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The Essential Vegetarian

Going cold-turkey ... err, cold-veggie

By Katie Jeffreys

Do you notice something unusual about the picture included with this week’s article? Yes, the vegetarian options are listed first! It was taken on my trip to London (sorry to keep talking about that) and I found it interesting. It is rare that a restaurant, especially something like this small sandwich shop, would have such a dedication to vegetarians.

I may have described previously my disapproval of the vegetarian menu at Border Cafe in Harvard Square. The laminated card of “vegetarian” options lists along with their bean and cheese dishes their many fish items. This makes the choices seem quite extensive, but in actuality I end up insulted, with few choices. I am always amazed and pleased when a restaurant offers so many meatless entrees that I have a tough time choosing, as was the case in the pictured sandwich shop.

At most restaurants, while the rest of the party is still contemplating the menu, I have already decided on my meal, simply due to the fewer options available to me. I have quickly scanned the menu for meatless options, sometimes kindly denoted by a “V” or a little vegetable icon. This is usually narrowed down to a veggie burger, a pasta dish or two, fatty fried foods, and generally one other dish unique to the restaurant. This is generally the dish I choose. Then I wait for the rest of the group to make their selections from the myriad meat choices. This is the one scenario that sometimes makes being vegetarian restrictive. I can cook dishes for myself that are varied and appealing. But it seems even the best chefs in the world hear “vegetarian” and immediately drop some pasta in boiling water and throw a veggie burger on the grill.

Well, enough whining from me! I realized the other day that while I have discussed how good vegetarianism is for weeks now, I never actually described how to go about becoming a vegetarian. I had no trouble dropping meat from my diet several years ago, but many people do. I received an e-mail whose sender complained of feeling “light-headed and weaker” after a few days without meat. I am not a doctor, nor do I plan to be, so I am not at liberty to say what would cause such a reaction. It could have many causes, in my mind one of the least likely being, as the questioning reader suggests, “meat withdrawal.”

Becoming vegetarian can be a difficult transition for some people. New vegetarians don’t know where to begin -- they are overwhelmed by the abundant vegetables, grains, and legumes with strange names which they are exposed to. In cooking, there are so many options once you stop limiting yourself to the confines of beef, chicken and fish. However, it is important to know how to prepare alternate nutritional dishes so you don’t fall into a habit of eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on white bread for every meal. Look into vegetarian options before converting, so you know where to go to find suitable replacements for meat. This is another thing to be aware of -- you must replace meat, not simply remove it from your diet. Beans, squash, eggplant, spinach and mushrooms are some of the best sources of equivalent nutrients, flavors, and textures to explore. Be sure to vary your diet as well. All the nutrients in meat can be found in vegetables, just not in one vegetable. That is why it is important to eat a variety of green vegetables, legumes and grains.

If you suddenly switch to vegetarianism, you may crave meat. Smelling a burger on a grill may make your mouth water, but it is important to avoid the temptation if you are serious about being a vegetarian. Personally I find the odor makes my stomach turn. I have also learned that no matter how appealing meat seems, were I to ever reintegrate it into my diet, it would have to be very gradually. When I accidentally consume meat products (appetizers at formal functions or sauces on spicy foods sometimes cause problems) my digestive system lets me know it is unhappy with what I have consumed.

So how can you become a vegetarian without craving meat or suffering nutritionally? I would recommend slowly cutting meat out of your diet, or doing it all at once, depending on your conviction. If you plan to go “cold-turkey” (or should I say cold-veggie) and you allow yourself “just one more steak” at every meal, you will never become a vegetarian. So whichever your method, develop a plan. If eliminating meat all at once proves to be too difficult, try cutting meat out from one meal a day. Instead of a roast beef sandwich for lunch, try something with eggplant or grilled vegetables. When eating out or wandering the aisles of the grocery store, check out the vegetarian options. If you encounter a vegetarian dish you don’t like, don’t assume you can’t be vegetarian because all meatless food is bad. Chances are you don’t like all meats either, so experiment with different ethnic foods, beans, grains, and soups until you have reestablished your tastes.

If you are still concerned about your nutrition, there are many resources available on the web or in bookstores. Additionally, MIT Medical provides a Nutritionist who is available to consult with students.

This week’s recipe is for Vegetable Biryani, an Indian dish I tried in London. There are many spices in this recipe, but don’t let that intimidate you! You don’t need to spend thirty dollars on spices you will use twice! Just go to Harvest Co-Operative Supermarket in Central Square, where you can by fresh bulk spices in any amount, from a pinch to a pound. While you are there, be sure to check out their wide selection of vegetarian foods, as well as organic products of every sort. As always, e-mail me comments, questions, or suggestions at!

Vegetable Biryani

1 onion, peeled and chopped

2 cups chopped mixed vegetables (e.g., potatoes, green beans, cauliflower, carrot)

4 tablespoons light vegetable oil

1 1-inch cinnamon stick

6 cloves

2 large black cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon black cumin powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 teaspoon chili powder/cayenne

2 cups raw Basmati rice (rinsed 4 times, soaked 20 minutes) or 4 cups

cooked, non-sticky, long-grain rice

Fry onion in oil until light brown. Add spices (cinnamon through salt in the ingredient list.) and fry for 1 minute. Add vegetables and fry for 4-5 minutes.

Add rice (and 4 cups water if uncooked.) Add remaining spices (coriander through chili powder in the ingredient list.) Bring to a boil and reduce temperature slightly until the bubbles emerge through the rice. Cover and reduce heat to low.

Cook for 12-15 minutes without stirring. Garnish with fresh coriander. Serve with raita or salad.