Vegetarian-meal planning is easier than you think

Vegetarian and vegan diets have gained mainstream acceptance in recent years. While the percentage of the population that strictly follows such diets is small, a growing number of Americans are reducing the amount of meat in their diet to improve their health.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans didn't explicitly discourage meat consumption, but they did emphasize the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables while reducing overall caloric intake -- easily accomplished by eating smaller portions of meat or cutting meat out of a few meals a week while adding servings of fruits and vegetables.

Cooking vegetarian meals can seem like a challenge for people who aren't used to it. But it doesn't have to be more difficult than a meat- or fish-centered dinner; it just takes a slightly different frame of mind.

In "Vegetarian Entrees That Won't Leave You Hungry: Nourishing, Flavorful Main-Course Dishes that Fill the Center of the Plate" (The Experiment, 2011, $17.95), Lukas Volger writes that "determining what to put in the center of the plate can be the hardest part of adapting to and following a vegetarian diet." His book, due out in October, will expand your horizons far past pastas and salads.

While books such as these demonstrate that it's easy to eat vegetarian year-round, summer is an especially enticing time to focus on fruits and vegetables. They're bountiful, cheap and full of flavor, and when you have fantastic ingredients to start with, it's that much easier to make a delicious meal.

GREEN QUINOA

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Flaxseed oil is typically sold in the nutritional-supplement area of grocery stores. It contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which research suggests may reduce the risks of heart disease. However, flaxseed oil is relatively expensive (I bought 8 ounces for $7), must be refrigerated and should be consumed within a few weeks, as it tends to oxidize quickly. If you don't want to use it, just substitute olive or canola oil. -- China Millman

1 cup quinoa

2 cups water

1 vegetable bouillon cube

1/2 cup flaxseed oil

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 large bunches mint leaves, finely chopped

2 bunches scallions, finely chopped

1 cucumber, seeded, finely chopped

8 ounces arugula, finely chopped

Put the quinoa in a fine sieve. Rinse it well under running water and drain. Transfer to a small pot. Add the water and bouillon cube and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to medium low, cover and cook for 15 minutes or until all the water has been absorbed. The quinoa grains should be fully opened, giving the appearance of having sprouted.

Whisk the flaxseed oil, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add the quinoa, mint, cucumber, scallions and arugula. Toss until thoroughly mixed. Serve at once, while still warm.

Serves 4-6.

Cook's note: Using the whole cup of oils results in a fairly oily dish, so in the future I would reduce the amounts to 1/4 cup flaxseed oil and 1/4 cup olive oil.

-- "Speed Vegan" by Alan Roettinger (Book Publishing Company, 2010, $19.95)

BULGUR SALAD WITH KALE AND FETA

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

A bulgur-and-kale salad may sound like the kind of vegetarian health food that is easy to mock, but the cumin, jalapenos, cilantro and feta give this salad a wonderfully bright, spicy flavor. It also makes a great brown-bag lunch. -- China Millman

1 cup bulgur

2 cups water

1 tablespoon neutral oil

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

1 small red onion or 1/2 large red onion, sliced into strips

2 jalapeno peppers, minced (seeded for a milder heat level)

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup dry white wine or water

1 bunch kale (about 6 ounces), washed and cut into thin strips

3 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine the bulgur and water in a small saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes until tender. Strain off any water that hasn't been absorbed.

Heat the neutral oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the cumin seeds and let sizzle until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the onion and cook until it's browned around the edges, about 6 minutes. Stir in the jalapenos, garlic and salt. Pour in the wine to deglaze the pan, scraping up any browned bits with a wooden spoon or spatula. Add the kale and cook, tossing from time to time until wilted, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a mixing bowl and allow to cool slightly. Stir in the scallions, cilantro, feta, cooked bulgur and olive oil. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.

Serves 3 or 4.

-- "Vegetarian Entrees That Won't Leave You Hungry"

CORN-AND-BASIL CAKES

(Tested by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

These corn cakes make a delicious breakfast option, and they come together so

quickly you can even make them on a weekday. For a beautiful, seasonal appetizer, top them with fresh ricotta and sliced cherry tomatoes. -- China Millman

1/2 cup white whole-wheat flour or all-purpose flour

1/2 cup low-fat milk

2 large eggs

2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups fresh corn kernels (about 2 large ears) or frozen

1/2 cup chopped fresh basil

Whisk flour, milk, eggs, 1 tablespoon oil, baking powder, salt and pepper in a medium bowl until smooth. Stir in corn and basil.

Brush a large nonstick skillet lightly with some of the remaining 1 tablespoon oil; heat over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Cook four cakes at a time, using about 1/4 cup batter for each, making them about 3 inches wide. Cook until the edges are dry, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook until golden brown on the other side, 1 to 3 minutes more. Repeat with the remaining oil and batter, making 10 cakes total. Reduce the heat as necessary to prevent burning.

Makes 10 cakes.

-- "EatingWell Fast & Flavorful Meatless Meals: 150 Healthy Recipes Everyone Will Love" by Jessie Price & The EatingWell Test Kitchen (The Countrymen Press, 2011, $24.95)

Contact China Millman at cmillman(at)post-gazette.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.  Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.

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