At Home Places

Homemade nut and bean burgers, like this Popeye version of the Power Burger, are favorites on the menu at Martinsburgʼs Good Natured Cafe, where the menu offers a broad variety of flavorful meatless meals.

Mighty but Meatless

Try the Occasional Meat-Free Dish for a Meal Bursting with Flavor and Abundant Health Benefits

written by Stacey Campbell
photography by Kevin G. Gilbert

If Facebook is any indication, we love thematic eating – especially if it involves alliteration. And while Taco Tuesday and Fun Food Friday get tons of attention, Meatless Monday often falls by the wayside. Which is a shame, as meatless meals can be tasty and good for you, too.

It might be the “-less” that deters people from experimenting with meat-free meals: the theme was initially concocted during WWI, when Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday were used to encourage resource conservation. At the time, more than 13 million families signed the pledge to reduce consumption. The concept was revived in the early 2000s as a non-profit initiative of The Monday Campaigns, which partnered with the Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to reduce meat consumption by 15 percent for personal health and the health of the planet. Today, Meatless Mondayʼs website reports that the initiative has been embraced in 36 countries, in 12 languages. And, far from being a deprivation, meatless meals are a great chance to experiment with new recipes and experience fantastic flavors.

Meatless and protein-packed, Chana Masala features chickpeas smeared with sun-dried mango powder and cooked with onions in the Punjabi style.

“Every now and then somebody thinks itʼs too weird because theyʼre so used to the idea of eating meat that they canʼt see eating even one meal without it,” says Jacob Smith, manager of Good Natured Cafe, a 100-percent vegetarian eatery in Martinsburg, W.Va. And, adds Bastian Browning, weekend prep cook at Blue Moon Cafe in Shepherdstown, W.Va., “We definitely still have people who donʼt understand how you can go through life without eating meat.”

Part of the problem is the misconception of what a meatless meal actually is, says Meritus Nutrition Services Director Sandra Baker. The Robinʼs Cove cafeteria at Meritus serves two entree options Monday through Friday, one of which is meatless. “Thereʼs a stigma that vegetarian food is all beans and rice, but thatʼs not what all the vegetarian options or meatless options are.” Sandra quickly lists off several meatless favorites served at the Robinʼs Cove: stuffed portobello mushrooms, vegetable lo mein with jasmine rice and broccoli, stuffed shells, eggplant parmesan, cheese enchiladas. “People probably have a meatless meal and donʼt even think of it – theyʼre picking it because that sounds good today.”

Jim Hickey, chef and owner of The Orchard Restaurant in Frederick, also hears a misperception that meatless meals will be “brown and tasteless and boring. They think natural food, health food, vegetarian food, is going to be bland and not filling.” But since opening his restaurant in 1988, he has seen the appeal of this food grow. His menu centers around whole foods, specializing in stir fries, salads and sandwiches, with chicken, seafood and vegetarian options. The range of flavorful meals also is evident on Blue Moonʼs menu, which Bastian calls “diverse. We have vegetarian dishes, meat dishes, little kids can eat here, adults can eat here. If youʼre looking for something that tastes good, youʼll find it somewhere on our menu,” he says. Meatless options include a Sweet Pear and Gorgonzola salad, Philly Shroom Sub with sauteed portobello mushrooms, and the Eggplant Tower entree with sun-dried tomato béchamel sauce.

At Mango Grill, chef and owner Raj Agarwalʼs menu provides richly spiced meat, vegetarian and vegan dishes, and he sheds light on another myth about meat-free meals: that they donʼt provide enough protein. Raj, a third-generation chef with a degree in culinary arts, was raised vegetarian in a Hindu household. Vegetarianism is a part of Indian culture, with a majority of the population abstaining from meat and the rest eating meat infrequently, perhaps once a week, he says. As for the protein issue, Raj says, “You can get a lot of protein from lentils, too, and from tofu. We have had wrestling champions who were world champions, who have won Olympic golds and stuff like that, and they were 100-percent vegetarian.”

Good Natured Cafe Manager Jacob Smith says even diners who were initially reluctant to try a meatless meal often find them delicious and return frequently to the restaurant.

Feel-Good Food

The Meatless Monday website cites a variety of studies that demonstrate the health benefits of eating less meat: reducing heart disease and stroke, limiting cancer risk, fighting diabetes and curbing obesity. In addition, meatless meals are often less expensive – as vegetables, beans and grains tend to cost less than meat – and help the environment, too, by minimizing water usage dedicated to livestock production and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Good Natured Cafe grew out of Jacobʼs parents pursuit of healthier eating, which began around the early 2000s. Jacobʼs maternal grandfather passed away from a heart attack. “He was a down-home country boy who ate pork rinds and pigs feet,” Jacob recalls. And his fatherʼs family had a lot of heart disease in their past, too. In making a change to the way he ate – focusing more on vegetables and brown rice – Jacob says his father has had no incidences of cholesterol or high blood pressure.

Aside from lowering risks for serious health issues, many who eat meatless meals say they just feel better overall. “I personally feel itʼs very good for your health,” Raj says. “I feel better. I think better.” Though Bastian still enjoys meat on occasion, he says he eats a mostly vegetarian diet. “For me, really, it just gives you more energy and makes you feel cleaner, if you will,” he says of meatless meals.

And, he points to cost as his main reason for eating mostly vegetarian, “because meat is much more expensive,” Bastian says. Part of the cost differential could be attributed to the amount of water and food resources that go into feeding livestock – which meatless meals aim to help reduce. “We waste huge amounts of resources to feed animals when we could just be eating the fruits and grains in the first place,” Jacob says.

Meat-Free but Flavor-Full

Creating a meatless meal doesnʼt leave local chefs lacking in variety or taste. “Iʼve been cooking vegetarian food since the ʻ70s,” Jim says. “I always thought it was interesting. There are a lot of interesting things you can do with vegetarian meals, and a lot of variety.” While Jim is not a vegetarian, he frequently enjoys meatless dishes from The Orchardʼs menu like stir fries or one-dish pasta meals. Eleven stir fry options – including Japanese, Mediterranean, Creole, Indonesian and Curried stir fries – are available as meatless meals with just vegetables or served with tofu. (Chicken, shrimp and salmon options are also available.)

At Mango Grill, the dinner menu features 13 entrees under “Vegetarian Specialties.” But, says Raj, “The way Indian food is made, thereʼs so many spices involved in it, so much flavor in it, they would not be able to tell [thereʼs no meat]. Sometimes I make cauliflower where thereʼs a way that it tastes just like chicken because of all the spices and everything in there.” The daily lunch buffet includes eight vegetarian options (often at least six are vegan, meaning they contain no animal products at all), and Raj displays a menu box full of buffet labels representing vegetarian options. “We have hundreds of choices.” Among his favorites are the Nargisi Malai Kofta – dumplings made from garden-fresh vegetables simmered in light, creamy sauce – and Vegetables Jalfrezi – nine different vegetables cooked in the chefʼs special sauce.

The variety of meatless options at Blue Moon reflect “thinking of what would make it still a hearty meal and a good sandwich, so itʼs just not some vegetables or a salad,” Bastian says. “You can still have a hot sandwich thatʼs hearty that you can still get down on.” One of his favorite meatless sandwiches is the Veggie Smack: “Itʼs just loaded with vegetables and hummus on bread, covered with fresh mozzarella cheese,” and baked in the oven, Bastian says.

About 25 meatless meals rotate through the Robinʼs Cove at Meritus, many of which sell at a rate on par with the meat option on any given day. “At different times of year, we offer a baked chickpea pot pie thatʼs very good, a lentil loaf thatʼs also very good, and a few with quinoa that are excellent as well,” Sandra says. Theyʼve also offered mushroom ravioli with roasted red pepper pesto. “People really like that.”

Good Natured Cafeʼs menu is 100-percent vegetarian, with some vegan and gluten-free options, Jacob says. “I would describe it as wholesome vegetarian home cooking.” He says the cafe is one of the few places locally to offer multiple types of bean and nut burgers, as well as foods that mimic meat, like the Tempeh Bacon BLT and the Vegetarian Reuben, made with oven-baked gingered tofu. “My two favorite things are probably our reuben – which I think it really does taste better than a real corned beef reuben – and our nut burgers,” Jacob says. “And we offer the ability to top nut burgers with vegan cheese and tempeh bacon, and itʼs a pretty amazing experience to eat one.” Creative specials each week range from cashew and turnip stew to a tempeh-bacon wrapped dates appetizer and vegan mac and cheese.

Raj Agarwal, chef and owner of Mango Grill in Hagerstown, prepares dishes for the restaurantʼs lunchtime buffet, which features eight vegetarian options daily.

Make Mine Meatless

When experimenting with meatless meals, whether using meat substitutes or not, Jacob advises, people should “never expect it to fully replace the meat meals in their mind, in their view of what it tastes like. Be open to the fact that itʼs going to taste somewhat different, but thatʼs not a bad thing.” Sandra agrees: “You have to be willing to try a variety of foods that you may not be used to.” One good place to start is by trying a meatless option at a local restaurant. “We introduce them to new products here that theyʼve never tried at home,” like the high-protein grain quinoa, Sandra says. “They come back and say, ʻCan I get that recipe?ʼ” she says of Robinʼs Cove patrons. Often, chefs and servers are happy to make suggestions and steer people in the right direction for meatless options, Jacob says.

And, Jacob adds, “We live in a golden age of information,” pointing to all the resources available to find recipes. “Nowadays, there are huge cookbooks for vegetarians,” Jim says. “Back then,” he continues, referencing his start in cooking, “there was the Moosewood Cookbook, and that was about it. That was the standard back in the ʻ70s. The internet is definitely a great resource. You can find recipes and reviews from people whoʼve tried the recipes.”

Experimenting at home is another way to start trying new dishes that wonʼt leave family members wondering, “Whereʼs the beef?” Jacob recommends starting with simple dishes, like rice or noodle bowls, or trying a meat substitute in a favorite dish. “Or try and make the dish by adding two to three different vegetables in place of the meat you would typically use in that dish,” he says, like using a variety of beans or tofu seasoned with cumin, paprika and onions to replace beef in a chili. “Looking at dishes in your own life that youʼre comfortable with making and then altering to be vegetarian is probably the easiest place to start,” he says. Bastian echoes the variety of beans that can be a hearty enhancement to meatless meals. “You can do anything with beans, cook them in any way you want,” he says. “It doesnʼt have to just be in a soup.”

Good Natured Cafe Manager Jacob Smith says even diners who were initially reluctant to try a meatless meal often find them delicious and return frequently to the restaurant.

Even tofu is easy to accommodate in regular recipes, and it can shorten meal cooking times. But itʼs important to remember tofu has no flavor of its own, so it should be seasoned according to the dish, Raj says. “Other than that, you can do so much with tofu. Whatever you make – [a recipe calling for] chicken, lamb or goat – use the exact same recipe, but instead of using the meat, you can use tofu chunks for that, and it will turn out exactly the same way.”

In experimenting with meatless meals, itʼs important to focus on whatʼs there, not whatʼs “missing” from a meal – something Sandra sees every day in the Robinʼs Cove. “Without us telling people, ʻThis is your vegetarian option,ʼ they choose it freely because of the way it looks, the way it smells, without us prompting them to eat that particular product because itʼs vegetarian. They just purchase it because oh, that looks good to eat.”