A MEAT-FREE JANUARY?
(Well, not exactly.)
After spending the week between Christmas and New Years in L.A., I thought maybe I would “try out” being a vegetarian this year. After all, hadn’t I been cooking primarily meat-free meals for the vegetarian son for nearly four plus years? (In fairness, he did eat fish.) Was this to be my New Year’s resolution?
Problem #1. While many L.A. restaurants may be touting the use of small purveyors who supply them with farm fresh products, we’re not just talking fruits and vegetables. Two out of the three restaurants we visited that week seemed to “feature” nearly every animal group I could think of on the menu: chicken, pork, duck, beef, venison and ostrich? Yes, there were wonderful salads and homemade pasta to be had but when I looked to see what other diners had ordered, well, it was meat.
Why was it when I thought I would take a break from consuming animals did it seem everyone around me chose to go the other way? Why suddenly vegetarian? The idea was to eat less fat, exercise more, maybe lose a couple of pounds and ultimately not feel so tired eating all that fat, day in and day out. What could be possibly wrong with that?
Nothing except from Day 1 it seemed my plan was going to be sabotaged.
But let’s start with the last day of 2009. I’m off a plane from L.A. and Lynn, the husband, being alone all week, greets me with caviar (yummy) and smoked salmon (double yummy) that will ultimately be put in a dill cream sauce on top of fresh fettucine. But he also bought grain fed lamb chops for $26.00 at an upscale NYC market. It was New Year’s Eve, I hadn’t seen him for four days, I ate the lamb.
New Year’s Day, a new decade, a new year, maybe a meat-free one? Hardly. The husband went to work (sigh, yes, even on New Year’s since he works for a major museum) and as I opened the fridge I realized my week away meant there was little to no food in the house. I eventually got up the energy to go the supermarket where I spent an enormous amount of time staring at packages of chicken, steak and pork roasts. Since the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees, I thought maybe a beef stew was in order. I bought some beef and mushrooms and went home and made a quick beef stew in the pressure cooker. That and some creamy mashed potatoes and my old standby, arugula salad with slices of pear, dried cranberries, goat cheese and a mustard vinaigrette and we were good to go. After all it was a holiday.
January 2 – This would be a no meat day guaranteed. Well, I did have lunch with my mother at my favorite local tea house, Chat Noir, where some of the sandwiches with the tea service were ham and turkey, but it was really good ham and really good turkey, so I decided to forget my meat-free promise. After lunch I drove to the fish market to buy some fresh flounder and fried it up meuniere-style with a quick rice and dill pilaf. I’m sure there was another vegetable or two on the plate, but frankly I don’t remember what we ate.
January 3 – We took down the tree and all the decorations. Christmas is officially over. Could we wing a vegetarian dinner? Ultimately yes., but since chickens were on sale at the supermarket for $2.15 PER CHICKEN that was a deal I couldn’t pass up. I decided I would roast two chickens, make some gnocchi with the leftover mashed potatoes from two days before and a quick salad. We sliced the chicken and there was more than enough for the next day.
January 4 – Back to work. Lunch? Fruit salad (cherries, kiwis, oranges) with a slice of rye bread and dill havarti that I could pop in the toaster oven at work. Problem was we were taking my mother to Flushing, Queens, for dinner to have Chinese food. Why drive 40 minutes for Chinese? She had never had soup dumplings (imagine an intensely flavored soup but the soup portion is encapsulated in the dumpling so that when you bite into the dumpling you get a taste of noodle but also the exquisite rush of hot soup. If you’ve never had it, you need to get to Flushing right away and ask for a double order of these luscious treats.) As I was perusing the menu, thinking tofu, vegetables, maybe a shrimp dish, I heard a bit of dissent at the table. Here’s the thing, I grew up in a meat-eating family. Both of my parents are meat lovers and as sure as hell there is nothing that will dissuade them from refusing to eat meat now or even in the near future. That said I ordered Mom the beef with green peppers and a scampi and black bean dish for the rest of us. Under pressure, I also ordered a new chicken dish with broccoli realizing afterwards that I don’t really like broccoli and I didn’t ask how the chicken was prepared (it was fried). We ate, we left, it was another non-vegetarian evening. But at least the dumplings were awesome.
January 5 – Breakfast. The husband wanted to cook. I was hoping he wouldn’t throw ham in the eggs; somehow he thought cheese would kick it up a notch. Since I had worn out the “we need to eat less, we need to weigh less, we need to be meat-free” maxim and he had obviously ignored it, I was grateful the cheese didn’t morph into ham and wolfed down my egg and slice of rye toast and went to work.
I had the perfect plan for dinner that night: mushroom soup, fresh pasta with roasted butternut squash with fresh sage, parmesan and fresh pepper and portobello mushrooms topped with pesto. Rachel, however, informs me that the on-again off-again boyfriend is back on and since he just returned from Barbados, couldn’t I possibly include him at the dinner table? Mai oui. Except when I asked Rachel what would be cool to make, she said “steak and potatoes.” Since I only had the latter in my fridge, I realized I had to go shopping.
At the supermarket, steak was outrageously expensive, chicken even more so. Swine flu or no swine flu, pork was cheap and plenty. Pork it was. I thought maybe I could do a pork tenderloin encased in pancetta with some potatoes, a salad, a veggie or two. Problem was the only pork tenderloins available were vacuum-packed (think über-processed) and flavored with “lemon” or some sort of “cajun spice” among other unmentionables which turns me off. So I had to think. With lots of pork cutlets on sale, I could do a rollatini of some sort, potatoes and salad.
Back home, cutlets were pounded, some havarti cheese was found (you’ve probably gathered by now my love of dill havarti!), toothpicks procured. Cutlets were filled with a slice of havarti, rolled, covered with a slice of pancetta, then secured in place with a toothpick or two. This was repeated 15 times. Why 15 times? Two hearty male eaters = 6 cutlets each = 3 cutlets for Rachel and I to share. Cutlets were seared on the stove then put in the oven. Since I didn’t have time to do roasted potatoes, I figured a potato gratin would be in order. Peeled and boiled potatoes, drained them and put them in a casserole dish, poured a container of cream on the dish, sprinkled some paprika on top along with some grated Vermont cheddar (white and sharp) and shoved the whole thing in the oven.
I want to say the meal was good but actually the stories of being in Barbados that the boyfriend regaled us with were ultimately more satisfying. (Stories of other places and being somewhere else are always more intriguing than even the best home-cooked meal. Think about it.)
January 6 – This would be the day to be meat-free. Came home rather late and decided to sauté some portobello mushrooms, make a quick pasta (with more mushrooms) and be done with it. That’s the simple version. Here’s what actually transpired: I had leftover potatoes gratin from the previous night. Could I whip up some sort of potato concoction, potato pancake, potato anything out of it? Absolutely.
Of course, working and driving Miss Rachel around to her various social engagements coupled with food shopping, I got a late start. 7:15 p.m. to be precise which is when I finally got back home and reaching into the fridge, resurrected the mashed from the previous night, started to wash the mushrooms (white, bella, and portobello) followed by lots of dill. I made a pseudo potato pancake out of the mashed leftovers, adding an egg, then molding the potato egg mixture into bread crumbs and frying them. The thought was it would be a potato “dish” with a portobello topping. I sauteed the portobellos then made a quick walnut dill pesto (dill, walnuts, olive oil, parmesan) in the food processor.
Water was boiling so I added some fettuccine and let it cook. Should I mention I just bought a new wok? Sauteing all these different kinds of mushrooms was right up my alley so I sliced them and they were thrown into the wok.
Meanwhile the portobellos were done. Plated, I put the fried potato mixture (think latke but lighter) on a plate, topped it with a portobello and spooned some walnut dill pesto on top. Finally, we had a decent meat-free first course!
The pasta? Into the mushroom mix went the by now cooked pasta with a generous amount of butter, parmesan and freshly ground pepper.
Did I mention the husband was snacking on salami while this meal was cooking?
January 7 – Feeling pretty tired. I want to think it’s because there was way too much holiday excitement (not). In fact extreme boredom is usually the cause of my lethargic state so to kick it up a notch I have to 1) not think as much and 2) if I do think at all I’m only allowing myself “simple” thoughts. ( have no idea what that means but it sounds good.) I’m also trying not to dwell on whether “to eat or not to eat meat” on an hourly basis coupled with the daily dining dilemma question of what’s for dinner.
Breakfast: Oatmeal drizzled with Canadian maple syrup.
Lunch: Cottage cheese. After I ate it, I wandered back into the office kitchen and started to look at all the junk food lying around. Unfortunately, because of my meager lunch I was tempted to indulge in a “cookie break” (Oreos, Fig Newtons, Chips Ahoy?) but made myself a cup of tea instead.
Dinner: I decided to go to the upscale supermarket on the way home from work to pick up some salmon, some baguette and a decent cheese or two and dinner would be made. I got a bit side-tracked when Rachel called me and needed me to pick up every kid in the neighborhood, drive them to an after-school event and then pick them up in an hour. (Well, not really, but it did feel like every kid within a three mile radius was in the car.) In between my duty as “taxi Mom,” I sauteed some cippollini onions, baby portobellos and napa cabbage. The cabbage didn’t cook up as nicely as I would have liked but whatever. After this mixture was semi-cooked, I quickly pan seared the salmon and plated it on top. Purposely undercooking the salmon made it extremely tasty plus it was nice just to eat a piece of fish without a heavy carb attachment. My reasoning for no starch on the plate – a nice wedge of creamy St. Andre with the aforementioned baguette and some cherries for dessert.
January 8 – Friday night and I would be driving Miss Rachel to and fro. She has entered the realm of attending sweet 16 parties so my weekends would be shot. Dinner, too, would have to be organized in advance or at least an easy one. Arrived home from work at 5:45 (after stopping to pick up a card for the birthday party girl) and threw together a batch of pizza dough in the mixer. I figured the dough could rise while I picked up various friends of hers and deposited them where they needed to be. By the time I got back, dough had risen and was able to be topped with sauteed mushrooms and onions, copious amounts of mozzarella and popped in the oven. Thinking ahead, I was sure that she would be hungry when she came home so I decided to also whip up a batch of brownies and then realized the pizza would really be what she wanted. So, maybe the pizza would be a first course for us (leaving her the leftovers) and I could also make a quick carbonara? Figuring pancetta is better than bacon, I could pick out the few pieces of pancetta in the sauce and still keep to my no-meat resolution.
January 9 – Made a quick white navy and black bean soup in the morning (ok, I did use homemade chicken stock) and gulp, put two chicken breasts in the oven to roast for Lynn to eat for dinner. Since we needed to be at a school function tonight plus I had to go pick up son #1 at the airport and then drive him home to Brooklyn, there wasn’t going to be a lot of time on my part to spend cooking. Dinner at 8 consisted of the soup to start followed by a tomato and avocado salad and gulp, yes, I ate half a chicken breast.
January 10 – Believe it or not I’ve lost a pound (even with all the bread and cheese), could it be from eating little to no meat? I want to at least think so. Lynn wanted ham in his omelette this Sunday morning; I persuaded him to just do cheese. Since we had such a late breakfast (nearly 11 a.m.!), we skipped lunch and I ate a banana and an orange while I made lasagna for dinner. I would love to to say that it was a vegetable lasagne but between the layers of grilled eggplant, mozzarella cheese and bechamel sauce, I snuck in a layer of meat sauce made with onions, ground pork and tomato paste. Rachel will probably pick out the eggplant, I’ll try to pick out the meat.
January 11 – Long day at work and then a run to the mall to return Christmas presents. (Yes, nearly three weeks after the holiday.) Consequently, dinner was grilled chicken with a Greek yogurt and dill dipping sauce, fettucine with mushrooms, and sauteed zucchini with oven roasted tomatoes. I ate the smallest chicken cutlet on the platter.
January 12 – Does it count if you take the leftovers (the aforementioned chicken) from the night before for lunch? Sigh. I got on the scale this morning and thought I had lost a pound or two but I’m thinking eating all this pasta will surely make me heavier. I really have to focus on just eating vegetables for dinner. Double sigh. Decided for dinner to make a potato and mushroom soup and a series of open faced sandwiches. Growing up in Munich where open faced sandwiches were often extremely upscale (think baby shrimp on lettuce with fancy mayo or white asparagus encased in aspic with a hard boiled egg), I decided to do something similar.
Picked up a loaf of ciabatta bread and sliced it, then grilled it on the stove. Arranged half of the grilled slices on a baking tray and topped them with slices of some dill havarti along with grilled red and green peppers, slices of onion and cubed apples topped with both Vermont white and yellow cheddar cheese, kicked-up-a-notch tuna salad (fresh cilantro and dill in the salad) with more havarti cheese on top. The other half of the grilled slices were coated with goat cheese and topped with fresh dill and slices of smoked salmon. Dessert? Fresh pineapple and fresh cherries. Yeah! Could it be I’m gaining weight from all this cheese?
January 13 – I started dinner by making a lovely composed salad with fresh spinach, green beans, boiled yellow potatoes, red radishes and cucumbers but then decided I still needed an entree. Had it been 95 degrees and summer, I could have swung just a salad for dinner or even grilled a piece of fish outside on the BBQ but after all it was still January. So… I made a quick chicken curry with rice. I had a small portion of chicken. It didn’t kill me.
January 14 – Why was there the smell of bacon frying on the kitchen stove at 6:45 a.m.! Turns out the husband really wanted to add something to the eggs and thought a slice or two of pancetta wouldn’t kill me. I didn’t appreciate his attempt to sabotage my January eating agenda. He had also sliced the pancetta so small that they were literally embedded in the scrambled eggs. I’d have to regain control by dinner. Quick stop at the upscale market (it was after all payday) caused me to pick up some fresh swordfish, shrimp and more bread and cheese. Could I do Atkin’s (to lose all the weight) in February? Dinner that night, needless to say was pretty good. Why we ended up having two appetizers that night I don’t know but we did. To start a cheese tortelloni in broth followed by old school shrimp scampi (garlic and butter and fresh parsley) with lots of bread to mop up the sauce followed by some swordfish that I plated with spinach and tomatoes. The orange “citrus” I squeezed on top was simply because we had run out of lemons or limes!
January 15 – Dinner out. Yes, I could have ordered fish but the thing was we were at Del Posto in the city and they had bollito misto on the menu. For those of us who rarely see this true Italian variety of boiled meats served stateside, I just couldn’t resist. Plus, they had a very interesting pasta dish made with lamb sausage and broccoli rabe. Luckily, dessert was meat-free.
January 16 – Had a goat cheese and fresh herb omelette for breakfast, skipped lunch but got stuck on dinner. Decided to make a quick meal of lots of the leftovers in the fridge eating the aforementioned tortelloni and found a chicken breast (sigh) that I roasted in the oven with some onions and carrots.
January 17 -Ok, so we had a three day weekend and decided to do a 24 hour road trip up to the Adirondacks and stay at an Inn we really like. Both breakfast and dinner were included in the room rate so I thought we were getting a good deal. Actually, we got a great deal since when we checked in they had upgraded us to a huge room with a fireplace where the bed was made out of logs, the bathroom had a double steam shower and jacuzzi, and the view from our balcony was a picture postcard of snow-covered woods. Did I mention there was also a completely stocked fridge with bottles of wine, beer and champagne? Did I mention the basket of chocolate chip cookies? Did I mention there was a bear skin on the wall?
I thought I could swing eating fish for dinner that evening. I know most chefs even in remote places fly in fish these days courtesy of Fedex but being in the woods and surrounded by all those trees made me a bit wary of not ordering something native (i.e., the scallops on the menu were not gathered from the forest). So, I had an appetizer of veal medallions with a deliciously creamy polenta to start followed by venison with quinoa. Dare I mention I also tasted Lynn’s grilled elk chop with a chocolate demi-glace?
January 18 – Woke up to breakfast at the Inn where they don’t offer you just one “meat” side but three — bacon, sausage and duck hash. While I did get off to a good start by eating some lusciously flavored smoked salmon, I had to try the duck hash and the sausage as an accompaniment to my spinach, leek and parmesan frittata. Breakfast was large enough to tie us over to dinner except we hit alot of traffic on the way home and by the time we got in, it was nearly 10 p.m. and we were famished. Double sigh, we had to stop at the supermarket on the way home and we decided to pick up some filet mignons. Why? Because we could grill them in under four minutes. In fairness, I did eat the smallest one.
January 19 – Is this month over yet? Stopped at the upscale supermarket on the way home and picked up some salmon and avocado rolls (I don’t normally buy sushi in a supermarket but they do in fact have two guys on staff who make sushi all day), three small swordfish steaks, some salad and baguette. Since I wasn’t making a carb, I thought a small cheese plate would suffice so I bought three cheeses — a Jarlsberg, a chunk of real Parmesan and a creamy Camembert. Did the single slice of ham I had today for lunch on a small onion roll count?
January 20 – Nick, the vegetarian, was supposed to come home for dinner but his plans changed and he is coming tomorrow. That said I had no Plan B for dinner tonight (we were going to have cheese fondue) so I decided I would make spaghetti carbonara (yes, with pancetta) and also grill some leftover bread and top the slices with a homemade chickpea spread. Knowing Rachel is not a big chickpea fan, I sliced up some Vermont cheddar cheese to put on the bread along with some sliced mushrooms and roasted red and yellow peppers. I threw some fresh arugula and roasted grape tomatoes over the entire dish. It was pretty good.
January 21 – Nick finally showed up and we had lots of sides to go with our cheese fondue. We started off the evening with old-school shrimp cocktail then had bowls of potato/parsnip/mushroom soup. After that, we dug our bread-laden forks into a four-cheese fondue (Monterey Jack, Emmentaler, Gouda, Jarlsberg) and alternated bites of bread and cheese with an arugula and fresh mushroom salad as well as a cucumber, red radish and tomato salad. For dessert, I had made oatmeal raisin cookies. Yeah, the day was entirely meat-free!
January 22 – Had to drive the husband to the train in the morning since the son needed the car, so I forgot to take anything out of the freezer. Then I remembered everything in the freezer was either meat or poultry. Dinner that night was going to be a crap shoot. Once I got home I had to make do with some chicken and apple sausages that managed to cook up quickly even in their frozen state and I also boiled some water and dropped in frozen (but fresh) potato and cheese pierogies. I also sauteed some brussel sprouts with garlic, olive oil and parmesan which was a great side dish. Rachel, who happened to be home on a Friday night (what?!!) wanted a steak so I made her a steak. Lynn ate some of the sausages, I nibbled at one, filled up on a side salad and the aforementioned brussel sprouts plus at least three of the pierogies.
January 23 – I made salmon for dinner which I cooked stove top with some white wine, lemon and herbes de provence. Saw a great picture in Canal House Cooking for baked tomatoes stuffed with homemade breadcrumbs and anchovies as a topping for spaghetti with fresh basel so I figured that would be the perfect accompaniment.
January 24 – Why do I feel we either eat pasta or cheese or both nearly every night? It was Sunday night where past practice has shown I usually make a baked casserole thing. This Sunday night would be no different. I made lasagna with ground pork and bechamel and layers of mozzarella and grated zucchini. It was really good and well, the pork was pork.
January 25 – Restaurant week in New York City. There was a fish dish on the menu at Capsouto Freres but it looked well kind of strange. I decided to get the duck but once we got to the restaurant they had substituted chicken for duck. Don’t you hate that? I ended up getting the smoked salmon as a starter and the daube of boeuf bourguignon which was really more like pot roast.
January 26 – Granola for breakfast, grilled cheese with tomato and arugula for lunch. Dinner? A delicious creamy mushroom risotto, grilled portobello mushrooms stuffed with dill havarti and zucchini stuffed with a mixture of anchovies, homemade bread crumbs and grape tomatoes. Yeah, I did it, an entirely meat-free day!
January 27 – Restaurant week again. Lynn and I ended up at the old school 21 Club and I ordered “citrus cured mahi mahi” with a strange pickled fennel and beet compote. Second course was horseradish-crusted salmon. Ok, so I did try a smidgen of his chicken pot pie (eating mostly the sauce and a veggie or two) but I was pretty much on track.
January 28 – Dinner at home was a potato/butternut squash soup to start followed by my version of shrimp lomein (fettucine, soy, garlic, shrimp, fresh spinach, fresh grated carrots, sliced onions).
January 29 – Restaurant week again. Another old school haunt, Le Perigord. While I was right on track with an appetizer of breaded goat cheese with a few greens and small red beets, I ended up getting the chicken with potatoes gratin as an entree since my other choices were salmon (again) or boeuf bourguignon. If nothing else, I figured the “free range” chicken was better than the beef.
January 30 – Why do I feel I can’t wait for January to end? Besides the cold weather we’ve been having, I’m exhausted from trying not to eat meat…and failing. Going to see a play tonight had us eating a pre-theatre dinner at an Italian restaurant near Lynn’s office. Paralleling NYC restaurant week pricing ($35.00 for three courses), I was actually more excited about this menu than the other three we already had under our belts. Maybe because while there was chicken to be had, there was no salmon or beef in sight? Consequently, dinner that night was an appetizer of polenta topped with wild mushrooms followed by a fish dish that was supposed to be sole but in reality tasted like tilapia. I hate tilapia. Since Lynn had ordered calves liver and onions (which I love), I kept sneaking pieces of it from his plate. While the liver was good, my fish was decidedly not. So much for my looking forward to dinner.
January 31 — Hoorah, the last day!. I got on the scale this morning and was dismayed that I had actually gained 2.5 pounds. (Yes, it’s annoying but I have a digital scale that insults you by stepping on it and giving your weight in 1/2 pound increments.) In fairness, while ultimately trying to not eat alot of meat this month we also succumbed to eating out much more frequently than normal because of NYC Restaurant Week.
To conclude the month of January, Sunday night dinner consisted of: homemade flour tacos with a choice of fillings: sliced chicken, black beans, salsa, onions, lettuce, cheddar cheese and thick Greek yogurt. All of the above got spooned into mine.
As a footnote: I decided to tally up the month’s results. Of the 31 days in January, only six were entirely meat-free, six other days were tainted by either a single ham slice (January 19), small piece of chicken (January 12, 27) or by the addition of pancetta in scrambled eggs or a pasta dish (January 8, 14, 20). That meant in a month of 31 days, I had failed miserably, consuming meat in one form or another, 25 days out of the 31.