How to Cook Meat As a Vegetarian (+ Lentil “Meat Balls”)

[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 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.’



That Old Fall Feeling

[Inverness, September 2011.]

Fall is settling in though the calendar promises a few weeks more of summer — but look, the apples hang fat and heavy and ripe, leaves are turning brittle and drifting across streets and deserted paths in the Seashore alike, blackberries are coming into their waning days (though there are a few left, lingering until October perhaps), tomatoes silently beg to be used now immediately in great pots of sauce seasoned with freshly-picked bay leaves and the last of the basil, in soups with the last of the season’s oregano, or in feta-infused salads, the sun is making more of a regular — if late-breaking — appearance. In these in-between days I am drinking cups and cups of green tea, eating bowls of dried cranberry-studded oatmeal, and crunching on handfuls of salty pistachio nuts as snacks. I am wistful, wishful, pointing my thoughts ahead to mid-October when I shall have all the free time in the world I could ever wish for — yet at the same time I’m wishing time could s-l-o-w down.

Oh. Autumn. The cool breeze, the bluest sky, the ruffled bay subsiding back into its placid, Indian Summer shimmer. I have packed up the camping gear but a little red tin canister of fuel for the stove is still kicking around my bedroom because I am too busy lazy to haul the backpack down and stow it neatly away — or maybe it’s just that I am in full acceptance that summer is practically over and I don’t want to be reminded too much that it’s so. Or maybe I’m just lazy.

Not too lazy to cook, though, and thank goodness. No matter how hectic life can get, and no matter how few minutes I may have, there is always time for the kitchen. Even if I’m producing the usual pots of quinoa with assorted veg, or quesadillas with home made (and not by me) tortillas, or vegan chocolate cupcakes with chocolate buttercream and not being particularly adventurous, the kitchen — in all seasons, though particularly during fall for some reason, could it be all the glorious produce? — is my place to be.

[Sebastopol, September 2011.]

In the midst of the blackberry picking-and-jamming week, I cooked a lot. I split my time between Marin and Sonoma Counties, spending a good portion of that time outdoors madly gathering berries and swimming in Ives Pool (I’ve finally conquered the one-and-a-half mile, hallelujah), as well as behind the stove. There were sweets — a Guinness chocolate cake for one, as well as a strawberries and cream-laden Victoria sponge, a batch of chocolate cupcakes, a vegan mixed-fruit crumble — and roasted cauliflower, big salads and corn on the cob. And there were also roasted chickens. Several of them, in fact, which has this vegetarian cringing slightly at the moral implications (though they were all raised locally, and supposedly humanely) though much more confident — and less squeamish — about preparing them than she used to be.

I am, and probably always will be, strictly vegetarian. I don’t miss meat, never crave it, disdain seafood (always have), and even the supposed ‘vegetarian downfall’ — i.e. bacon — doesn’t tempt me in the least. But I do feel as though I somewhat limit myself as a cook — and also I am marrying someone who, while not a meat-fiend, certainly enjoys it — by infrequently cooking meat. So I’ve been dipping in a proverbial toe into the meat-cooking waters, and not the smallest one either. I do try always to buy the animal of choice from a reputable source (by which I mean employs the words ‘free-range,’ ‘grass-fed,’ ‘local,’ ‘sustainably raised,’ etc.) which soothes my conscience a bit and also it’s important to me. Mostly I’ll do wild-caught fish either baked or sauteed, which is pretty easy and makes everyone happy. I’ve yet to purchase and/or cook a steak or other red meat — and that’s something, strangely, I’m itching to do and may attempt this weekend after a long-awaited visit to my farmers’ market. But mainly, lately, I’ve been roasting chicken.

What is it about roast chicken that feels homey, comfortable? Well, I don’t really known except for it does. And it’s easy to make — rub with olive oil (or butter) and salt and pepper and a variety of fresh or dried herbs, squeeze the juice of half a lemon over the top (and put the other half inside, along with an onion), slip some sliced heirloom tomatoes into the roasting pan and add a decent glug of white wine, and stick in the oven for an hour or so while you make the rest of the meal. It is a lovely thing to make for fall, too, because it’s a good excuse to turn on the oven to warm up the house a bit as the temperature starts to cool down and is simple enough so you don’t have to think about it much; that means of course that you can turn your attention to your vegetable side dishes. This is the time to wallow in late-season corn, summer squash, rainbow chard, beets. You know what I’m talking about.

I wanted to share my new fail-safe for roast chicken. I do think most cooks have their standard roasted chicken recipe, and even though I’m a die-hard (it’s true) vegetarian I’m glad to finally have solidified mine. I’ve done chickens the Zuni Cafe way, which turn out tremendously, but that recipe involves a bit more work (you must dry-brine the chicken for a day or two before you plan to cook it, and need an oven that can perform well on a high-heat setting — ahem, not my crappy little apartment oven). Zuni’s isn’t the recipe you’d make on a Wednesday night after a long day when you’d like to use that hour the chicken is roasting to throw together a salad and bake a few potatoes and then enjoy a glass of wine during the 20 minutes you have left before you eat dinner. But mine — mine is.

I made this a few weeks ago and served it with a large pot of well-buttered mashed potatoes, still-snapping green beans and zucchini, roasted cauliflower, and a big salad. I made it again (mom’s request) a few nights later and served it with a bowl of barely wilted spinach, chopped red onion, and toasted pine nuts, roasted red and baby potatoes, and numerous cobs of corn. (I ate slabs of baked tofu, in case you were wondering.) It’s not on the agenda any time soon but it could be; it’s nearly fall, after all, and I feel like cooking comfort food. This is, for sure, comforting in both the act of making it and the way it tastes.

If you’re feeling extra ambitious — or have a surfeit of plums — while your chicken’s roasting, consider baking this brown butter blueberry plum bread I wrote about for the Point Reyes Light (to help out a friend of a friend, and also for fun). It’s delicious for breakfast, afternoon snack, or post-dinner, and is a perfect complement to fall’s shifting light and cooling breeze.