[Lentil “meat balls” and assorted other goodness, May 2012.]
I’ve noted before that I am a vegetarian (it’s been … nearly half my life at this point; no, I don’t think it’s necessarily ‘just a phase,’ but you never know!) who occasionally cooks meat and fish. I’ve perfected roast chicken and baked halibut with lemon, learned to sear stew meat with just the right amount of onions and garlic to create a savory, lap-up-able bowl reminiscent of my childhood, fried bacon alongside eggs with nary a qualm. And I do mean ‘nary a qualm’ — my motto for meat, as it is with most things cooking-related, is “just go forth.”
Yet I have dithered, too, I will admit. I will indeed admit to that. It’s been a bit of a journey to get here, to this place where I (mostly) don’t mind becoming intimately acquainted with a raw chicken whilst rubbing salt and pepper all over its pallid breast (though when I put it like that …) and barely hold my nose at all when sawing the skin off a pink piece of salmon. The first time I cooked a steak I despaired at the splattering of juice on my stove and was seized with anxiety I wouldn’t get it exactly right (I couldn’t taste it myself to know for sure, you see). I’ve slightly undercooked scallops because I was afraid they’d end up rubbery, a tell-tale sign of too much heat. (Strangely I’ve never worried about cooking the Thanksgiving turkey; all I ask for is a decent oven and a lot of salt and a bit of counter space.)
Still, the reality: I am a vegetarian with vegan leanings and I cook meat on occasion. How to reconcile the two? Is it OK? I have argued with myself that remaining true to my vegetarianism should mean that I mustn’t cook meat at all – should never even consider it. (I also shouldn’t wear leather shoes but I’m still working on that one.) Indeed there are so many ‘shoulds’ in this life: drivers ‘should’ come to a full stop at the stop signs near Alamo Square Park (yet they rarely do); I ‘should’ do a 10+-minute core workout every day and faithfully stretch my hamstrings (does twice/week count?); I ‘should’ cook exclusively from what I buy at my farmers’ market (almost, but I’m not quite fully there); I ‘should’ make more time to take my time (…); I ‘should’ get up 15 minutes earlier every day so I’m not 15 minutes late (…!); as a vegetarian, I ‘should’ cook exclusively vegetarian meals.
Except, I get tired of the shoulds. The shoulds are boring (if my hip flexors are stronger); the shoulds are limiting; the shoulds are constraining my creativity! Life is a constant balancing act – cake today, kale tomorrow – and I am all about the balance (hence the yoga and the swimming and yes, the occasional core workout interspersed with the running). I’ve realized that if I cook vegetarian most nights of the week there are also the nights when I roast a chicken, slide a pan of bacon into the oven for crumbling over my husband’s portion of veggie fried rice, pan-fry an ahi tuna steak to deposit gently atop udon noodles with shiitake mushrooms, garlic, and spinach — and that is just fine.
I also know that not all of my loved ones are vegetarian – far from it. And because I do so love to cook for others and like to cook for them the things that they love to eat, I will by necessity occasionally find myself branching out into the world of cooking meat. I look at it as a challenge, a new test, and an outlet for further culinary creativity. I’m sure I’m not alone. And while my inner passionate vegetarian may cringe from time to time – you know, the one who ‘turned’ me vegetarian in high school because she loved animals so much – I’ve come up with some tricks to quell my nagging ‘shoulds’ as well as soothe my meat-cooking nerves.
Newsflash: it’s not so hard to cook meat when you’re a vegetarian! Here is how to do it:
1. Seek out sustainably-raised meat, preferably from a local source. This is the biggie for me. I realize of course this is not practical for all, but I’m lucky enough that there are a variety of options (ranging from affordable to ridiculous, ahem I will not name names) from which to choose and so I am committed to it. My favorite option is the guy who brings a cooler of assorted frozen meat to my farmers’ market; he doesn’t have it every week, but almost, and it’s all from his sister’s ranch that is located about an hour south of the city. The organic market up the street sells Marin Sun Farms bacon at a rather exorbitant (to me) price, but I’ve learned how to make it last: once the package is opened, wrap slices a few each in plastic wrap and freeze. Don’t eat it every day! Save for a special treat; a little will go a long way.
2. Same goes for poultry. I also try to get vegetarian, free-range eggs – best is from my in-laws’ chickens, but otherwise from my farmers’ market or, sheesh, even Safeway – and local (Clover) dairy. Not to get all political BUT the way a lot of chickens are kept makes me incredibly sad, and I make it a priority to spend a little more for the (hopefully) more humanely-raised options. Again, I don’t eat eggs every day and try to stretch my purchases out as long as possible so as to justify the extra pennies (plus, rice and beans for dinner one night is cheap enough and can help temper the expense).
3. Choose fish that’s wild-caught – fresh or frozen. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch is invaluable. Nothing beats a fresh filet of _____ (or so I’ve heard), but the cool thing is that Trader Joe’s sells wild-caught frozen filets/steaks of many kinds of fish that are more affordable and still tasty (according to my husband, anyway).
4. Ask for help and feedback. My early roasted chickens were true beauties – and true examples of the depths of my obsession with doing a good job. I grilled my dinner party guests on what they thought: too dry? Not dry enough? How do I even know when this thing is ready to eat??? (Charming, I’m sure.) I’ve learned, too, to actually accept that feedback as constructive – example: I recently made a lovely dinner of sauteed Swiss chard and scallops for my husband, who commented (when pressed) that he thought the scallops were the slightest bit under-done. I confess I do sometimes err on the side of ‘less’ because I’m afraid of charring things, but I appreciated his critique and will try it a different way the next time.
5. … which brings me to perhaps the most important bit: Try, try, try again. And be bold. Don’t be afraid of screwing up. You probably won’t, and anyway, if you do, it’s all part of the learning experience, yes? Choose recipes that are fairly simple – I love a lot of the recipes on williams-sonoma.com which are notable for their relative ease and fresh, clear flavors. Keep in mind that experimentation is part of the reason why we love cooking (and most of us do, don’t we?) and don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone if a recipe intrigues you. Come to think of it, for most of us vegetarians cooking meat takes us WAY outside of our comfort zone. This is a good thing! Embrace it! To ease in, make stuff you know the people in your life love: roast chicken, crab cakes, just a piece of salmon baked with lemon and rosemary and white wine. Then turn your attention to the really good part – the vegetarian entree.
Speaking of, I haven’t yet made from-scratch, real-meat meat balls, but a nice counterpart if I ever do will be these lentil ‘meat balls’ adapted from a recipe on the ever-lovely Sprouted Kitchen. Though I don’t really ever have a particular craving for meat even when I cook it, nor do I particularly love meat balls, the idea of a vegetarian version somehow worked its way into my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone. You know how sometimes you just want to eat something classic? I think that’s what was going on. I wanted (vegetarian) meat balls tossed with a very tomato-y marinara sauce and whole wheat spaghetti and lots of black pepper and Parmesan cheese – so that’s exactly what I did. I’d argue these ‘meat balls’ could help the most committed carnivore consider a vegetarian conversion but then again, I’m all about balance.
And lentil ‘meat balls.’
Lentil “Meat Balls”, adapted from Sprouted Kitchen
2 cups cooked lentils
1/4 cup lightly toasted pine nuts
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp.. dried thyme
1 tbsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. each salt and pepper
2/3 Cup Breadcrumbs (fresh or panko, preferably)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
In a food processor, puree the lentils, pine nuts and tomato paste into mush. Put mixture in a large mixing bowl.
Add the beaten eggs, ricotta, parmesan, garlic, thyme, oregano, salt and pepper and stir to mix well. Stir in the breadcrumbs and let the mix sit for 20 minutes or more.
Preheat the oven to 400′. Check the lentil mix by rolling a 1″ round ball between your palms; it should hold together fairly well but if not, stir in another tbsp. or two of breadcrumbs until the ball sticks together.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll the mix into balls and line them up on a baking sheet (they don’t need lots of space between, they won’t spread). If you like a bit more of a crust, brush with olive oil.
Bake on the middle rack for 15-20 minutes until the tops are golden brown, gently turning the balls over halfway through baking.