Meatless meals

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My wife and I are foodies. We met while working in a fine-food restaurant, plan vacations around food and eat creatively at home. I attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked in local and regional restaurants. I write about food, grow food and teach cooking classes — food is our foundation.

Being foodies, we enjoy eating great food at local restaurants and frequent establishments that focus on vegetarian options as well as creatively prepared meat meals — my wife is a vegetarian and I enjoy meat. People often ask why my wife chooses vegetarianism and the answer is easy — she does not like meat. She was raised on a cattle ranch in Montana and has no political, environmental or social reason to avoid animal protein; she just doesn’t like it. People also ask what she eats if she doesn’t eat meat. “Everything else,” is her answer.

My wife is creative at reading menu options. She asks if the chef accepts substitutions and builds full meals from items offered. Most chefs embrace this challenge and create artfully delicious food. To create a delicious, creative, memorable meal which does not include meat, one might first learn the numerous and sometimes confusing terms of vegetarianism.

• Vegans avoid all food of animal origin including cheese, yogurt, animal oils, Jell-O made with gelatin from animal bones, fish and eggs.

• Lacto-Ovo vegetarians avoid all animal flesh but consume dairy and eggs.

• Pescatarians avoid land-animal flesh while opting to eat fish for their protein.

• Flexitarians are transitioning into the world of vegetarianism while still enjoying a Big Mac on occasion.

• Raw vegans eat only raw, unprocessed food not heated above 115 degrees.

• Macrobiotic vegetarians eat whole grains, fruits and vegetables and occasionally fish. Sugar and refined oils are avoided. Perhaps the most unique qualifier of the macrobiotic diet is its emphasis on the consumption of Asian vegetables such as daikon, and sea vegetables such as seaweed.

Other subtypes of vegetarianism can be found at Vegetarian Times, www.vegetariantimes.com and the Vegetarian Resource Group at www.vrg.org. Understanding the numerous definitions of vegetarianism is confusing.

When restaurants create menus, full disclosure is important. Serving clam chowder to a Pescatarian might seem appropriate except; most clam chowders are made with bacon which is not appropriate for any type of vegetarian. Describing a meal as lacto-ovo or vegan will ensure the diner is aware of the meals’ contents and using vegetarian verbiage on menus announces to the consumer that the chef understands their dietary needs. Foodies and vegetarians love this knowledge.

Although only 3 percent of Americans report never eating meat, many choose daily to avoid meat while eating in restaurants. In a poll conducted by The Vegetarian Resource Group, customers eating out were asked if they order a dish without meat, fish or fowl. More than 50 percent of customers report they sometimes, often or always order meatless meals while dining out.

Understanding a vegetarian diet requires understanding food. A beautifully grilled Portobello mushroom is a meatless option for a vegetarian diet but for those who do not like the taste or thought of beef, mushrooms fail to please. Food contains five different tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami — which delight the palate when balanced proportionately. Most understand sweet, sour, bitter and salty while few have heard of umami.

Umami is a naturally occurring flavor often described as savory. Steak, ham, shrimp, scallops, MSG, cheese and mushrooms are included in this group. A vegetarian who chooses not to eat meat, seldom search for substitutes that taste like meat. Therefore, a grilled mushroom tastes very close to a grilled steak and is avoided by most vegetarians. Conversely, one who is trying to avoid meat but still enjoys the meat flavor will embrace the umami flavor of the grilled fungi.

People choose vegetarianism for different reasons. Some need to lower their cholesterol, lose weight, have political or social beliefs for avoiding meat or claim to be vegetarian as a faddishly cool thing to do while sneaking fried chicken and double whoppers. Others, such as my wife, simply do not like the taste and prefer eating vegetables, grains and legumes.

As the late spring sun slowly warms the Earth, local farmers begin to see fruit and produce rising from their garden beds. Lettuce, asparagus, oregano, chives and strawberries are available and will become more plentiful in the coming weeks. I offer this challenge. Choose a vegetarian category and eat meatless for a week. Order meatless meals in restaurants and create culinary treats at home. Take the challenge — I double-hotdog, dare you!

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Send comments or other suggestions to William Rutherford at bprutherford@hotmail.com or visit pensiveparenting.com.

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