You might recall that my husband Chip was a vegetarian for, like, six years, until a freshly grilled hot dog at a barbecue melted his last resolve. Me, I’ve always loved eating too much to rule out an entire genre of food. Plus, when you write about food and cook for a living, it’s hard to have too many restrictions on what you’ll put in your mouth.
But when Chip mentioned, after watching an eye-opening episode of This American Life, that he’d like to try to avoid eating meat at lunchtime, it got me to thinking—could we go without meat for an entire week? I was interested in seeing how not eating our staples—tilapia fillets, chicken breasts, and flank steaks—would affect our grocery bill, and time spent in the kitchen, not to mention our health.
What I learned was that with some planning, it was not only possible, but fairly easy to go veggie at home. Sadly, however, I also learned that I have very little willpower. Maybe I didn’t take the exercise seriously enough, but when we were in situations like at a restaurant or at a party, we broke our temporary moral stance and chomped away on some animal protein without batting an eye.
Here’s how our week panned out.
I’d consulted my cookbooks and stacks of magazine recipes to find a few delicious-sounding meatless meals and we set off to the grocery store. The dishes we’d planned didn’t require too many ingredients; in fact, it wasn’t that different from shopping when I am planning to use protein from my freezer stash. That night, we had dinner with Chip’s parents; aware of Project Meatless, my mother-in-law made a Szechuan noodle dish with vegetables and a spicy peanut sauce. So far, so good.
I’d bought Chip some soy bologna for his lunch, which he claims he likes, so he got a sandwich made with that. My lunch was cheese pizza (although the pepperoni, my usual choice, looked so tasty!). Dinner that night was an old standby from my Brooklyn years that I’d make after shifts at the Park Slope Food Co-Op: sandwiches of tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil (cut from my container garden!). The secret to these sandwiches is the rustic hero bread that I’ve only ever found at the Co-Op. Luckily, my friend (and former fellow Co-Op member) Elizabeth was in town and brought me a half-dozen heroes to freeze. I also made a tasty side dish, barley pilaf with artichoke hearts. And we had a spinach salad.
Well, I managed to make it two days without meat, but a press lunch at TAP, a new gastropub in town, did me in. After all, it would be rude to refuse to try the chorizo and chocolate on toast appetizer. (This sounds weird, but it was actually pretty amazing, confirming my belief that anything tastes better with chocolate.) And since I’d already sinned with the chorizo, I might as well have the prosciutto, brie and fig jam sandwich, right? It actually wasn’t as good as it sounded, which made me wish I’d stuck to my original plan and just had the Cowgirl Creamery grilled cheese, which came with a yummy-looking salad of heirloom tomatoes. I’d planned to make a grilled tofu dish for dinner, but when I looked at the recipe at 5:30 p.m. I was dismayed to discover that it required lots of advance work—30 minutes of pressing the tofu, and two hours of marinating it. We opted instead to go to Willy’s for burritos (meatless, natch). By the way, Chip said the leftover barley pilaf made a delicious lunch, along with a sandwich wrap made with spinach, green peppers, and slices of baked Tofu.
I had a frozen burrito for lunch, and got started early on the ambitious Asian Barbecued Tofu dish. I don’t cook with tofu that often and have not had great results keeping it from crumbling. This recipe called for pressing extra-firm tofu for 30 minutes, then searing it in a hot pan with a little canola oil. Then it got marinated, still warm, for two hours in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, ginger and sesame oil. I made some brown rice in my rice cooker and tossed some sliced zucchini with soy sauce, chile oil and sesame oil. The tofu got brushed with a sauce and grilled for five or six minutes on either side, and it came out nicely crisped on the outside, while still soft and tender inside. The zucchini, also grilled, were amazingly smoky and super-tender, with just a touch of heat. Sure the tofu took lots of advance prep, but it was definitely worth it. The recipe was from Mastering the Grill by Andrew Schloss and David Joachim—an excellent grilling resource.
I’d planned to meet Chip for lunch today, and we really were craving sushi from a great Japanese place not far from his office. But our meatless week was almost over and we wanted to stick it out. Instead, we went to a Mexican restaurant and had cheese enchiladas. I had dinner with friends at a Thai restaurant and although I ordered Pad See Ew with tofu, I did cheat a little by tasting the chicken satay that they’d ordered as an appetizer. Does that count?
Damn You, Hot Dog! Again, it was the plump, perfectly charred dogs at a friend’s pool party that did us both in at the end of our meatless week. And man, they were tasty. I’m sorry, but tofu pups just can’t compare. We did penance that night by making calzones stuffed with mushrooms, spinach and roasted red peppers.
I do believe that eating meatless saved us money this week. I spent less than $75 on groceries, which even included some kitchen staples that I needed to stock up on. Our most satisfying meal, the grilled tofu and zucchini on brown rice probably cost only about $6 to prepare, not counting staples I had on hand like soy sauce and sesame oil, and it made four portions, two of which I froze for lunches next week.
I don’t know if I would ever be able to become a full-fledged vegetarian, but after this week’s exercise, I think we will try to have at least half of our meals be meatless. Incidentally, Chip, who’s watching his weight, lost two pounds this week. Coincidence? I think not.