Adapting a plant-forward way of eating is a lifestyle change, not a just a monthlong resolution.
January will be different.
After holidays spent eating and cooking for comfort and joy, we vow that this is the month for a culinary reset. It’s a time to take spinach out of the artichoke dip and toss it into a salad, and plan meals that are not just rich, but rich in nutritional value. And while we’re planning, maybe it’s time to make good on that promise to consume more vegetables and less meat.
The reasons for doing so are plentiful: health, environmental, religious, ethical, financial, taste or a combination. It’s a simple concept that’s hardly new.
Designating a day to eat meatless was introduced more than 100 years ago during World War I as a way to conserve rations for the troops serving overseas (there were meatless and wheatless days during both world wars). Those government initiatives became an educational movement, which mobilized communities and promoted public health.
Health professionals, including those at Mayo Clinic, have long been touting the benefits of eating less meat, saying a diet rich in red meat can increase the risk of death from heart disease, stroke or diabetes. (Eating a lot of processed meats, such as deli meats and hot dogs, has the same effect.) On the other hand, a plant-forward diet decreases your risk for obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and several forms of cancer, according to the American Heart Association.
There are tangible environmental benefits, too. Research from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future shows that adapting a more plant-based diet can decrease agricultural land use by 80% and agricultural water use by 50%, benefit soil health and improve biological diversity. With nearly 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions stemming from the production of meat, dairy and eggs, little changes can yield big results: Skipping meat once a week for a year would save as much emissions as driving nearly 350 miles in a car.
But what does plant-based eating mean?
The term is often used interchangeably with veganism, and that’s not entirely accurate. It’s a lifestyle that encompasses all types of eating, not one that’s solely plant-based.
There are no secrets to it, and it’s already second nature to many: a diet focused on fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, lentils, peas and nuts that limits meats, dairy and eggs.
Vegans exclude anything derived from animals — meat, fish, dairy, eggs and honey. Vegetarians are plant-based, too, but many incorporate dairy and eggs in their menus.
Then there are flexitarians, who mostly follow a vegetarian diet but don’t rule out including meat from time to time. Others eschew labels altogether and just follow a plant-forward way of eating, meaning there’s meat on the menu, but it’s not the main attraction (think Mediterranean diet).
Wherever you fall, ensuring that you’re getting proper nutrients is paramount. A common concern about removing meat from diets is the absence of protein, but the American Heart Association says not to worry: Plenty of other foods supply adequate amounts.
Tofu, quinoa, mushrooms, lentils, chickpeas and most beans and legumes are good sources of protein, as are artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, corn, potatoes, peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes and turnip greens.
There is no shortage of resources to help cooks move in a plant-forward direction. A simple Google search will keep you busy for hours, as will a trip to the bookstore, where even home-cooking stalwarts like Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens now devote chapters to meatless meals and vegetable-forward cooking.
From top to bottom, pizza is a familiar way to work more vegetables into a meal. There are several varieties of prepared cauliflower crusts on the market, but making your own allows you to control the ingredients. The key to a crispy cauliflower pizza crust is heat, and a pizza stone will give you the best results for an evenly browned crust. (It retains the heat and distributes the heat well.) If you don’t have a pizza stone, use a preheated baking sheet instead. From “Better Homes and Gardens 100th Anniversary New Cookbook” (IPG, 2022).
4 cups cauliflower florets (or 3 cups cauliflower rice)
2 tablespoons water
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 1/4 cups (1 ounce) shredded Italian cheese blend, divided
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
1/2 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning, crushed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
1 cup yellow or green sweet pepper strips
1 small red onion, cut into thin wedges
3/4 cup pizza sauce
Fresh basil, oregano and/or parsley, chopped, for optional garnish
Place cauliflower in a food processor. Cover and pulse four to six times or until crumbly and the mixture resembles couscous.
Place a pizza stone or baking sheet in the oven. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. In a casserole dish, combine cauliflower and the water. Microwave, covered, 3 to 4 minutes or until tender, stirring once or twice; cool. With a slotted spoon, transfer cauliflower to a 100% cotton flour-sack towel. Wrap towel around cauliflower and squeeze until there is no more liquid (this step is critical).
For the crust, in a medium bowl, stir together cauliflower and egg, 1/4 cup Italian cheese blend, Parmesan, panko, Italian seasoning and salt. On a piece of parchment paper, pat mixture into a 12-inch circle. Transfer on the paper to the preheated pizza stone. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until crisp and golden brown.
Meanwhile, in a 10-inch skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, sweet pepper and onion; cook 4 to 6 minutes or until crisp-tender, stirring occasionally.
Spread pizza sauce over baked crust. Top with mushroom mixture and sprinkle with remaining 1 cup of Italian cheese blend. Bake 5 to 10 minutes more, or until heated through and cheese is melted. Sprinkle with fresh herbs, if desired.
Make it vegan: If you haven’t shopped for vegan dairy lately, the array of offerings might surprise you. Vegan Italian cheese blend is readily available, as is vegan Parmesan (or substitute nutritional yeast, also widely available) and plant-based egg replacement.
VIETNAMESE-STYLE TOFU WITH GINGERY TOMATO SAUCE
Vietnamese đâu hũ sôt cà chua pairs tofu with tomato sauce, an unlikely but delicious combination. The tofu sometimes is deep-fried, but here it’s pan-fried; it’s sometimes stuffed with pork, or pork may be simmered into the sauce, but this recipe is a meat-free version. Pressing the tofu releases excess water so the texture is drier and the surface browns better. Fresh tomatoes make the best sauce, but canned whole tomatoes also work. Serve with steamed jasmine rice. From Milk Street’s “Cook What You Have” by Christopher Kimball (Voracious, 2022).
2 (14-ounce) containers firm or extra-firm tofu, drained, cut into 3/4- to 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
4 tablespoons grapeseed or other neutral oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch green onions, thinly sliced, whites and greens reserved separately
1 1/4 pounds ripe tomatoes, cored and chopped or 1 (28-ounce) can peeled whole tomatoes, drained, 1/2 cup juices reserved, tomatoes crushed by hand
2 tablespoons fish sauce, plus more if needed
Line a rimmed baking sheet with a double layer of paper towels. Distribute the tofu cubes in a single layer on top and cover with additional paper towels. Place another rimmed baking sheet on top, then set a few cans or jars on top as weights; let stand for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, stir together the cornstarch and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper.
Remove the weights and baking sheet from the tofu. Pat the tofu dry with fresh paper towels, then add the cubes to the cornstarch mixture. Gently toss until evenly coated.
In a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high, heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil until shimmering. Add half of the tofu in an even layer and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown on all sides, 6 to 7 minutes; transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Using 1 1/2 tablespoons of the remaining oil, brown the remaining tofu in the same way; wipe out the skillet.
In the same skillet over medium-high, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil until shimmering. Add the ginger, garlic and green onion whites, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, 30 to 60 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes (and 1/2 cup juices, if using canned tomatoes) and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes begin to release their liquid, 1 to 2 minutes (if using canned tomatoes, simply bring to a simmer). Cover, reduce to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have broken down and the sauce has thickened, 10 to 12 minutes.
Stir in the fish sauce, followed by the tofu. Cook, stirring, until the tofu is heated through, 1 to 2 minutes.
Off heat, taste and season with pepper and additional fish sauce, if needed. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with the onion greens.
Make it vegan: Instead of fish sauce, use tamari or add a splash of vinegar to dark soy sauce. There are also several vegan fish sauces on the market.