Monday, April 18, 2011

Kitchen basics: proteins part 2, the vegetarian option

As an omnivore, not using meat for a main meal is a little odd. After all, according to the food charts that the government puts out, it is part of the food groups that we should balance throughout our day. While it means rethinking what's been assumed is necessary for a square meal, it is quite possible, some would argue healthier, to not eat meat and still have a balanced diet.

I'm not going to go down the road of preaching this or that diet; what I am going to offer is meat substitutions that maintain the body's need for proteins and other elements that are packed in animal proteins. The one thing that has to be taken into account when going on a vegetarian diet is that you'll need to learn your essentials and get your substitutions right, or you'll run out of essential vitamins. So if that's your game, then sit down and do some studying. For the rest, taking a few meals a week as vegetarian as possible will be quite healthy and a nice change of pace. You do need a few lean days once in a while.

First off, the animal products:

-Fish and seafood:

I treat those under the same heading, because they pose the same problem: the best stuff is fresh, but that doesn't allow for good budgeting. There is also the issue of commercial fisheries and all that stuff, but again, this is more of an issue of conscience than of good budgeting. It is quite possible to include them in your diet without busting the bank, but you'll have to learn new techniques for dealing with them; one great advantage is that they are pretty fast cookers, so if you tend to live a hectic life, then these guys are your friends, besides the health benefits.

Only go for fresh seafood if its really a deal, except for mussels; a pack of fresh mussels costs about five dollars and can feed two to four people in one sitting. Seafood is fairly forgiving of the frozen state, so if you were to get some staples there, I'd recommend shrimps to begin with; its amazing what a handful of shrimps tossed unto a bowl of Ramen can do! Its a great way to add a different flavor on a whim, and always useful to have around for the vegetarians. You can also go with clams (shelled or not), calamari or scallops. If you have access to Asian shops its very likely that they'll have a nice variety of frozen seafood available at a reasonable price, in a variety of size.

Fish should be picked up as fresh as possible, but there are decent frozen options, depending on your tastes. White fish will tend to be pretty plain tasting, so a bit of flavoring will make a huge difference. Cod is one of the best white fish to pick up, but its not the cheapest and over harvesting is certainly an issue. Of the pink flesh types, the most common would be salmon, but its not for every one's tastes. I'm more of a trout man myself, but go with what makes you comfortable. There are several brands of commercially available frozen fish products that are portioned and individually packaged, which is a boon for the thrifty eater, but a bit of a bitch for those who are more environmentally concerned. You could buy it fresh and pack it is such a way as to save on plastic, but I'll leave that up to your judgement.


cheese is sort of the neglected child in our pantries. People see the price per pound and consider it expensive, but then they'll gladly splurge on a couple of steaks. Do the math: how many meals can you dish out with a couple of t-bones? Now take the same cost and buy some cheese; how much variety do you get?

The problem is that too many of us were brought with very bad cheese, and so the relationship was skewered from the start. Avoid that terrible word "processed" and get some good multipurpose cheese, like cheddar, Emmental, Havarti, Gouda or Gruyere. If you like cheese that melt easily then get mozzarella, but spike it by grating it with another friend, its give the result a better flavor. On a later post, I'll come back to cheese on more details. In the meantime, pick something that you can cook with, and that you can eat as is. Never buy them horrid individually wrapped cheese slices and cheese spreads; its really not worth the money, seriously.


you should definitely have some eggs in your fridge at all time. For many cultures in Europe, an easy snack involves a fried egg, and having a jar of good homemade pickled eggs in the fridge does wonders to feed the midnight (or midday) munchies. When you've learned how to use them properly, a dozen eggs can get you through several meals at a very low cost indeed.


the granddaddy of fermented dairy, yogurt has a few advantages that are worth noting: it is a digestive booster, helping the intestinal flora rebuilt itself (preventing... clogging.); it is an essential component in curries and tsaziki; it is a valid base for less oily salad dressing; it can be used sweet or savory, so its pretty flexible. With a handful of nuts and berries, its an instant breakfast. Toss the fruits in a blender with some yogurt, a spoonful of honey and some bran, and its smoothie galore.

Skipping animal derivate, what are the options?

-Beans and legumes:
there is a vast selection of hearty dishes that can be developed out of these guys from Italy, Spain, Greece, the south of France, the near and middle East, eastern Europe and the Indian subcontinent. That's a huge array of flavors and possibilities, so there's no reason not to keep a few cans of those little guys around. Lentils are a great choice, as out of all the legumes, they can be prepared from dry with no soaking required and are common in nearly all of those cuisines. And they sure are cheap!

-Nuts and peanuts:

while technically peanuts are legumes, we pretty much use them the say ways we use nuts, so we'll treat them together. They are packed with good fats, but should be used moderately; a portion of nuts is a pretty small handful in actuality. Unless you're really going to burn it off, stray on the side of less rather than too much and you'll stay clean of the extra padding.

Personally I find that peanuts are the most multi-use of the dried legumes, usable as butter, whole or crushed, as finger foods, preparation additives, spreads and as a delicious toppings for ice cream, pho, curries and salads. Crushed nuts can also be used in nearly the same way, but will end up costing you more. I always have a jar of peanut butter in the pantry, and keep a small bag of good roasted peanuts for quick snacks.


again, we have to blame modern dietary habits for our perception of mushrooms. For one thing, we all tend to buy good old white button mushrooms, and that's well and fine, but they are fairly boring. The other thing is that until recently, those were the mushrooms available pretty much everywhere, so that was all you go, unless you got adventurous and splurged on some coffee caps, or for the sophisticated, portobellos.

But mushroom production, helped by a combo of Chinese buyers and celebrity chefs, have been growing more varieties, such as shitake, oister and porcini. Mushrooms can nearly serve as a meat replacement, as they are pretty nutritious and the variety provides a wide array of flavors and texture. If you have access to an Asian market, then you should look into getting some dried mushrooms, which keep a long time, only requiring soaking prior to use. If you have a good and reliable supplier, you could also get your hands on wild picked fungi, and delicious things like Horn of Plenty and Hen of the Wood could start turning up on your dinner plate.

My recommendation for mushrooms is to get some good old white button fresh, but keep an eye out for some dried shitake and others, which can not only supplement your fare, but when mixed up can really change your otherwise plain omelet. The other great thing about mushrooms is that they are a low-impact food source, requiring delicate conditions to grow, but little other resources like water and definitely no chemical fertilizer: it is entirely fed by manure.

-Grains and  plant-based products: on this one I'm going on a limb of sort, as its really not my area of expertise (blame bacon if you like), but there are several products of plant based protein sources that can really help you out if meat and animal products are out of the question.


 is a good source to investigate, as it bypasses two major allergenic concerns, soy and gluten intolerance. I am of the first order (in my case I simply do not process it effectively) and gluten concerns is a rising trend, so this could be an interesting source to investigate.


in the form of tofu, miso or tempeh are also sources of healthy proteins, but there you're on your own. I have never had good experiences with tofu, so its not one of my go-to recommendations for meat replacement, but I would encourage you to experiment with miso and tempeh, which are fermented (naturally, not industrially processed) soy paste products with great health benefits. In this I would recommend a bit of investigation with places like this site.

Overall, meat replacement is a question of choice, more than a budgetary reason. Some could argue that its healthier, some would say cheaper, but I'd say that its mostly a choice that requires an open mind and a certain amount of research to be certain that you don't end up with vitamin or mineral deficiencies.

In all, a good diet is a question not only of nutrition balance, but also of variety. This takes place both on the source of the building blocks of your meals, but in the healthy attitude of an open-mind and curiosity for new culinary approach, combined with a stomach that dares to try something new.

You could well be pleasantly surprised and discover a new comfort food. Even if its from the other side of the planet.

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