By Matthew Thompson, Associate Food Editor for EatingWell Magazine
As a certified meat lover, it's hard to imagine cutting tasty bacon, savory chicken thighs or buttery steak from my diet. Still, I know that it's considerably healthier to reduce the amount of meat that I eat. A vegetarian diet could lower my risk of chronic conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And-no surprise-people who cut meat from their diet tend to take in less saturated fat and cholesterol and get more fiber, vitamins C and E and heart-healthy unsaturated fat. Getting the recommended 6 to 9 daily servings of fruits and vegetables is a cinch when you take meat out of the equation.
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It's cheaper too. Since meat is the most expensive part of most meals, eating vegetarian will almost certainly save money. You can save $17.33 per month if you replace 1 pound of sirloin [$5.99] with a 14-ounce block of tofu [$1.96] once a week for 30 days.
There's more. While my wife and I try to do our part for the environment-bringing reusable bags to the supermarket, recycling, taking shorter showers, etc.-we could do a lot more simply by cutting back on the amount of meat we eat. Simply put, vegetarian sources of protein are much kinder to the planet. Livestock emissions contribute to global warming. And compared with growing vegetables, livestock require more land and resources including water, fertilizer, pesticides and fossil fuels.
But hold the celery sticks! Since I'm not ready to ditch my meaty favorites entirely, my wife and I are doing our best to eat meatless a few nights a week. That way, we still get some of the health benefits of vegetarianism without having to change our lifestyle completely. And, in the process, we've discovered that it's possible to make a meatless meal that's as satisfying as a porterhouse steak. The trick is umami, and the results are delicious.
You've probably heard of the four basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Well, the fifth taste is umami. It's best described as that round, mouth-coating sensation you get from eating a tasty meat dish. It's the reason why many low-fat versions of your favorite foods often don't taste quite right. But here's the thing: certain vegetarian foods actually have quite a bit of this satisfying flavor, including common kitchen staples like tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, tofu, corn and mushrooms. And if you mix those foods together, the effect is multiplied. The result? A meatless dish that satisfies just like a meaty one. Delicious!
Not convinced? Put it to the test: try one of these mouthwatering meatless versions of classic meaty meals and see whether you miss the meat. I'm sure you won't.
Vegetarian Shepherd's Pies
Makes: 4 servings, about 2 cups each
Active time: 45 minutes | Total: 45 minutes
To make ahead: Prepare the filling (Step 3), cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
Cost per serving: under $1.50
These delicious mini vegetarian shepherd's pies feature lentils, carrot and corn, crowned with a velvety mashed potato topping. The recipe can also be made in a broiler-safe casserole dish.
1 pound Yukon Gold or white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1/2 cup finely diced carrot
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 14-ounce can vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups cooked or canned (rinsed) lentils (see Tip)
1. Place potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium, partially cover and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and return the potatoes to the pot. Add buttermilk, butter and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper. Mash with a potato masher until mostly smooth.
2. While the potatoes are cooking, position rack in upper third of oven; preheat broiler. Coat four 10- to 12-ounce broiler-safe ramekins (or an 8-inch-square broiler-safe baking dish) with cooking spray. Place ramekins on a broiler-safe baking sheet.
3. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, carrot and water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in corn, thyme and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir to coat. Stir in broth. Bring to a simmer; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in lentils and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.
4. Divide the hot lentil mixture among the prepared ramekins (or spread in the baking dish). Top with the mashed potatoes. Broil, rotating halfway through, until the potato is lightly browned in spots, 6 to 10 minutes.
Per serving: 326 calories; 8 g fat (3 g sat, 4 g mono); 9 mg cholesterol; 55 g carbohydrate; 0 g added sugars; 12 g protein; 10 g fiber; 679 mg sodium; 842 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Vitamin A (65% daily value), Folate (45% dv), Vitamin C (25% dv), Potassium (24% dv), Iron (20% dv), Magnesium (16% dv).
Tip: To cook lentils, place in a saucepan, cover with at least 1 inch of water, bring to a simmer and cook until just tender, 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the type of lentil. Drain and rinse with cold water. 1 cup dry lentils = about 2 1/2 cups cooked. Or use canned lentils: 15-ounce can = 1 1/2 cups. Rinse canned lentils before cooking with them to reduce the sodium by about 35%.
Makes: 4 servings
Active time: 30 minutes | Total: 30 minutes
The tofu "steaks" in our revamped Parmigiana are breaded and lightly pan-fried in just a small amount of oil then topped with part-skim mozzarella, fresh basil and your favorite marinara sauce, instead of having a greasy, battered coating. This Italian classic will please even those who are tofu-phobic.
1/4 cup plain dry breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 14-ounce package firm or extra-firm water-packed tofu, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 small onion, chopped
8 ounces white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 cup prepared marinara sauce, preferably low-sodium
1/2 cup shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1. Combine breadcrumbs and Italian seasoning in a shallow dish. Cut tofu lengthwise into 4 steaks and pat dry. Sprinkle both sides of the tofu with garlic powder and salt and then dredge in the breadcrumb mixture.
2. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until they release their juices and begin to brown, 4 minutes more. Transfer to a bowl.
3. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Add the tofu steaks and cook until browned on one side, about 3 minutes. Turn over and sprinkle with Parmesan. Spoon the mushroom mixture over the tofu, pour marinara over the mushrooms and scatter mozzarella on top. Cover and cook until the sauce is hot and the cheese is melted, about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with basil and serve.
Per serving: 262 calories; 16 g fat (5 g sat, 7 g mono); 13 mg cholesterol; 15 g carbohydrate; 16 g protein; 3 g fiber; 597 mg sodium; 443 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Calcium (40% daily value), Selenium (15% dv).
Vegetarian Taco Salad
Makes: 6 servings, about 1 1/2 cups each
Active time: 40 minutes | Total: 40 minutes | To make ahead: Prepare through Step 1, cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days; reheat slightly before serving.
Cost per serving: under $2
Nobody will miss the meat in this colorful, zesty vegetarian taco salad. The rice and bean mixture can be made ahead and the salad quickly assembled at mealtime. Recipe by Nancy Baggett for EatingWell.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/2 cups fresh corn kernels (see Tip) or frozen, thawed
4 large tomatoes
1 1/2 cups cooked long-grain brown rice (see Tip)
1 15-ounce can black, kidney or pinto beans, rinsed
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/3 cup prepared salsa
2 cups shredded iceberg or romaine lettuce
1 cup shredded pepper Jack cheese
2 1/2 cups coarsely crumbled tortilla chips
Lime wedges for garnish
1. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion and corn; cook, stirring, until the onion begins to brown, about 5 minutes. Coarsely chop 1 tomato. Add it to the pan along with rice, beans, chili powder, 1 teaspoon oregano and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until the tomato cooks down, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly.
2. Coarsely chop the remaining 3 tomatoes. Combine with cilantro, salsa and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon oregano in a medium bowl.
3. Toss lettuce in a large bowl with the bean mixture, half the fresh salsa and 2/3 cup cheese. Serve sprinkled with tortilla chips and the remaining cheese, passing lime wedges and the remaining fresh salsa at the table.
Per serving: 395 calories; 17 g fat (5 g sat, 5 g mono); 20 mg cholesterol; 52 g carbohydrate; 0 g added sugars; 14 g protein; 9 g fiber; 459 mg sodium; 774 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Vitamin A & Vitamin C (38% daily value), Calcium & Folate (23% dv), Potassium (22% dv), Magnesium (21% dv), Calcium (23% dv), Iron (15% dv).
Kitchen Tips: To remove corn kernels from the cob, stand an ear of corn on its stem end and slice the kernels off with a sharp, knife.
To cook rice, bring 1 cup water and 1/2 cup long-grain brown rice to a boil in a small saucepan. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer at the lowest bubble until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Makes 1 1/2 cups.
Portobello "Philly Cheese Steak" Sandwich
Makes: 4 sandwiches
Active time: 25 minutes | Total: 25 minutes
Cheese steaks are a Philadelphia tradition: thin slices from a rich and very fatty slab of beef, fried up and topped with a heavy cheese sauce. We've cut down on the fat considerably-but not on the taste. Make this fully vegetarian by using vegetable broth in place of chicken stock.
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
4 large portobello mushrooms, stems and gills removed (see Tip), sliced
1 large red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons minced fresh oregano or 2 teaspoons dried
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vegetable broth or reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
3 ounces thinly sliced reduced-fat provolone cheese
4 whole-wheat buns, split and toasted
1. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until soft and beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms, bell pepper, oregano and pepper and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are wilted and soft, about 7 minutes.
2. Reduce heat to low; sprinkle the vegetables with flour and stir to coat. Stir in broth and soy sauce; bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat, lay cheese slices on top of the vegetables, cover and let stand until melted, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Divide the mixture into 4 portions with a spatula, leaving the melted cheese layer on top. Scoop a portion onto each toasted bun and serve immediately.
Per serving: 268 calories; 10 g fat (4 g sat, 4 g mono); 15 mg cholesterol; 35 g carbohydrate; 13 g protein; 7 g fiber; 561 mg sodium; 707 mg potassium. Nutrition bonus: Vitamin C (140% daily value), Selenium (49% dv), Vitamin A (30% dv), Calcium (25% dv), Potassium (20% dv), Magnesium (16% dv).
Cooking tip: The dark gills found on the underside of a portobello are edible, but if you like you can scrape them off with a spoon.
What's your favorite meatless meal?
By Matthew Thompson
Matthew Thompson is the associate food editor for EatingWell Magazine.
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