I've been a vegetarian for over 10 years, but most of my friends are not. I don't go out preaching to them about giving up meat, but I do get asked pretty regularly what I eat, why I became a vegetarian, and how they can start going meatless.
As an environmentalist, I believe that our diets have a big impact on the Earth's ecosystem, and with as much as a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from meat production, I know that going meat-less even some of the time will help to mitigate those effects. Add in the inefficiencies of animal-based agriculture (“A farmer can feed up to 30 persons throughout the year on one hectare with vegetables, fruits, cereals and vegetable fats. If the same area is used for the production of eggs, milk or meat the number of persons fed varies from five to ten.” - Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and it's obvious to me that being at least a "flexi-tarian" is beneficial to our planet.
Going meatless for a day doesn't mean just eating a bunch of lettuce, either. There are plenty of wholesome alternatives that will fill you up and meet your body's nutritional needs without a lot of fancy work in the kitchen. I picked out a few of my favorite meat "substitutes" to share with you in the hopes that the next time someone mentions vegetarianism, you won't think it's all rabbit food.
Portabello Mushroom "Steaks" - The cap of the portabello mushroom is a perfect fit for grilling or roasting, and with one of these between a burger bun, you'll be left wondering how you ever got by without them before. Preheat the oven to 450° F. Mix 2 tablespoons of olive oil with 1 tablespoon soy sauce (tamari or shoyu) and 2 teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. Brush the portabellos with a liberal amount of the sauce and sprinkle with salt and fresh ground pepper. Place in a shallow pan (oiled) and roast for 5 minutes or until the color of the mushrooms deepens. Flip them over and brush again with the oil mixture. Roast for 4 or 5 minutes more, or until they are tender. Serve on a sandwich with your favorite toppings, or by themselves with a light gravy.
Tempeh "Burgers" - Tempeh is a cultured soy product made from whole soybeans, with a firmer "meat-like" texture and a stronger flavor than tofu. The culturing process makes the protein more digestible and adds vitamin B12. It has recently been shown to double the uptake of iron in the body. Tempeh is available in most health food stores as a patty that can be prepared just like a hamburger. My favorite way to eat it is grilled with onions and peppers on bread or a bun. We also like to crumble it into chili or soups. Try marinating it with your favorite sauce for an hour or so before cooking.
Seitan - Seitan certainly sounds weird, but is just made from wheat gluten. It is probably the closest to meat as far as texture goes. Many Chinese restaurants serve it as "mock duck" or "mock chicken" and it is sold in the refrigerated section of the health food store or Asian market, ready to eat. Seitan takes its flavor from whatever it's cooked with (kind of like meat) and is the perfect fajita filling. It also makes a great mock Philly cheesesteak. Marinate and grill or fry with a panful of veggies and wrap it all in a tortilla for a belly-filling meal.
One additional point about meatless meals is that they generally cost less than the carnivorous (omnivorous, I should say) version. The next time you go shopping, consider trying out a meatless menu for even one of your meals. You might be pleasantly surprised...