The best sources for meatless main courses that are not embellished with high-fat cheese and nuts are the cuisines of the Far East and Middle East.
At a Chinese or Indian restaurant, for example, if you order one or two vegetable dishes and a bowl of steamed rice, you'll have a balanced vegetarian menu and you won't miss the meat.
Many vegetable recipes that are usually considered side dishes for meat can play the role of vegetarian main courses. Simply serve generous portions of the vegetables and accompany them with plenty of pasta, rice or fresh crusty bread.
If you structure a meal this way and avoid cream and cheese sauces, your menus will naturally be low in fat. Any vegetable dish can be part of such a vegetarian menu, but the most satisfying vegetable recipes are those made with legumes: dried beans, shell beans and peas.
The United States Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid specifies one to 1 1/2 cups cooked beans as the equivalent of a two- to three-ounce serving of meat or fish. Other vegetarian alternatives in the pyramid are eggs and peanuts, but the nutritional advantages of beans are that they are low in cholesterol and fat. (Botanically, peanuts are legumes too, but they are relatively high in fat.)
Some think that cooking bean dishes takes hours and wondered how to fit them into a busy schedule. Of course, you can cook dried beans in large quantities and freeze them for another day, but who is so organized all the time?
Instead of cooking dry beans, you can make use of beans in other forms. The market offers many choices.
You'll find quick-cooking beans in the frozen foods department. There are the familiar lima beans, which come in different sizes, and black-eyed peas. In the produce section, you can find packages of pre-soaked garbanzo beans, black-eyed peas and other beans that cook quickly. The choice of canned beans seems to be growing all the time. In Mediterranean and Middle Eastern grocery stores, you can find a wide assortment of cooked beans in jars.
Beans are much more varied than you might think. They differ from each other not only in color but in flavor and are interchangeable in most recipes. Thus an easy way to add interest to your menus is to use different beans in the same recipe. For example, if you like white beans in tomato sauce, try the recipe with lima beans or pinto beans instead.
Pairing beans with other vegetables is a great way to improvise new bean dishes. A favorite recipe of my students is beans with greens. Originally it's an Egyptian entree that combines fresh fava beans with meat, rice and a pesto-like sauce of garlic and Swiss chard. I have developed a faster, easy, meatless version of this delicious dish using frozen lima beans. The beans and rice cook in vegetable broth, which gives them a delicious, rich flavor.
Remember this inexpensive, low-fat source of protein when you are planning menus. If you keep a good selection of beans in the pantry and freezer, you'll be able to put together meatless meals in a flash.
BEANS WITH GREENS
This light vegetarian dish makes a good main course accompanied by yogurt. The beans are accented with garlic and a touch of dill or mint.
2 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
1 small or medium onion, chopped
1/3 cup long grain rice
1 3/4 cups vegetable broth
1 (10-ounce) package frozen lima beans
6 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped Swiss chard leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or mint or 1 teaspoon dried
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in heavy saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat until golden, 7 minutes. Stir in rice. Pour in 1 1/2 cups broth. Bring to simmer. Cover and cook over low heat 10 minutes. Add lima beans and remaining 1/4 cup broth. Shake pan. Bring to boil. Cover and cook until rice and beans are barely tender, 5 minutes.
Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in heavy medium skillet. Add garlic and saute 15 seconds. Add chard and saute over medium heat 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in dill. Puree mixture in food processor.
Add chard mixture to beans and stir gently. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat until vegetables and rice are tender, 2 minutes longer. Serve hot in bowls.
Makes 2 to 3 main-course or 4 to 5 side-dish servings.
Each serving contains about:
234 calories; 545 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.92 grams fiber.
GARBANZO BEANS AND EGGPLANT CURRY
Serve this hearty, spicy vegetable stew over rice.
2 to 3 tablespoons oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger root, optional
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice
1 (28-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
1 tablespoon tomato paste mixed with 1/2 cup water
1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, drained
Heat oil in heavy wide casserole. Add onion and cook over low heat until tender but not brown, 7 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, turmeric and pepper flakes. Cook and stir 1 minute.
Add eggplant and season to taste with salt. Mix well over low heat until eggplant is coated with spices. Add tomatoes. Bring to boil over high heat. Stir in tomato paste mixture. Cover and simmer over low heat, stirring often, 20 minutes. Add garbanzo beans and simmer until eggplant is very tender and stew is thickened, about 10 minutes longer. Season to taste with cayenne. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
260 calories; 723 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 3.33 grams fiber.