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Jun 24, 2008 06:35 AM

Vegetarian entrees/"main" proteins for omnivores?

My apologies if this has been done before, but I just wasn't sure how to search on it.

So, for a number of reasons, including budgetary, political and a desire to get maximum benefit out of my CSA, I've recently decided that I'd like to try to cook a couple of dinners a week that are vegetarian. The problem is, we're avowed meat-eaters at our house and, somehow, it just doesn't seem like dinner to us unless there's a slab of protein on the plate, or, at least small bits of protein (like you might find in a stir-fry) etc. Otherwise, it just feels to me like I've just been served a side dish. Also, I am always concerned about getting enough protein due to some blood sugar issues.

I've tried using tofu, seitan, and tempeh and have gotten pretty good results from the first two, not so much from the tempeh. But, my default always seems to be tofu, which, I can imagine might get boring pretty quickly, even if I change up the way I prepare it. I have a number of vegetarian cookbooks, including the COTM for July Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and the May COTM Flexitarian Table by Peter Berley, as well as Berley's "Vegetarian Kitchen" so I've got access to a fair amount of vegetarian recipes, but I think I need a nudge or two to get out of the tofu section.

Any ideas for the kinds of vegetarian main dishes that I should be looking for in my cookbooks to satisfy a couple of meat-eaters? Also, I'm still following my weight loss program, so, while small amounts of high-fat foods are fine, I still need to avoid dishes with more than an ounce or so of cheese or nuts.

Thank you,


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  1. I can't remember - have you made quinoa? I believe it is a reasonably good source of protein.

    2 Replies
    1. re: MMRuth

      Oh, that's a great reminder! We have really enjoyed quinoa, though, usually as a side dish or with chicken in it. But, still, we do like it.

      Also, I didn't mention before but maybe should have, we have both a rice cooker and a pressure cooker, so I've got a couple of rice cooker and pressure cooker cookbooks, too.


      1. re: The Dairy Queen

        Quinoa is good with black beans. The pressure cooker is great for beans (black, garbanzo, kidney, pinto, adzuki, etc.). Just soak the beans overnight or from morning for the evening meal and they cook a lot faster. Adzukis are good in with the rice for stir fry.

        Various things like chili and posole work well without meat and seem more filling than some other things. If interested in ethnic cuisine there are many vegetarian recipes.

    2. Beans, whole grains and pulses are your friends here. Keeping cooked beans around and having a rice cooker for the grains makes using them trivial. When you cook the beans, drain them and keep the beans and the broth separate. That way you can easily add a half-cup of cooked beans to something, and you have an easy-to-access liquid that stands in for stock. Lentils cook so fast, it's not worth precooking them. It is worth getting super-fancy lentils like de Puys, though. The great thing about dried pulses is that even when they're expensive, they're cheap.

      Go look at the non-meat sections of Italian cookbooks. There are a lot of dishes that are naturally vegetarian or can easily be made so. And don't forget the classics like pasta e ceci, pasta e fagioli and risotto con lenticchie ... yum!

      Also, one of my favorite Bavarian dishes, Semmelknödel mit Rahmschwammerln (Stale-bread dumplings with creamed mushrooms) is super good and if it leaves Bavarians satisfied without any meat.

      American food is full of things where meat plays a very secondary role. Red beans and rice with cornbread and greens. Hoppin John, fried green tomatoes, hominy and eggs, okra and tomatoes, veggie gumbo...

      8 Replies
      1. re: tmso

        Thanks tmso. Since we already eat beans and whole grains as side dishes to our "meat" entrees, I feel a bit cheated when I get a whole plate of them as a "main" dish. Those dishes are the kind that just leave me feeling "meh" rather than satisfied. I tend to flip right past them when looking at my vegetarian cookbooks. Do you have any suggestions for making them seem more "main dish-y", perhaps?

        On the other hand, your Italian suggestion appeals to me--I guess I'm used to seeing a pasta dish or a polenta dish as a main.

        The Bavarian dish sounds interesting--reminds me to put mushrooms on my list of dishes to look for. While not a protein, it does offer a bit of a meat-y texture. And umami, right?

        I'm not super familiar with most of those Southern dishes you describe (I have no idea what Hoppin John is!) and, frankly, have always eschewed them because I'm under the impression that they are typically laden with lard. I suppose there might be some healthy versions out there.


        1. re: The Dairy Queen

          i'll chime in on the "Southern" idea. personnally, i've never seen lard, and i'm not aware that my 71 year old mother has ever cooked w/ it either.

          I think lots of Southern cooking stems from poverty, and like so many cuisines, meat was more of a seasoning/condiment than anything. You may go to a southern restaurant now and get a massive fried porkchop, but if you went to my Mom's house (in the summer, especially), you'd get a plate of green beans, cut corn, sliced tomatoes, sliced canteloupe, pan fired okra, crowder peas or butter beans w/ chow chow (pickled cabbage and pepper relish). You'd also get a scoop of chicken salad for protein. If you went to my grandmother's in years'd get the same thing, except there would be biscuits or cornbread, and a very small piece of country ham. I realize you want to leave out the meat entirely, so to incorporate the southern "vegetable plate" into a veggie meal, I suppose you would need to add cheese somewhere, or whole wheat breads to complete the protein. I know there are some people who no longer believe that one must have all the essential amino acids together at one meal to form a complete protein, but I am unconvinced.

          good luck, I tried to incorporate a vegetarian meal once a week last year, and it didn't go over very well w/ the weight lifter husband. Plus, it's just so ingrained to serve meat, and it's so much easier to make an egg white omlette if one wants to feel virtuous than to calculate useable protein from your veg.

          1. re: danna

            Your southern "vegetable plate" sounds amazing, although I'm not a big fan of chicken salad, so I'd opt for your grandmother's style with biscuits and country ham. If we could get the country eating this way, that would go a LONG way to the "meat problem" we seem to be facing...

            1. re: danna

              Thank you, danna, for that insight. Actually, the mentality of using meat more of as a seasoning is the exact direction I want to be moving in, so it really does sound like I perhaps ought to be exploring Southern cuisine more. Thanks to you and tmso for the nudges in that direction.

              Sorry to hear your experiment with veggie cooking didn't go well last year. I'm lucky that my husband is exceedingly supportive and flexible when it comes to my various cooking experiments and projects. But, I don't want to press my luck, you know? If you have any thoughts about pitfalls to avoid, I sure would love to hear them.

              Okay, I have to go concentrate on work for awhile and am going to close out of this thread for awhile, but, the comments and suggestions in this thread have really been helpful so far, so, please do keep them coming!


              1. re: The Dairy Queen

                "Actually, the mentality of using meat more of as a seasoning is the exact direction I want to be moving in, so it really does sound like I perhaps ought to be exploring Southern cuisine more."

                I would also suggest you take another look at various Asian cuisines. Dunlop may not have been the best example of meat as a seasoning, but other regions of China rely more on this. The rationale is the same as Southern cuisine. Thai and other SE Asian cuisines also rely less on meat as a main course.

                1. re: beetlebug

                  It's funny you should mention this. Pitu tried to say something similar when Dunlop was COTM and I bit her head off (and later apologized, of course) because I was feeling stupidly insecure that day, but yes, in many cultures, meat is not always expected to be the center of every meal. Even here in the U.S. meat started out as a once in awhile thing instead of a must have thing. We are lucky to live in time of such abundance.

                  Over in my "using my unused cookbook thread" I reported on a Hmong recipe I cooked, beef with pea shoots, that would traditionally be eaten as a special occasion meal (for Hmong New Year)--we had it on a Thursday night.

                  Anyway, yes, this makes sense.


                  1. re: The Dairy Queen

                    I'll have to find that specific post. Sounds delicious.

                    I grew up eating meat as a seasoning so it was an eye opener when I went to college - big chunks of meat everywhere. Personally, eating meat in small pieces, is still my preferred way of dining. As I tell people, I love meat, but mostly in small pieces. As I've aged, big chunks of meat (a la steaks) is unappetizing for me.

            2. re: The Dairy Queen

              It looks like you've gotten pretty good suggestions overall. But I thought I'd add one more thing, since we're heading into summer. From now until winter-vegetable season, the star secondo on my table will almost always be a vegetable. Stuffed mushrooms, stuffed peppers, restuffed zucchini, grilled eggplant, stuffed eggplant, stuffed artichokes, stuffed tomatoes. Summer veggies are great for this treatment.

          2. How about eggs? Sometimes, I take a single egg and add it to my tofu stir fry.

            2 Replies
              1. re: beetlebug

                I LOVE a good egg white omelette - filled w/ mushrooms and caramelized onions... nothing finer IMO. served with a salad and some more roasted veggies or sliced tomatoes, and im a happy camper.

                Miso Egg White Drop Soup
                miso soup broth simmered with crushed garlic, sliced wild mushrooms (shiitakes, portabellos, cremini, oysters), greens (bok choy, kale, mustard greens), then later drizzle into a rolling simmer egg whites (or chopped tofu if you prefer it)

                Chili - make it with TVP for a heartier toothesomeness

                Breakfast for Dinner - blini or crepes filled with low or fat free sweetened cottage cheese or ricotta

                Homemade spring rolls made w/ the rice paper wrappers at the market

                Japanese theme - miso soup, salted edamame, chilled spinach salad, veggie rolls and some brown rice

                Whole wheat low fat grilled cheese and tomato gazpacho soup

              2. TDQ - you didn't mention any seafood. Wild caught salmon, sole, scallops... shrimp, mussels....grilled fresh sardines, etc. All can add the needed protein and are realtively low in calories & fat. Also, if you don't want to make a main seafood dish, many can "beef" up a risotto or a pasta sauce.

                4 Replies
                1. re: Gio

                  I think she wants the meals to be vegetarian ....

                  1. re: MMRuth

                    OIC.... I thought she was looking to add a bit of other types of protein.....

                    1. re: Gio

                      Whoops! I now see how unclear my title is...yes, MMRuth has it right, I'm looking for vegetarian mains that would satisfy a couple of meat-eaters and also meet our protein needs.

                      One thing I've also thought I might do is use those tofu noodles (shirataki?) they sell at Whole Foods as my main protein in a "pasta" dish... But, again, there's that dang tofu again!


                      1. re: The Dairy Queen

                        Well, as Federico Fellini said, “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”

                        And, don't forget Sophia The Great's famous quote, "Everything you see I owe to pasta."

                2. You may need to try new/more sides so that a vegetarian meal doesn't seem "meh" to you. If you are committed to eating a vegetarian meal, you should adjust your expectations that you're not going to be getting meat. I'm having a hard time thinking of dishes that you wouldn't brush aside as being too "side-y". But I'll give it a go.

                  For tempeh, try brushing a tempeh burger and some red peppers with honey then grill. Serve on pesto pizza. Delish.

                  This main doesn't have the protein you're looking for, but no one I've served it to thinks of it as a side. It's mashed potatoes and sauteed mushrooms encased in a puff pastry sheet and decorated with capers.

                  How about ratatouille lasagne? Filling and not at all like a side dish.

                  Grilled eggplant with a peanut-cilantro sauce. There's some protein in the peanuts.

                  I think if you made a meal of cornmeal dusted fried zucchini, boiled carrots in dill butter, salad, brown rice and vegetable kabobs, you'd have a lot of different dishes, but the vegetable kabobs would take center stage as the main and may keep you satisfied.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: charlesbois

                    Hey, well done! Those are indeed vegetarian dishes that don't seem side-dishy to me. Maybe I need to think of a way to do that with beans and whole grains, too. Vegetarian tamales or burritos, for instance, I would think of as mains because, as tmso mentions above, you can always keep cooked beans on hand for convenience.

                    By the way, I hope I don't come off as dismissing vegetarian dishes as side dishes, but if we are going to gradually change our habits in this area, I think it's important for us to have good experiences and feel "satisfied" with what we're getting at meal time. I imagine over time our palates and expectations will adjust, but, I think we're trying to take this in baby steps. I should also say that different people in the household have different levels of commitment to this "vegetarian two days a week" plan, so, I'm trying to make sure everyone has a good experience as it would make it a lot easier for everyone to embrace and stick with it.

                    You guys are doing great with the suggestions.


                    1. re: The Dairy Queen

                      Hey, what about taking a leaf out of Top Chef this season and make tofu braised in beef fat. I know you want to get out of the tofu rut, but I think this dish is truly different. And will satisfy some of your less committed vegetarians... Plus beef fat is pretty cheap.

                      1. re: charlesbois

                        Hmmm..interesting. I'll have to look that recipe up.