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The Vegetarian Way

Adapting Your Recipes
  -- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietician

The 2005 USDA Food Guide Pyramid favors plant-based proteins (like legumes and nuts), and even recommends fewer servings of meat than before. Research has shown that eating a few meatless meals per week can lower risk of heart disease and may even prolong life. Why? Well, vegetarian meals are usually rich in complex carbohydrates, vegetables, and fiber, while low in cholesterol and saturated fat.

The majority of people aren’t vegetarian. But you probably eat like a vegetarian now and again without even thinking about it—your morning toast or oatmeal, a garden salad, pasta, or vegetable stir-frys—even cheese pizza.

Whether you’d like to increase the number of vegetarian meals you eat, or you need to adapt a meat recipe for a vegetarian guest, you can turn your favorite recipes into a vegetarian meal with a few simple changes. Here are a few recipe tips to get you started:

In casseroles, stews, soups, and chili, substitute cooked legumes (like beans and lentils) for the meat. Try kidney beans in chili or stew, red lentils in spaghetti sauce or stuffed cabbage rolls, or refried beans in burritos, tacos, and enchiladas.

In stir-fry dishes, use firm tofu, tempeh, cooked beans, nuts, and sesame seeds in place of meat, poultry, or seafood. Firm tofu and tempeh can even be cubed and skewered as kebobs for grilling. Try scrambled tofu for breakfast. Marinated tofu, sliced thin, makes a delicious sandwich.

Prepare pasta sauces, pizza toppings, soups, stews, and other mixed dishes as you always do. However skip the meat and add more chopped vegetables. If you eat dairy products, sprinkle cheese on top for more protein and calcium.

Meat "analogs" are soy protein products that mimic different types of meat. Try vegetarian patties, bacon, and sausages at breakfast, pepperoni on pizza, burgers, "chicken" nuggets and patties—even barbecue ribs! Textured soy protein is often sold in a granular form. This works perfect in casseroles, soups, stews, lasagna, chili, enchiladas, and other mixed dishes.

Vegans take vegetarianism to the next level. They omit all animal products—including eggs, milk, and dairy products. Vegan dishes can make a healthy addition to your diet as well. Here’s how to adapt:

Eggs have many functions in a recipe. They can be used to thicken a recipe, bind ingredients together, coat breaded food items, or produce a baked product with a light tender texture. Without eggs, the quality of the food product often changes. Experiment with one of the following substitutions, but know that the results may differ.

Try tofu, soymilk, soy cheese, and soy yogurt in recipes that call for dairy products. Crumbled tofu can take the place of ricotta cheese in lasagna. To make buttermilk, mix 1 cup soy milk with 1 tablespoon of vinegar. Use soymilk when making puddings and mashed potatoes. Enjoy a thick, creamy fruit smoothie for breakfast or a snack. You can also blend the fruit with soft tofu, soymilk or juice.

When cooking for a vegan, read labels carefully. Not all soy-based products are devoid of milk derivatives (like casein, whey, etc). Some companies save you time by printing the word "Vegan" at the very beginning or end of the ingredients list. The same goes for vegetarians. Don’t assume the can of vegetable soup is vegetarian—many dishes like this have beef, chicken, or fish-based broths.