The Great American Meatout is an opportunity for people to kick the meat habit, at least for one day, and explore a more wholesome, less violent diet.
For health and humane reasons, people around the globe are saying goodbye to meat in cooking. Instead they are substituting:
- interesting vegetables -- okra, kale and leeks
- spicy seasonings -- garlic, onions and chilies
- unusual options -- baked, seasoned tofu and lentils
They are inventing some interesting vegetarian meals right in their own kitchens. You don't need to be a vegetarian to enjoy this healthy cooking, either.
Many restaurants now let diners pick options without meat. Interesting vegetarian dishes can be found in much ethnic cuisine too, such as Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai. There are vegetable curries, Ethiopian soups and eggplant stir-fry.
The word vegetarian wasn't coined until 1847 by the Vegetarian Society of the U.K. However, the practice stretches back to the ancient Hindu teachings and to Pythagoras, the renowned mathematician and philosopher.
Those that cook vegetarian learned to do so the old-fashioned way -- experimentation. Geoffrey McVey enjoys the trial and error process. "Sometimes I'll try to recall recipes that I've tried in the past and discover that my re-creation pleases me more than the original," he says. "More often, I feel I haven't gotten it quite right, so I try again a few weeks later with a small shift in spicing or cooking method."
Vegetarian cooks also hunt for ideas in special vegetarian cookbooks or magazines. And many are finding the Internet an invaluable resource for exchanging ideas.
Kari Freckleton puts a new spin on old, tired dishes. "I use a lot of standard meat eating cookbooks and recipes, and I just modify the recipes to fit the vegetarian diet," says Freckleton. For example, tofu and beans can replace meat when a recipe calls for it. Vegetarian stocks and condiments can also add flavor to your cooking.
Nava Atlas also learned to cook vegetarian by experimenting when she was 17. She managed to convert her whole meat-eating family with her talents in the kitchen. Now 44, Atlas has authored several cookbooks and gives advice to others on how to cook through her Web site. "I have a passion for simple, healthy cooking. I try to help the average person eat more healthfully and have fun while doing so," says Atlas.
The best way to get started cooking is with easy dishes, such as vegetarian sandwiches (try carrots and cream cheese), cheese pizza, or scrambled eggs. Slowly, you can add spices and complexities to these simple dishes. For example, test your abilities later and make a veggie sandwich on home-made cumin bread.
On average, beginning cooks fiddle in the kitchen for about five hours a week. Pros might like to spend more time there, creating special dinners and desserts.
Vegetarian cooking is becoming more popular. Those who dine out are seeing what can be done with vegetables. Many restaurants offer some creative vegetarian alternatives. People realize that the cooking is interesting, the flavors are rich and the choices are endless, says Atlas.
In addition, people are more concerned with their health. As a result, many are turning to low-fat, low-sugar vegetarian options when eating out and when eating in. All vegetarian cooks say that their cooking has left them stronger and more conscious of what they put in their mouth.
For example, Atsuko Takebayashi says she once had high cholesterol. Today, she and her husband feel better. "We feel light. We never gain weight from our low-fat, low-sugar, vegetarian diet. We feel younger and actually look younger," she says.
"People don't need to eat meat. We can get all we need from plants. Vegetables also supply many elements that prevent diseases and promote your health," says Takebayashi.
Sometimes the results of vegetarian cooking are not outward, but more inward and spiritual. For example, Ayse Tuzlak has grown to have a love for food. "When I was growing up, food was just fuel. Something you shoved in your mouth when you were hungry. But now, food is something that I can enjoy," says Tuzlak.
"I can't just sit down at the trough and eat what's given to me. I have to think about whatever I eat, like read labels. That's given me a new appreciation for good food, which is wonderful," she says.
Matthew Krempski of Chicago also appreciates food. "I started off cooking by doing my best to duplicate foods I used to like before becoming vegan. Now I find myself exploring things on a much deeper level," says Krempski. "I catalog flavors and textures in my head and [think about] what I can do to achieve certain flavors or textures." In a sense, he has turned his love of cooking into an art.
Krempski gives a few pointers for better cooking: "Keep a journal of what works and use it for future creations. Always keep good stock around for soups and try not to use dried herbs or veggies -- they never have the same kick. When in doubt, keep things simple. Complexities in cooking may work, but fail just as often and are hard to duplicate. When serving a meal, make sure none of the foods are too similar in taste and not everything should be a taste explosion," he says.
Some kitchen equipment and, of course, ingredients are necessary to get started. Atlas thinks her food processor is invaluable. They can cost anywhere from $60 to $300. Other vegetarian cooks rely on different things -- colanders, a sharp knife, a non-stick frying pan, or a wok, to name a few.
Most cooks shop for fruits and vegetables at farmer's markets, because that is where the freshest produce is available. Spices and special vegetarian items, such as tofu, grains, and dried beans can usually be found, if not in a grocery store, then in a specialty market. To keep it cheap, you can substitute regular mushrooms for portobello, or cheddar cheese instead of brie.
Although cooking equipment and ingredients can be expensive, you don't need anything fancy to get started. To make peanut butter balls, for example, you only need a few things: raisins, peanut butter, and non-fat powered milk. Combine. With just a blender, fresh fruit and skim milk, fruit smoothies are a cinch to whip up.
Anyone, regardless of physical ability, can participate. However, there are dangers hiding in the kitchen, namely burns and cuts. Hot oil, sharp knives, graters and peelers can injure you if you are not careful. For example, cooks who will be using sharp knives should take the time to learn the proper way to cut. In the long run, they might save a finger.
The most difficult part about starting vegetarian cooking, says Tuzlak, isn't giving up meat. "Rather, it is convincing your parents that you won't starve to death. It's also socially hard to sit out of Thanksgiving dinners, which can make you feel very lonely," she says. However, Tuzlak says to remember that you won't starve and you're not alone.
If you find a talent in cooking, there are many careers available. One is to do what Atlas does. She uses her love of simple, vegetarian dishes to communicate with others by writing cookbooks. Others may find that they want to pursue a culinary degree and work in a restaurant, or own their own restaurant.
International Vegetarian Union
The Virtual Vegetarian
A Teen's Guide to Going Vegetarian,
Diet for a New America: How Your Food Choices Affect Your Health, Happiness and the Future of Life on Earth,
The Vegetarian Kitchen
Nava Atlas' site with a recipe for peanut butter balls
Great Vegetarian Recipes
Anyone hungry? Try this large collection of tempting dishes
Oodles of information about eating vegetables
The Vegetarian Resource Group
Make sure you are getting all your vitamins and protein
Mollie Katzen Online
Author of many widely read cookbooks