Last spring, I spent the semester living in the birthplace of the Renaissance: the city of Florence, Italy. My host mother was the sweetest, tiniest Italian woman, and, as could be expected, she was an incredible cook. At eight o’clock every evening, she would serve a delicious, two-course dinner beginning with some type of starch or grain, which was followed by a protein with assorted vegetables. Every meal at my host mom’s table reminded me of those Sunday mornings as a child spent with my Italian great grandmothers.
Although there were occasions when my host mother served something I had never tasted (rabbit immediately comes to mind) or less than appetizing (too much fennel!), I never outright rejected any of her offerings. But when the Catholic season of Lent was upon us, I knew I had to speak up and say that I could no longer consume meat during our Friday meals.
After sitting down to dinner one evening and telling my host mom “non posso mangiare la carne ai venerdi,” she looked at me for a moment and then asked, “Ma tu puoi mangiare bacon?” At the sound of the word “bacon,” I froze. Did she seriously just ask me if I could still eat bacon? Part of me wanted to break out into laughter because of her joke, but reading my host mom’s face made me realize that she was not kidding.
Considering the challenges my meatless Fridays seemed to pose to my host mother’s dinner planning, I’d say that cooking vegetarian dinners when you’re not used to it is not an easy thing. It requires planning, versatility and creativity. While pasta is often an uncomplicated and typically safe bet, sometimes you crave something more than just saucy noodles. When you know you might be cooking for meat-free eaters or you are just looking to cut some meat from your own diet, here is a list of some of the best options, all sans “carne.”
**Tips and Tricks**
1. Sweet and Sour Tofu. Tofu gets a bad rap, but when it is prepared well, it makes for a delicious, protein-rich dish. Here, the tofu acts like a sponge and absorbs all the flavors of the tangy, sweet sauce. When paired with some rice or sauteed vegetables, you have yourself a full meal.
2. Quinoa Cakes. Quinoa is a mega grain; not only is it a very versatile ingredient, but it is also laden with protein. When preparing quinoa, make an extra big batch and use the leftovers for these nutty cakes with basil and parmesan. The nuts and quinoa pack a protein punch, and the parmesan adds a salty bite. Without any gluten, these cakes are perfect for meat and gluten-free eaters alike.
3. Avocado Quesadilla. Quesadillas are great for omnivores because they can be made with basically any combination of vegetables and cheese. This recipe combines avocado with white cheddar, but quesadillas are all about creativity, Try this for an easy take on spanakopita, or this spicy sweet potato quesadilla. No matter whether it is simple of fancy, chances are you won’t even miss the meat.
4. Red Pepper Risotto. Risotto may seem like the perfect meatless option, but many recipes for it are NOT vegetarian. In the traditional preparation, chicken stock is one of the main ingredients, thus putting it off limits to those committed vegetarians. By simply swapping vegetable for chicken stock, you can have a warm, hearty bowl of rice satisfactory for any diner.
5. Eggplant Parmesan. Eggplant is a great ingredient for vegetarian cooking. Whether roasted, fried or sauteed, it can be easily substituted for a recipe’s protein to add a depth of meatiness. Eggplant parmesan is a classic example of a recipe that uses a vegetable in place of meats like chicken or veal. Fried in oil then layered with tomato sauce and cheese, it is a great recipe when feeding a diverse crowd of diners.
6. Grilled Cheese. Although it might not be the most complicated or impressive meal to serve, grilled cheese sandwiches are always sure to please. As with quesadillas, making grilled cheese is more of a method than a recipe. Whether you make the traditional or go for variations with different cheeses, breads and spreads, serve each sandwich with some tomato soup prepared with vegetable stock for an oozy, warm combo.
7. Zucchini-Shallot Frittata. While the verdict may still be out on eggs’ nutritional benefits, there is no excuse not to enjoy them in the meantime. Frittatas are the perfect medium for using in-season produce, so no matter whether it is spring or winter, there is a recipe to be had. Beginning on the stove then baked until set in the oven, frittatas can be made for as few as one or as many as you can fit at your dinner table.
8. Al Forno Conchiglie with Five Cheeses. No “Best Vegetarian Meal” list would be complete without at least one pasta dish. By combining pasta with five cheeses and then baking in the oven, you create the most luscious, ultra-satisfying meat-free meal. If the crispy, crust and cheesy al-dent pasta didn’t promise to expand our waistlines with every bite, this dish would glorify the vegetarian diet.
Bethany Imondi, a junior studying Government and English at Georgetown University, has been a vegetarian since January 1, 2012, but quickly discovered she had been cheating her diet with her daily gelatin-based vitamins. Read more…