Go meatless with subtle swaps in familiar dishes

Nicole Hvidsten
Star Tribune TNS

Choosing to go meatless can be a challenge at any time of year. But winters can provide an extra hurdle, since overflowing baskets of garden-fresh produce are a distant memory.

But winter is also a time when things tend to slow down, both in life and in the kitchen. We can be more thoughtful about meal choices and shopping habits, eager to eat better and save money after a season of excess.

No matter what time of year you're making this lifestyle change, there's a tsunami of information. It can quickly get overwhelming. We've waded through experts' tips, cautionary tales and recipes to help you chart your own meatless course, whether you're aiming to remove meat entirely or just wanting to cut back.

8 tips to help pave the way to meatless eating

Start with familiar territory. You probably have meals in your rotation that are already meatless (pasta primavera) or can easily become so. Make chili with extra beans and skip the meat. Craft a burrito bowl with roasted vegetables. Instead of a hamburger, sub a portobello mushroom or black-bean burger. Stir-fries or soups chock-full of vegetables are just as delicious as those with meat.

Go slow. It's best not to go cold turkey, so to speak. Several experts recommend a phased approach to meet your meatless goals. Hop aboard the Meatless Monday bandwagon and choose one meal or day a week to commit to being meat-free. From there, increase the frequency at a pace that's comfortable. Another tip: Start by eliminating red meat first, followed by pork, poultry and finally seafood.

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Replace what you remove. The protein and calorie count is higher in meat than plants, so you'll need to make sure you're filling the nutritional gaps. Incorporate meatless forms of filling protein into your menus, such as sweet potatoes, legumes, nuts, seeds, quinoa, soy and dairy products (unless you're adapting a vegan diet). Be sure to read labels, too; foods you may think are plant-based might not be (Caesar salad dressing) and some plant-based foods are highly processed, negating the positive health effects of going meatless.

Make a plan. Menu planning will be worth your while. Plan not only dinners, but also breakfasts, lunches and snacks to make shopping easier and keep food waste down. Eating out? No problem. Most restaurants have meatless options or dishes that can be tailored to your needs, and the number of vegetable-forward and vegan restaurants in the Twin Cities is growing.

Try new foods. A meatless diet doesn't mean you're destined to a life of leafy greens. While salads are great, it's a big nutritious world out there. Take time to explore the produce section of your supermarket or co-op. Learn to make the most of what's in season, and while we all have our go-tos, incorporating new fruits and vegetables into your menu can be fun and challenging. Which leads to ...

Go recipe hunting. My family has learned to put up with my New Recipe Nights. Some of these test dishes earn a place in the regular rotation; others are quietly forgotten. But my enthusiasm never wavers. There's a wealth of recipes out there, and the cookbook section of a bookstore is a great place to start. Think about the approach and cuisine that works for you, and there's probably a cookbook for it. You can find vegetarian and vegan-friendly cookbooks, as well as titles dedicated to vegetables and meatless cooking in multicookers and air fryers.

The internet has endless recipes, but it can be overwhelming. Winnowing searches by ingredient or types of cuisine will help you pinpoint recipes to your liking. There also are several sites that have menus already planned or that will deliver meatless recipes to your inbox, including Meatless Monday (mondaycampaigns.org/meatless-monday) and chef and author Robin Asbell (robinasbell.com).

Use this as a learning opportunity. Sure, you'll brush up on the nutritional value of foods, ensuring that your meatless diet is rich in protein, calcium, iron and other vitamins and minerals. But it's also a chance to explore different cooking methods, spices and flavor combinations. It's like getting a bunch of new toys in your culinary sandbox.

Keep your doctor in the loop. As with any lifestyle change, make sure your medical team is aware of your goals. They, too, can often offer resources and support.

Mushroom Walnut Bolognese sauce is hearty even without the meat. (Nicole Hvidsten/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

MUSHROOM AND WALNUT BOLOGNESE

Serves 8 to 10.

A colleague tipped me to this recipe, adapted from thekitchn.com. The original recipe called for vegan-style Parmesan or nutritional yeast, but I opted to use regular Parmesan. This version calls for a food processor, but you can easily chop the walnuts and vegetables if you don't have one. Freeze leftover sauce for up to three months.

  • 1 pound cremini (baby bella) mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) walnut halves
  • 1 medium onion, cut into eighths
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and cut into eighths
  • 2 medium celery stalks, quartered
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, plus more for serving
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 3 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • 1 cup dry red wine, such as merlot or pinot noir
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans whole tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound dry pasta, such as rigatoni or tagliatelle, cooked according to package directions
  • Fresh basil, chopped, for serving
  • Parmesan cheese, for serving

Directions

Place 1/3 of the mushrooms in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment. Pulse until coarsely chopped, about 5 to 7 quick bursts. Transfer to a medium bowl and repeat with the remaining mushrooms; set aside. Do not wash the food processor.

Place the walnuts in the food processor and pulse until they have the consistency of coarse sand, about 5 to 7 pulses. Transfer to a small bowl; set aside. Again, do not wash the food processor.

Place the onion, carrots, celery and garlic in the food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped, 8 to 10 pulses.

Heat the oil and red pepper flakes in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the mushrooms and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they release their moisture, are deeply browned, and their volume is reduced by two-thirds, about 15 minutes.

Add the chopped vegetable mixture and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook the vegetables until softened and the onions are translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until it is completely incorporated with the mushrooms and deepens in color, 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Add the bay leaf and Italian seasoning, then pour in the wine and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Simmer until the wine evaporates, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and their juices (crush the tomatoes with your hands before you add them to the pot), soy sauce and ground walnuts. Reduce the heat and continue to simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally and continuing to break up the tomatoes, for 20 minutes. Add ground pepper and additional salt to taste.

Serve over cooked pasta with fresh basil, Parmesan and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes.

BLACK BEAN ENCHILADAS

Serves 4.

Note: Stuffed with vegetables and spices, use this recipe as a base and create your own flavors. We used broccoli, but cauliflower, sweet potatoes or squash would be equally tasty. This would also be a great vehicle for leftover roasted vegetables, our vegetable-preparation method of choice. Adapted from recipes by Better Homes and Gardens and the vegetarian cooking website cookieandkate.com.

  • 2 cups enchilada sauce
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped red onion
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 pound broccoli, sliced into bite-sized pieces (see Note)
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 5 ounces baby spinach
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup corn
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 8 tortillas (about 8 inches in diameter)
  • Cilantro, for optional garnish
  • Avocado, for optional garnish

Directions

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan with olive oil or cooking spray.

In a large skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil until it's shimmering. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are tender and translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the broccoli and bell pepper, stir and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8 to 9 minutes, or until the broccoli is bright green.

Add the cumin and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the spinach, a handful at a time, stirring until it has reduced in size. Repeat until all the spinach is added and wilted.

Transfer vegetables to a medium bowl. Add the beans, corn, 1/4 cup of cheese and a drizzle of enchilada sauce, enough to moisten. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper, to taste.

To assemble the enchiladas, pour 1/4 cup of enchilada sauce into the prepared pan and swirl until the bottom is evenly covered. Spread 1/2 cup of filling down the middle of a tortilla, then fold the left side (and then the right) to make a wrap. Place it seam-side down against the edge of the pan. Repeat with remaining tortillas and filling.

Drizzle remaining sauce over the enchiladas, leaving the ends uncovered, and sprinkle the remaining shredded cheese evenly over the sauce.

Bake, uncovered, on the middle rack for 20 minutes, or until golden and bubbly. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes. Before serving, garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve with sliced avocados, as desired.

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