Sunday, June 18, 2006

Just call me a "part-time vegetarian"

If you've spent any time perusing my food blog (, you've likely noticed that all of the recipes shared within are vegetarian. Interestingly--well, I think it's interesting at least--I don't actually lead a fully meat-free lifestyle. I used to, though, and my husband has been a vegetarian for at least the last decade.

Why did I become a vegetarian (or "turned to the dark side," as my parents like to say) and then switch back to being a full-on, carcass-eating carnivore? Thanks for asking, but I'm going to spare you the details. Needless to say it is a long, convoluted story filled with showers of tears (my parents, not mine), and I'm sure you better things to do than sit here and read about the horrors of the meat-packing industry or the overwhelming need to eat a brat (the catalyst to my return to the aforementioned carcass-eating).

That doesn't mean I'm eating hot dogs with every meal, or that I've given up my relationship with vegetables and even tofu. In fact, I still consider myself 90 percent vegetarian--a "part-time vegetarian," if you will. And increasingly, I think that's how many people define themselves, on various levels. You can't pick up a newspaper, open a health magazine or watch a cooking show on TV without being told to "go meatless" once in a while. Science, thankfully, backs up those suggestions. Research conducted by the University of Oxford (England) in 1999 found that vegetarians have a lower mean body mass index (they're skinnier), lower cholesterol levels and a lower mortality from heart disease. That research also mentioned vegetarians may have a lower risk for some other diseases such as constipation, diverticular disease, gallstones and appendicitis.

Those are all pluses for me, but the real reason I continue to prepare and eat meat-free meals is that they make me feel better, feel healthier, than when I eat a lot of chicken or beef. I still eat the occasional sausage or brat, as well as healthier options like chicken and fish, but I also have learned to enjoy meals without them. Below are a few of my favorites--dishes that not only please a crowd, but are easy to make and just as healthy.

Curried Beans and Rice
This has the distinction of being my husband's favorite meal--and that's saying something, because he likes pretty much everything I make. It's also one of my friend's favorite dishes--and she's as far from a vegetarian as you can get.

It's the perfect thing to whip up after a long day at work--the recipe includes a minimal number of ingredients and very little chopping or cutting. Clean up is a breeze, too.

I usually just serve this with a simple salad and some wine. If you're feeding a crowd, a hearty, nutty loaf of bread can be the perfect accompaniment.

1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 white onion, diced
2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced
As much of a jalapeno pepper as you can handle, seeded and minced (optional, though recommended)
15-oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups uncooked basmati rice
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups coconut milk
1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
3-4 teaspoons curry powder
3-4 vegetarian sausages/brats (we prefer Tofurky-brand kielbasa), cut into ½-inch slices

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, bell pepper, garlic and jalapeno pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the rice, beans, water, coconut milk and seasonings and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat, cover and cook until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the sausage/brats, cover and let stand for 5 to 10 minutes more. Spoon onto plates and serve hot.

Note: If vegetarian sausages freak you out, feel free to substitute a can of chick peas, drained and rinsed. Really, though, give the sausages a try--they really give the dish a special twist.

Taco Soup
Here's another staple at our house. It calls for a lot of ingredients, but nearly all of them are pre-packaged or canned--the only thing you have to chop up is an onion or two. I love this dish because it is so hearty, and yet healthy, too.

2 onions, diced
2 pounds vegetarian ground beef "crumbles"
2 15-ounce cans pinto beans
1 15-ounce can pink kidney beans
1 15-ounce can hominy (or whole kernel corn), drained
3 14-ounce cans Mexican-style diced tomatoes
4.6-ounce can black olives, drained and sliced
1/2 cup green olives, sliced
1 (1 1/4-ounce) package taco seasoning mix
1 (1-ounce) package ranch salad dressing mix

In a large skillet, saute the diced onion in a few tablespoons of oil until softened. Add the vegetarian crumbles and cook for a few minutes more.

Add the beans, hominy (or corn), tomatoes, black olives, green olives, taco seasoning, and ranch dressing mix and cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue simmering, covered, for about an hour.

Ladle into individual soup bowls and top with sour cream (light, if you wish), shredded cheese, chopped chives, sliced jalapenos and/or baked tortilla chips and you've got yourself a crowd-pleasing meal.

Black Bean and Vegetable Burritos
This is the first vegetarian meal I ever made, and it's still a frequent visitor to our dinner table. Like the dishes above, this one is a great last-minute option for busy cooks. It's also highly adaptable--you can use pretty much any ingredients that please your palette.

1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 red pepper, chopped
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can Mexican-style stewed tomatoes
2 teaspoons red pepper flakes (optional)
Flour tortillas

Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the onions, bell pepper and garlic and saute until softened, about six minutes. Add the cumin and chili powder and stir until combined. Add the corn, beans and tomatoess and bring to a simmer. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until heated through. Top with the red pepper flakes (if using) and then add salt and pepper to taste.

Spoon about one cup of the filling into each tortilla, top with cheese and sour cream (if desired), roll up and serve.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Little chocolate drops of joy

A colleague of mine - who is a constant source of great, chocolate-filled recipes - just dropped one of these "little pieces of heaven" off at my desk. At first I didn't know what it was - just that it looked like a small piece of very moist and dense chocolate brownie, topped with a white frosting of some sort. After I put it in my mouth, though, I knew I had encountered something much better than a bit of brownie!

These "cookies" taste like OREO-flavored truffles, to tell the truth. And I guess they should, since you use an entire package of the dunkable treats to make them! They're obviously not gourmet by any means, but they sure are tasty when you're looking for something sweet and easy :)

OREO Truffle Drops

One package OREO (regular flavor) cookies
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
8-10 ounces good white chocolate

Place half of the cookies into the bowl of a food processor and blitz until finely ground. Pour crumbs into the bowl of a stand mixer and the blitz the remaining OREOs in the food processor. Add those crumbs to the bowl of the stand mixer as well.

Add softened cream cheese to cookie crumbs and mix until well blended. Cool if needed, then form into one-inch balls. Melt white chocolate and spoon a dollop of it onto the truffle drops. Cool until white chocolate is firm, then serve.