I was spending Christmas with my wonderful in-laws last year. My mother-in-law is all gluten-free these days and she had been given The Moosewood Cookbook as a gift. I think I read through the whole thing about 3 times cover to cover in the lazy, cozy days after the holiday, and I decided (first) to buy my own copy or risk ruining Mom’s new one, and (second) to become a vegetarian for one year, starting on January 1st.
I’d never even considered being vegetarian before. Being raised on a small, all-natural, grass-fed beef farm (with easy access to fresh local chicken and pork as well), I didn’t think I would be able to give meat up. But I needed some kind of catalyst to get me thinking more about what I eat, and I do enjoy a challenge. Now here I am almost three months in and I am doing (and feeling) great!
The earliest known vegetarians were from the areas of current-day India and Greece and lived in the 6th Century BCE. These people made the conscious decision to avoid meat as an act of nonviolence toward animals. Today there are many reasons for going veggie. Some people just don’t like the taste of meat, some believe killing animals for food is cruel, some take up the lifestyle for its health benefits, or to make some kind of political statement, or to be “in” with a certain crowd, or to save money on food.
There are also many different types of vegetarians. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products. Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy but not eggs. You can guess what ovo-lacto veggies eat. Someone who excludes ALL animal products including eggs, dairy, and honey is a vegan. As for me, I’m technically a pescetarian because I eat fish, but no other meats. I do eat eggs and cheese. As for the health of all these options, some early studies have shown that pescatarians and occasional meat-eaters (people who eat meat only once or twice a week) have the longest lifespan. Strict vegetarians (no fish) and meat-eaters tie for second, followed by vegans. These studies are young, so the outcomes may change as we continue to study the health effects of different diets.
Vegetarians tend to have lower body mass index, lower levels of cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and less incidence of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, renal disease, osteoporosis, dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders. Some people wonder if a vegetarian diet can provide sufficient nutrition, but studies show most vegetarians have no noteworthy nutritional disadvantages. Protein is widely known for being a “meat” thing, but in fact protein comes from many vegetable sources as well and vegetarian diets easily meet these daily requirements (even for athletes who tend to need a lot of protein). Vitamin B12 can be a tough one for vegans, but is readily available in fish, eggs, and dairy. Vegetarian levels of iron, calcium, fatty acids, and other vitamins tend to be right on par with meat-eaters.
People always ask me if it is hard to be a vegetarian. It really hasn’t been too difficult for me, probably because I’m taking it as a personal challenge. My husband made the spur-of-the-moment decision to join me in veggie-land “in support”, and he’s been having a much harder time (and has cheated a couple times already I have to say, so thanks for the support, honey). : ) Mostly I’ve just been enjoying creating and cooking more meals at home, eating a lot more fresh produce, and trying out new recipes.
Here is a recipe I invented that is so good you won’t even realize it’s a meat-free dish:
Jillian’s Yummy Baked Ravioli
1 bag frozen ravioli, cooked according to package directions
1 large jar of pasta sauce (choose a yummy-sounding one like four cheese or basil garlic)
1/4 medium onion, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 cups fresh or frozen assorted veggies, cut into bite-size pieces (I used broccoli, carrots, zucchini, and peas, but feel free to use your favorites)
3 tablespoons cream cheese
1 cup grated cheddar
1/4 cup bread crumbs (flavored okay, homemade is best)
In large saucepan, heat a little bit of olive oil over medium-high heat. When heated, add chopped onion and garlic and sauté for about 4 minutes. Add additional veggies and sauté until they reach desired softness. You may want to add a little more oil to veggies. Pour sauce into veggie mixture and heat through. Add cream cheese and stir until fully melted in the sauce.
Place cooked, hot raviolis in a 9x13in glass baking dish. Pour sauce and mix in with ravioli. Mix grated cheese and bread crumbs together, sprinkle evenly over the top. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Garlic bread and garden salad make great sides!