Going Meat-Less: Easy Strategies for Cutting Back

 

meatless

Getting your family to eat less meat is better for your health and your pocketbook. Besides lowering the amount of saturated fat you eat, eating meat (or, as some people call it, going “flexitarian”) can save the average family almost $500 a year.

But sometimes it’s hard to find ways to eat less meat, especially when we’re so used to meat being at the center of the plate.
But a flexitarian diet, where people eat mostly vegetables and grains, but add meat for flavoring, can work in your family’s favor.

The more I learn about how food is produced in this country—and, in many cases, food is “produced,” as opposed to “farmed”—the more discomfort I feel, particularly when it comes to the factory farming of meat. Eating less meat is a way of choosing not to participate fully in a system I find needlessly cruel, both to animals and the planet as a whole.

But while I’d like to eat less meat, I have no intention of becoming a vegetarian. I have no philosophical objections to a hamburger. But I’m beginning to have very real objections to subjecting a cow to a lifetime of suffering just so I can eat that hamburger—especially when there’s a better way to get that burger into my belly.

“The current system of livestock farming is contributing the largest percentage to our greenhouse gases, and also ground pollution,” says Susie Middleton, food writer and author of “Fast, Fresh, and Green.” “It’s a system that’s not sustainable. We have to support an alternative form of farming: Using livestock and crop rotation to get back to a type of farming that more closely mimics what nature intended.”


What Nature Intended

But how does a flexitarian diet and trying to eat less meat lead us to a more natural diet?

For a look at what nature intended, let’s examine that cow that ends up as a burger. Cows were created to do two things (besides be tasty): Walk, and eat grass. Most cows raised for slaughter in the US can do neither. Grass is an expensive food source (partially because you need so much of it, so you need a lot of space), so most cows are corn- or grain-fed. Unfortunately, feeding a cow anything but grass makes it sick. So non-grass-fed cows are given heavy doses of antibiotics throughout their lives. This keeps the cow “healthy” in the sense that you’re “healthy” while taking antibiotics for strep throat. Moreover, just like in humans, overuse of antibiotics can lead to bacteria that are antibiotic-resistant: Superbugs showing up in our food, which means more additives are needed to keep the food chain safe.

Moreover, most cows are kept in feedlots, where they cannot get the exercise they need. Their meat gets fattier, since they’re not exercising. And they’re raised to grow faster than nature ever intended them to—a grass-fed cow reaches his full weight at about four years. A corn-fed, feedlot cow makes it in about 18 months.


Making the Change

If it were just me, it would be easy to switch to a lifestyle where I only eat humanely, sustainably-raised meat. It’s getting easier to find: “In the Chesapeake region, we have incredible small farms that are picking up a lot of steam on the popularity of getting back to becoming acquainted with your plate. The sources are becoming more and more abundant,” says Desmond. Besides grocery stores that carry sustainable meat, many local farmers’ markets have small farms that sell beef, pork and chicken. But there are two reasons I hesitate: money, and the man I married.

Humanely-raised meat costs more—sometimes a lot more. The trick, says Desmond, is “making meat a team player, rather than the star of the show.” And that doesn’t mean cutting back on flavor: using meat as one component of a dish (rather than simply a slab of steak) “is so much more interesting than eating 13 ounces of meat—that’s the same flacor and texture bite after bite. It’s a much more enjoyable way to eat.”

“The hormones and additives and farming conditions have given me great cause for concern in a moral sphere and a health sphere,” says Lise Bruneau, mom to two-year-old Percy. Bruneau, who’s been a pescetarian (a vegetarian who eats fish and seafood) for many years, admits that the cost is a problem. “The healthy meat is pretty expensive and not very easy to come by,” she admits.

“The issue with cost is absolutely valid,” says Tara Mataraza Desmond, a food writer, recipe developer and co-author (with Joy Manning) of “Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet.” “That’s one of the huge elements of the book—if you’re using smaller quantities of better-quality meat, you’re getting more bang for your buck. If you’re spending $10-12 on a chicken you know has been raised well and is clean…yeah, you’re going to pay five dollars more, but if you buy a whole chicken, you can make three recipes from the book with that one chicken.”

Middleton is also a  big proponent of stretching what meat you do buy—not only to cut down on costs, but to streamline weeknight meals. “I make my mom’s spaghetti sauce and chili and make tacos and lasagna and freeze it. The thing about cooking from scratch is it takes some extra time. It might take a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, and we get four or five meals from that.”


Less Meat, More Flavor

So you can cut back on meat and stay on budget. But there’s the husband situation. My husband was born and raised in Texas and routinely refers to a black bean dish I make (a dish that contains both bacon a chorizo, a spicy sausage) as “vegetarian.”

“I think it happens with men a lot, where they feel threatened incorporating soy products into their diet,” says Bruneau. “It’s like you’re wanting to change everything about them by handing them a plate of something they’ve never had before.” While my husband is pretty open to new things and has eaten (gasp) tofu without complaining, he still thinks of meat as being the center of the plate.


Meat Substitutes

Desmond suggests certain ingredients are more carnivore-friendly than others. “Mushroom have a meaty, unctuous mouthfeel to them. Beans are the most fabulous legumers—they’re just so meaty. They’re rich in flavor, texture and nutrients, and they’re so filling.”

To get that meaty flavor, Desmond relies on smoky flavors such as smoked salt and smoked cheeses, as well as chipotle chilis. “I think most people are seduced by bacon, by this smoky flavor—using chipotle in a recipe that calls on those same flavor components, people can fall in love with that just as much as a big slab of bacon.”
Getting familiar with veggies again—real vegetables, the kind that grow in dirt, not processed vegetableish foods—is another tool in eating less meat. “’Fast, Fresh and Green’ is a collection of 90 vegetable side dishes that can be done on a weeknight,” says Middleton. “There is a little bit more prep time [than with processed foods], but if you learn ways to cook them, you can learn, for example, to do a quick sautee of asparagus, ginger and garlic.”

But on the other hand, continues Middleton, “I went and looked at a bag of frozen potatoes and they were more expensive than red potatoes, which take two seconds. You still have to heat up those [frozen] roasted potatoes anyway.”
People are getting smarter about what they eat and how they get their food. We’re used to getting our food—particularly our meat—easily and cheaply. As we realize the high cost of those low prices, though, our priorities are changing. Meat, once an indicator of wealth, represents a lot of what’s wrong with the farming systems in the United States. And moving away from factory-produced meat by using less meat, eating meat of better quality, and eating more vegetables means we’ll have a healthier country, healthier children and healthier lives.


Middle Ground

Bruneau knows that you can make food rules for kids—but that doesn’t mean they’ll follow them. “Our attempts to feed Percy any meat at all haven’t gone well because he’s a white-food baby,” she says. “He just will not put anything from the earth in his mouth at all,” although he will chow down on both tofu and tuna.
And what about when Thanksgiving rolls around and Percy is looking at a slice of grandma’s turkey?

“Choosing the battles it the most important thing. I think that it’s wise to back off. If he has a hormone-filled meal once a month, that’s not a big deal. I think it’s really important to back off and be holistic in your approach to feeding your child right. Throwing grandma into the defensive and making her feel her food is not good enough—it’s just not worth it.”

Choosing to eat less meat doesn’t have to be a strident change in your family’s eating habits or budget. Just making the more earth- and health-friendly choice once in awhile means you’re taking a small step in the right direction.


Almost Meatless Recipes:

Sautéed Asparagus with Pancetta and Parmigiano for Two

I know it doesn’t make sense, but brown is actually a good color when it comes to sautéed green vegetables—especially asparagus, which takes on a wonderful nutty flavor when caramelized in a sauté pan. A little bit of pancetta adds extra depth to this quick sauté.

For this recipe I prefer to use asparagus that are slightly thick. Cutting them on the diagonal makes them look very pretty. When you’re shopping for asparagus, look for tight heads and take a whiff of the bunch. If it’s starting to go bad (which is common in the grocery store, unfortunately), it will smell off and feel slimy. If you have access to fresh local asparagus during the spring, don’t pass it by. It’s a vegetable treat that is worth a detour.  If you want to serve four people with this dish, use a large (12-in/30.5-cm) nonstick skillet and double everything exactly.

8 medium-large asparagus spears, ends trimmed or snapped away (6 to 7 oz/170 to 200 g trimmed)
1 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 thin slices pancetta (about 1/2 oz/15 g total), coarsely chopped (roughly 1/2-in/1.25-cm pieces)
Scant 1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Slice the asparagus on a very sharp angle into pieces that are about 2 in/5 cm long and about 1/4 in/6.5 mm in diameter at their thickest point. You’ll get 6 to 7 pieces from each stalk.

2. In a medium (9- to 10-in/23- to 25-cm) nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil and 1/2 Tbsp of the butter over medium-low heat. When the butter has melted, add the pancetta and cook until crisp, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the pancetta with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate. Add the asparagus to the skillet, season with the salt, and return the pan to the heat, raising it to medium-high. Cook, stirring frequently, until all the asparagus pieces are nicely browned, up to 10 minutes. They will still be firm, but not crunchy. Remove the pan from the heat and add the remaining 1/2 Tbsp butter and the balsamic vinegar (it will sizzle). Stir right away and keep stirring until the butter has melted. Transfer the asparagus to a serving dish or dinner plates and garnish with the Parmigiano and the pancetta crisps.


Peas with Lemon, Mint, and Scallions

A funny thing happened when I sent out this recipe to some folks for cross-testing. Everyone came back and said they loved it, but that they had tried it with frozen peas after trying it with fresh, and had better results! This was because the “fresh” peas they got from the market were large, old, and starchy. Unfortunately, fresh peas should not really be available year-round at the grocery store, as they don’t store well. We should all enjoy them in late spring and early summer when we see them at the farmers’ market, or we should grow our own, because they’re sweet, tender, and delicious. If you do see fresh peas at the grocery store, they will definitely be fresher if they are still in the shell. The rest of the year, you shouldn’t think twice about using frozen peas. And this is just the recipe to dress them up and give them a bright flavor.

These peas are the perfect Easter side dish; serve with roast leg of lamb and buttered new potatoes. Or for weeknights, serve with seared lamb rib chops and a simple rice pilaf. If you don’t have scallions, you can use an equal amount of minced shallots. You can also substitute chives for the mint. And I’ve included a variation below made with a little bit of coconut milk. Those would still be good with lamb, preferably grilled kebabs.

If you’re entertaining, you can boil the fresh peas or thaw the frozen peas ahead of time. It will take less than 10 minutes to finish them on the stove top when dinnertime comes.

Kosher salt
8 oz/225 g shelled fresh peas (about 2 cups) or frozen peas (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
4 large scallions (white and light green parts), thinly sliced
1/4 cup/60 ml heavy cream
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
1/2 tsp packed finely grated lemon zest
Freshly ground black pepper

1. If using fresh peas: Fill a large saucepan half full with water and 2 tsp kosher salt and bring to a boil. Drop the peas into the boiling water and cook until just tender (taste one or two), 2 minutes for smaller peas, 3 minutes for larger, older peas. Begin timing immediately; don’t wait for the water to return to a boil. Use a mesh strainer to transfer the peas to a dish towel or a few layers of paper towels to drain. Discard the water the peas were boiled in, but reserve the pot.

If using frozen peas: Put them in a colander and run cold water over them for a few minutes until they’re mostly thawed. Spread them out on a few layers of dish towels to drain.

2. Melt the butter in the reserved saucepan over low heat. Add the scallions and sauté until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the heavy cream, half of the mint, the lemon zest, 1/4 tsp of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook until it thickens slightly and a wooden spoon leaves a wide path when scraped across the bottom of the pan, about 1 minute. Add the peas and stir until they’re heated through and well coated with the sauce, 1 minute more. Remove the pan from the heat, taste for salt and pepper, and serve immediately, garnished with the remaining mint. Serves 3


Fresh Peas with Lime and Coconut Milk

To give peas a slightly tropical twist, replace half of the heavy cream with coconut milk (canned, well stirred), replace the lemon zest with lime zest, and replace the mint with cilantro.  When adding the cream-coconut mixture to the sautéed scallions, simply bring it to a boil and immediately add the peas.  You won’t need to let the cream reduce.


Corn and Cod Cakes

Crab cakes get all the glory, but many kinds of fish make terrific multi-ingredient patties. Fishcakes are part of the great thrifty tradition of stretching a small amount of an expensive ingredient. This one starts with cod, a versatile white fish. Be careful choosing cod: Pacific-caught is plentiful, but the overfishing of cod hailing from the Atlantic is causing destruction of ocean habitat. No Pacific cod at your market? Pacific sole, U.S.-farmed tilapia, and, yes, crab would all work well. Serves 4 to 6

Cod Cakes
1/2 pound cod fillet
1 tablespoon canola oil, plus 1 teaspoon
Salt and pepper
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 slice thick-cut bacon, minced
1 roasted red bell pepper, cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
1/4 small onion, minced (about 1/4 cup)
1 egg, beaten
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves

Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
1 tablespoon capers, minced
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Canola oil for pan frying the cakes

5 cups baby greens

to make the cod cakes, preheat the oven to 400°F. Oil a rimmed baking sheet.
Brush the cod with the 1 tablespoon canola oil, season with salt and pepper, and place on the prepared sheet. Toss the corn with the 1 teaspoon oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. Spread on a second rimmed sheet. Bake both for 8 minutes, or until the cod flakes easily. Set aside to cool.
Put the potato in cold salted water, bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until fork-tender. Mash the potato and butter coarsely with a handheld masher.

Cook the bacon over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until the bacon is crisp and the fat has rendered. Transfer the bacon to a paper towel and set aside. Sauté the bell pepper and onion in the fat for 5 to 8 minutes, until softened. Add the corn and sauté for an additional 1 to 2 minutes (the corn tends to pop, so be careful). Allow to cool.
Beat the egg in a large bowl. Add the cod, potatoes, bacon, onion–corn–bell pepper mixture, bread crumbs, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix well. Use a 1/4 cup dry measuring cup to form the mixture into 1/2-inch-thick cakes. Refrigerate for at least one hour or up to one day.
to make the vinaigrette, whisk the lemon juice, olive oil, mayonnaise, capers, salt, and pepper together until emulsified. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Set aside.
to cook the cod cakes, heat 1/4 inch of canola oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking. Fry the cakes in batches, for about 3 minutes per side. Serve the cod cakes with or over baby greens with vinaigrette drizzled on top.