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I love my new meatless days

PAM ANDERSON | 9/17/2009, 11:20 a.m.

USA WEEKEND Food

On some level, most of us know that buying locally produced foods and consuming less meat are good things to do for our health and for our communities. But how to put theory into practice?It was during a carefree summer dinner that my husband and I finally decided to go vegetarian two days a week. This has had a bigger effect on our lives than we expected:

We purchase less meat, and on "meat days," we eat less of it.

When we shop, we try to buy local meat, produce and dairy.

I save things I used to toss (Parmesan rinds, vegetable scraps, spinach liquid) to make tasty soups.

My cooking has become more interesting and varied.

Best of all, we are more appreciative of what we eat. We look forward to meatless days, and we savor our meals with meat.

Here's my go-to recipe on vegetarian nights, plus four variations. It's hard to believe such dramatically different dishes come from the same formula!Vegetarian Skillet DinnerINGREDIENTS:

1 Tb. olive oil

1 each: medium onion, celery stalk and peeled carrot, cut into medium dice

Herb/spice blend (see variations)

Grains, beans and/or starch (see variations)

1 14.5-ounce can petite diced tomatoes

Vegetable broth (see variations)

1/4 cup chopped parsley or cilantro (see variations)

Salt and pepper

DIRECTIONS:

Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion, celery and carrot all at once and saut until tender, about 5 minutes. Add herb/spice blend, then grains/beans/starch and, finally, tomatoes and broth. Stirring occasionally, bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until ingredients are tender and flavors have blended, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in parsley or cilantro. Adjust seasonings, including salt and pepper to taste, and serve.

Serves 6

Lentil & Potato Stew

1 Tb. herbes de Provence; 1 cup dry lentils (picked over and washed) and 1 pound small red new potatoes (peeled or unpeeled), cut into 1/3-inch slices; 4 cups vegetable broth. Finish with parsley.

Cajun Pinto Beans & Rice

4 tsps. Cajun/Creole seasoning and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme; 1 cup white rice (uncooked) and 2 15.5-ounce cans pinto beans (drained); 4 cups vegetable broth. Finish with parsley. Set out bottles of hot sauce for anyone who wants extra heat.

Pasta e Fagioli

1 Tb. Italian seasoning; 2 15.5-ounce cans cannellini beans (drained) and 2 cups ditalini or other small pasta (uncooked); 4 cups vegetable broth. Finish with parsley. For extra flavor, top each serving with a little Parmesan cheese.

Black Bean & Hominy Stew

2 Tbs. chili powder; 2 15.5-ounce cans hominy (drained) and 2 15.5-ounce cans black beans (drained and rinsed); 2 cups vegetable broth. Finish with cilantro. Serve with salsa and a squirt of lime juice.Cajun Pinto Beans & Rice:

Per serving: 290 calories, 11g protein, 54g carbohydrates, 4g fat (0.3g saturated), 0mg cholesterol, 10g fiber, 1,358mg sodium

Lentil & Potato Stew:

Per serving: 219 calories, 11g protein, 40g carbohydrates, 3g fat (0.4g saturated), 0mg cholesterol, 11g fiber, 758mg sodium

Pasta e Fagioli:

Per serving: 391 calories, 17g protein, 74g carbohydrates, 3g fat (0.4g saturated), 0mg cholesterol, 10g fiber, 1,151mg sodium

Black Bean & Hominy Stew:

Per serving: 285 calories, 11g protein, 51g carbohydrates, 5g fat (0.6g saturated), 0mg cholesterol, 13g fiber, 1,197mg sodium