The Making of a Flexitarian

I was an extremely picky eater as a child. I hated to chew meat, and eventually I started refusing eggs, chicken with bones or skin, or any meat that resembled a recognizable part of an animal. For a while, I continued to eat meat that is barely meat like Chicken Rondelets, hot dogs, and lunch meat but eventually, when I was 14, I stopped eating flesh completely. I was already forgoing dairy products because I had been recently diagnosed with lactose intolerance and the joy of not having regularly occurring intense intestinal pain encouraged me to give up pizza and ice cream at a, “sniff”, young age.

After college I was hired to cook and bake at an all-vegetarian conference center and learned to feed myself (and others) an actually healthy vegetarian diet, instead of subsisting on bread and butter, salads, and spaghetti. My culinary education flourished under the tutelage of my first mentor, professional chef Alice Cozzilino. I learned the joys of cooking with beans, nuts, seeds, and soy products, and became very comfortable preparing entirely vegetarian feasts for crowds of 30 to 150.

15 years later I found myself dreaming about eating the fattiest and saltiest of meats while living aboard a sailing vessel with my father in the Bahamas, where fresh veggies are limited to onions, tomatoes, cabbage, and potatoes and vegetarians are regarded very suspiciously. Plates of pastrami, ribs, sausage, and bacon floated before my closed eyes. I decided to give eating meat and fish a try and I’ve never looked back. But vegetarian cooking is still the mainstay in my house, even though I’ve been cooking, eating, and serving seafood, beef, poultry, lamb, and pork for 10 years now.

Now I make a lot of soups, curries, stews, spreads, and salads with pintos, black beans, chick peas, lentils, mung beans, white beans, and split peas. Almond butter, tahini, and peanut butter get incorporated in soups, sauces, dressings, and baked goods.

I love the ease, versatility, and high protein content of tofu. I marinate small chunks of the extra firm variety with balsamic honey dressing, red onion and chives and add it to salads and wraps. Or I cut it into triangular cutlets, fry it in a trace of very hot sesame oil, coat it with a tamari, garlic, lemon, and nutritional yeast butter glaze and serve it with steamed green veggies (kale and broccoli are the best) and rice. The silken kind can also be blended into creamy, non-dairy salad dressings (try it with fresh garlic, soy sauce, olive oil, chili powder, parsley, and oregano) or blended with melted chocolate or pumpkin and poured into a pie shell for an incredible vegan dessert.

Tempeh is another soy option I love. It’s made from fermented soybeans, then pressed into a flat rectangle whose texture is not uniform like tofu, but irregular and chewy. It has a tangy flavor that is complimented by tamari, sesame, garlic, ginger, vinegar, and citrus flavors. You can dice it small and simmer it in chili, but I like it best pan-fried in little squares and then simmered in a saucey marinade like maple ginger mustard, soy lemon garlic, or orange honey glaze.

Last but not least, is the vegetarian protein with the name everyone resists saying, seiten (say-tan). Made from wheat gluten, the finished product is a dark brown chunk resembling stew beef. It can be simmered whole in a stew, minced for pot pie filling, or sliced thin and fried till it’s crispy (my favorite), with garlic and tamari as part of a stir-fry.

I’m most definitely a flexitarian now. I eat some of most everything (not raw clams or eel, thank you!). That, plus the fact that my lactose intolerance has waned means that I almost never have to say, “I don’t eat that” when someone has offered me food. I’m also able to prepare virtually anything my clients ask for, and for this I am grateful.

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