A confirmed carnivore aspires to eat less meat—and learns just how satisfying vegetables can be.
Most weekday afternoons, around the time the satisfaction of lunch gives way to the anticipation of dinner, I receive a text message from my husband, Adam. "I took chicken out," he'll write (meaning out of the freezer). Or "You want steak tonight? I could go for a steak." In either case, the message is clear. Meat: It's what's for dinner.
Don't get me wrong—we eat vegetables, too. Rare is the evening I don't round out our meat feast with Brussels sprouts roasted at high heat with salt and pepper, or asparagus sautéed at high heat with salt and pepper, or some anemic canned corn popped into the microwave—on high heat—with salt and pepper. Yes, we eat vegetables: the same few, over and over, served with a dollop of disinterest. Our veggies are perfunctory, a thing we put on our plates so we don't feel bad about ourselves. Adam's dinner decorum is revealing: He devours his vegetables the moment he sits down, eager to get the token portion out of the way before digging into the good stuff.
Our household's obsession with meat is unfortunate, given the compelling benefits associated with eating less of it. Reducing the amount of meat you buy means drastically reducing your grocery bill. (Cost of a skirt steak: around $10; average cost of a head of broccoli: less than $2.) In addition, lowering your meat intake does the environment a favor. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that the meat industry accounts for nearly one-fifth of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Laying off meat could also shrink your risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease—as well as your waistline. So as a nonmillionaire worried about the state of her planet and her backside, I have every reason to take it easy on the meat.
I'd love, ultimately, to go meatless one dinner per week—I try to keep my goals attainable—but if I'm going to abstain from pulled pork and roast chicken 52 days each year, what will take their place? Vegging out is going to require more than my sad salt-and-pepper oeuvre, so I decide to ask a few produce-savvy chefs and cookbook authors for help.
I start by consulting a kindred spirit, a man who adores meat even more than I do (the slogan for his salumi company, Boccalone? "Tasty salted pig parts") but who approaches veggies with equal fervor. In fact, when I call Chris Cosentino—bespectacled chef at San Francisco's Incanto and winner of Top Chef Masters—he tells me, "Even though I'm known for working with meat, in my restaurant I actually spend more money on vegetables." He recommends kicking off my veggie adventure with his take on a dish his mother used to serve: roasted acorn squash with ricotta and sage—something hearty enough to satisfy even an inveterate carnivore. The recipe—adapted from one in his cookbook, Beginnings—treats squash similarly to meat: After roasting the squash, you sear it on the stove in butter, which you can use for basting as well. This is the meatiest vegetarian cooking I've ever tried.
When I make it that evening, Adam and I are surprised to find that Cosentino is right: We do not, as I had feared, crave a burger afterward. The sage is earthy and fragrant, the cheese is pleasantly creamy, and the whole thing is coated in an indulgent pan sauce. It comes as a shock that skipping meat doesn't feel like a sacrifice.
Intrigued, I consult several recent meatless cookbooks and realize I've misjudged the options. I'd pictured a vast swath of recipes with all the deliciousness of corrugated cardboard—plus creepy disguised-soy nuggets. When I pick up Yotam Ottolenghi's vegetarian cookbook Plenty, a breakout hit, I discover instead a kind of foodie's sweet spot: In a Venn diagram of exuberant flavor and good-for-you ingredients, Plenty would occupy the overlapping bit (alongside Ottolenghi's equally inspired new cookbook, Jerusalem).
Since 2006 Ottolenghi, chef-owner of five London restaurants, has shared largely vegetarian recipes in a weekly column for the British newspaper The Guardian. When I explain my desire to curb my carnivorism, he tells me I'm in good company. "A lot of people today are interested in cutting back on meat, rather than eliminating it completely," says Ottolenghi—who, for the record, eats meat, but really, really likes vegetables.
When I dig into Ottolenghi's frittata-like cauliflower cake one Sunday brunch, I gain a newfound love for a vegetable to which I'd never given a nanosecond of thought; I'm also surprisingly full. That evening I move on to Ottolenghi's turmeric-rich red lentil soup. It's thick and luscious. It's centuries of spice trade in a bowl. It's also—you'll notice it took me a while to stop being incredulous about this—totally filling. Like meat, both eggs and lentils are high in protein, which helps you feel satiated longer than carbohydrates do.
With a solid repertoire of substantial vegetarian dinners in hand, I start wondering how I can pep up the vegetable sides I serve with our meat-based meals. Legendary vegetarian cookbook author Deborah Madison turns out to be the perfect person to ask. "For 20 years I was a vegetarian," she says, "but now I like to pair a small amount of meat with several vegetable dishes. You get all kinds of flavors and colors on one plate." Madison tells me that just the evening before, she and her husband each had a dainty three ounces of rib eye, which she served with three side dishes from her cookbook, Vegetable Literacy, coming in March. She gives me the recipes for each.
That night, we dine Madison-style: I sear two modest wedges of beef tri-tip (a section of the bottom sirloin) and serve it with a soy-dressed raw kale salad; sautéed red cabbage with a generous dose of Feta and mint; and a heartwarming, spinach-y rice dish that derives extra texture from the addition of pistachios. When Adam and I cook together, the whole spread takes less than an hour to prepare.
"There's a lot happening on this plate," Adam says.
"Yeah," I say. "But it was all so easy."
A few moments of thoughtful chewing ensue.
"Can we have this kale thing again soon?" Adam says.
I assure him that we can.
I won't pretend that my default sautéed asparagus doesn't continue to make occasional appearances, but I can say that my eyes have been opened to the produce possibilities out there. Here I'd been thinking of vegetables as mere sidekicks, incidental to the meat of the matter. Now I know they can be the main attraction, and my grateful palate—not to mention my planet, pocketbook, and posterior—is reaping the rewards.