Family fare without the meat Vegetarian: New products put fulfilling menus within easier reach, even on the busiest weeknight.

September 18, 1996|By Elaine Tait | Elaine Tait,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

It's chic to go meatless. But you knew that.

You've been told all too often that a vegetarian diet promotes good health. You have also been made aware that those who forgo eating flesh worry less about E. coli, cholesterol, salmonella, obesity, mad cows and more.

And that becoming a vegetarian means never again feeling like a murderer when a truck taking a slaughter-bound load of steers or hogs or chickens passes you on the turnpike.

But such peace of mind comes at a price.

Although 12.5 million Americans today call themselves vegetarians, that number is still very much in the eating minority.

And, in the event you haven't noticed, restaurant menus play to the majority. So do fast-food outlets, supermarkets, food manufacturers, food writers and even the family members and friends who invite you to dinner.

But wait. If you've been in a bookstore recently, you may think that's changing.

Suddenly, cooking for vegetarians is a hot cookbook subject.

In the International Association of Culinary Professionals' Julia Child Cookbook Awards competition this year, one of the largest categories of new books submitted for awards was the health category dominated by vegetarian books.

Give these books a serious read and you'll find that many of them assume that all of us are ready for the vegetarian cook's equivalent of graduate school.

What the authors forget is that, on this subject, many of us are barely ready for kindergarten.

Such books seem to expect us to be able to instantly embrace a totally new cuisine of foreign-tasting foods made by complicated recipes with unfamiliar, often expensive and hard-to-find ingredients.

For example, in Susan Costner's "Mostly Vegetables" (Bantam), one reads entree recipes for cod baked with chermoula-couscous crust and truffled potato stew.

Nice.

Scout troop test

But could you whip up one of these dishes for the family on a night when the scout troop is meeting at your house?

Is it any wonder that such books discourage would-be vegetarians? What the authors seem to have forgotten is that, when it comes to eating, familiarity breeds acceptance.

Burgers and bacon may not be the best thing for us to eat. But they're what we know. Which is why, after trying hard to convince yourself that tofu scramble is as appealing as a beef taco, you'll probably go back to tacos.

However, meatless tacos, made with supermarket-available ingredients that mimic meat in form and flavor, can be as pleasing as the old familiar variety.

They are, moreover, almost as easy to assemble as beef tacos. Today's large supermarket is apt to have a selection of frozen, microwavable meatless protein products with the chewiness and appearance of burgers, bacon, browned ground meat and sausages.

Weeknight meals

The single most appealing aspect of such man-made meatless proteins may be that they can be used to produce fast and familiar weeknight meals.

The selection of such products now includes a vegetable protein that looks almost exactly like browned, crumbled ground beef. The first time I used the crumbles -- Green Giant calls them Harvest Burgers for Recipes -- I added some garlic, ginger and soy, and stir-fried them with green peppers and onions. I served my impromptu pepper steak over rice, with some pineapple rings for garnish, and my husband wasn't aware until told that the dish was meatless.

The same was true with the chicken parmigiana that I concocted with the pseudo-chicken patties from Morning Star Farms.

Also in most supermarkets today is a fairly wide selection of frozen vegetable-and-sauce combinations that, with the addition of one of the handy meatless proteins, can make a colorful, well-balanced, nutritious and fast one-dish meal.

Another Morning Star Farm product, Ground Meatless, comes in a plastic tube package. It delivers finer-textured, chewier protein that, mixed with a can of sloppy Joe sauce, made a fast, hearty, fat-free hot lunch sandwich.

Link sausages

The same firm makes small link sausages that are meatless. I sauteed them in a little butter with some apples and brown sugar for an attractive brunch dish.

The mock chicken patties used for the Patties Parmigiana dish were moist and flavorful in themselves. I topped them with a slice of mozzarella and some ready-made sun-dried tomato sauce (from a jar) and served them with pasta mixed with the same sauce.

Vegetable protein shaped into bacon-strip look-alikes, cooked crisp, made a nice topping for a lunch salad of tomatoes, greens and bottled ranch dressing.

Today's selection of meatless burgers is particularly impressive. Try several and you're almost sure to find one or more that suit. My personal favorites are black bean-based, but most of those I tasted had decent flavor and a pleasing chewiness that I found satisfying both as burgers and as a substitute for the meat that is normally on my dinner plate.

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