Sesame is freakin' awesome.

Hummus is a gimme and a recipe is almost redundant! But, I will share that if you want to super-smooth consistency of restaurant hummus, you can get it by taking the time to remove the skins after cooking. Otherwise, you can get a bit of exercise, too, and make your hummus Greek-style in the mortar and pestle. I like to add roasted peppers, roasted garlic, olives, or any yummy savory treats to the mix to keep it interesting but, honestly, I don't think I'd ever tire of just plain old chick-peas + garlic + lemon (+ tahini for Middle-eastern style) + olive oil. 
 

Lentils -

Roasted squash with lentils - Just skip the bacon for a great meatless mealLentil soup is one of the easiest, most hearty soup I know. Throw a diced onion, a few cloves of mincedgarlic, celery, and some scallions into a soup pot with some MED-HOT olive oil. Dump in a pound bag of lentils (or, if you prefer, save about 1/4 of the bag to pop in about 30 minutes later for varied texture) and warm them up a bit, then pour in about 4-6 cans of veggie broth (we like brothier soup, but your mileage may vary) and add some carrot slices and herbs. I like a little parsley, a bay leaf, and tsp or so of thyme. Bring that to a boil and lower to a simmer and stir up here and there until the lentils are cooked soft and breaking up and the carrots are cooked through. It should usually be about an hour for the flavors to blend well. If you like it smoother and thicker, give it a bit of bashing with your potato masher to break up more lentils.

Want to juice it up some? Add a can of diced tomatoes, some curry, a few small diced potatoes, some cauliflower, and/or red peppers. Lentil soup is a great base for experimentation.

Not feeling soup? Maybe something spicier sounds good? Maybe a lentil stew is the ticket.

Start a pot with MED-HOT olive oil, add in a diced onion, a few cloves of minced garlic, a sliced bunch of scallions, and about a 2-3" bit of grated ginger, maybe some shallot, too. Once the onions are going clear and soften, add about 1/2 lb of yellow or red lentils (readily available at Middle-eastern or Indian markets), a large (28 oz) can of tomatoes, diced or broken up with juice, carrot slices, and a can (regular 14.5 oz) of veg broth. Mix that up well and add some Madras curry powder (I usually use about 4-5 TBSP but your mileage may vary. Ideally, start with a little and work upward by tasting every few minutes.). Once it's bubbling well, lower to a simmer until the lentils are just about cooked through. Then add some kale, stems removed and torn into pieces and keep simmering until the kale is fully wilted.

Other great additions to this dish are sliced okra (watch your liquid if using okra, since it is a heavy-duty thickener), cauliflower, Thai chili peppers, bits of potato, other greens especially mustard for its bite.

Want something even more basic but still delicious? Make up some lentils with whatever aromatics and spices/herbs sound groovy and ladle them into a yummy squash. We like kabocha for this, but any squash or mini-pumpkins would work equally deliciously. Just halve the squash, scoop out the seeds and inner goo, rub lightly with oil and sprinkle with some  spices (we tend to like garam masala or a mix of Aleppo pepper, sumac, and cinnimon). Bake in a 375º oven hollow up until you can easily stick a fork through the skin (usually about 45 minutes to an hour). Start the lentils right after and scoop them in the hollow to serve. We almost always go with green/brown lentils with Middle-eastern spices or yellow/red lentils with Indian spices, all with a bit of onion and garlic. Then you can add Aleppo pepper for Middle-eastern or ginger, maybe some fresh cilantro for Indian.

Split peas -

That's the other super-hearty and super-easy soup. Just skip the swine in the mix if you want to go meatless and it's still satisfying and delicious.

black beans -

Ditto!
 

That's a lot of super-easy, tasty, and utterly vegan.  Hooray legumes!

Asian Cuisines -

Thai food doesn't need any animal products to be deliciousThere is a much greater vegetarian/vegan component to many Asian diets. We've addressed a little bit of Indian cuisine, though only scratched the surface, but Asia offers a lot of awe-inspiring variety throughout. 

Try a spicy Thai soup with some braised baby bok choy. Maybe a hearty spicy Szechuan stir-fry. Japanese cold soba with edamame and braised shitakes with the braising broth reduced as a base for a yummy dipping sauce. There are far too many options here, so I'll just start the wheels turning.

Mexican cuisine -

Beans, beans, beans! Pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans ... all tasty, hearty, and satisfying. Add some tomatoes, some avocado, chiles, roasted corn, tomatillos, tortillas and you have yourself a kick-ass meal.

Italian cuisine -

Hearty + vegan Japanese soba dinner that's great with a tasty cold beerWell, this is almost too easy! Shit, all you really need is some tomatoes and garlic with a nice starch or roasted/grilled veggie and you're there. But, if you get creative with the Italian, the effort is well worth it.

Try a puttanesca. Start with some onion and garlic in some olive oil, add some roasted red peppers, olives, capers, roasted garlic, red pepper flakes, herbs (I use the holy trinity: oregano, basil, and parsley ... fresh of you can get it, but dried is fine since you'll be slow-cooking) and tomato and bring to a bubble. Then let it simmer into gorgeous foodgasmic deliciousness for as long as you can fight the urge to dig in. Make sure to keep it low and slow and stir every 30 minutes or so, but not too often or you'll miss out on some of the good flavors that build up when you take your time with it.

You can serve puttanesca over pasta, but we tend to like ours over vegetables since we're also trying to keep the excess carbs to a minimum. Most veggies, everything from eggplant, zucchini, squash, green beans, asparagus, you name it, even carrots are really great with just a quick toss of olive oil and a sprinkle of granulated garlic, pinch of salt and little shake of herbs. If you're going higher temperature, about 400º,  mix them up every 15 minutes or so to avoid the edges getting burned and check the doneness. Most stuff will be in the range of nicely cooked in about 20-30 minutes and beautifully caramelized on the edges by about 45-70 minutes. If you're using regular big ol' eggplant, you may want to remove some or all of the skin unless you're cooking it a longish time. Plus, you will also probably benefit by giving it a sprinkle of salt over a rack for about 15-30 minutes before cooking.

Well, that's really enough yammering about food for one week. There are way too many options of great beast-free meals to even do them justice. I tried to focus on the most healthy, most flavorful, most hearty, with the simplest preparations while still not getting dragged into a plate of carbs. But, it's a small start at best.

I'll be back next week with the usual sighing and gushing over the wonders of pork products with a groovy experiment with potato muffins filled with bacon and cheese and a new spin on chile rellenos, among other yummy crap. Have a lovely week, everyone!