In honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month, let’s celebrate the power of the plant.
Search for the “perfect” way to eat and you’ll be searching forever. There are many ways to eat healthfully, and what healthful looks like can vary from person to person. Many people who eat with nutrition and health in mind discover that what suits them during one phase of life doesn’t work as well during the next, necessitating some adjustments.
That said, healthful diets all have one thing in common: lots of plants. Plant foods — starchy and nonstarchy vegetables, fruit, whole grains, pulses (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds — are rich in the fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that we need for good health.
While a plant-based diet can be vegan or vegetarian, it doesn’t have to be. Eat a moderate portion of meat, poultry or fish with a heaping helping of vegetables or green salad and maybe some whole grains or sweet potato, and you’re still eating plant-based, or plant-forward, if you will.
October is Vegetarian Awareness month, which is a perfect cue to push plants to the center of the plate. You might decide to observe Meatless Monday, eat vegan before 6, or simply shift your meat-to-plant ratio in favor of plants.
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I was vegetarian for a while during the unfortunate low-fat era of the mid-1990s, which meant a lot of white bread and pasta that in hindsight was not optimal. One book that led me on a more inspired eating path was Anna Thomas’ “The New Vegetarian Epicure,” even though I was no longer vegetarian. This was delicious, healthful vegetarian food that pleased even nonvegetarian palates.
Thomas’ latest book, appropriately titled “Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table,” further elevates the idea of what it means to please diverse palates with plant-forward meals, with more than 200 recipes for both every day and holiday dishes. If your Thanksgiving or Christmas table includes vegans, vegetarians and meat lovers, Thomas’ vibrant menus will have you covered.
The bulk of the recipes in the book are vegan because, as Thomas says in her introduction, “Really good vegan recipes are still harder to find than others.” Accordingly, the book includes just a slim selection of recipes for eggs, seafood, poultry and meat.
Many of the vegan recipes have variations that add some dairy to make them vegetarian, but you won’t find any faux meats in this book — Thomas bases her recipes on fresh, whole ingredients.
For example, her barlotto (barley risotto) with braised greens, currants and pine nuts recipe is vegan, but adding a sprinkle of feta makes it vegetarian. For omnivores, Thomas recommends adding some pan-seared halibut.
Barlotto with Braised Greens, Currants and Pine Nuts
Serves 6 as a center-of-the-plate dish
1 cup (7½ ounces) pearl barley
3 cups vegetable broth
1½ teaspoons sea salt, plus more to taste
2 large bunches chard (1½ pounds)
1 large bunch spinach (8 ounces), roughly chopped
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1½ pounds onions, yellow or white, halved and sliced
6 large cloves garlic, chopped
½ teaspoon crushed red chilies
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup coarsely chopped fresh dill weed
1/3 cup dried currants
Freshly ground black pepper
2-3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Toasted pine nuts for garnish
Feta cheese for garnish (optional)
1. Rinse the barley and combine it in a soup pot with the vegetable broth, 3 cups water and ½ teaspoon salt, a pinch more if the broth is not salted. Simmer the barley for 45 to 50 minutes, until it is tender but still firm and chewy. Drain the barley through a fine colander and reserve the milky liquid that is left. Meanwhile, wash the greens and slice the chard into strips 1 to 2 inches wide. Chard stems do not need to be removed, though you might want to trim away the rough-looking bottom parts.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick saute pan. Add two-thirds of the onions and ½ teaspoon salt and cook the onions over medium heat, covered, for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Push the onions out to the edges of the pan and add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the center, heat it a moment, then add the chopped garlic and stir it around in the center of the pan for a minute, just enough to take off the raw edge.
3. Turn up the heat and start adding the sliced chard to the pan, several handfuls at a time, stir-frying as it wilts down. Add the spinach and another ½ teaspoon salt and continue stirring occasionally as the greens cook down for about 5 minutes. If the greens are drying out, add a few tablespoons of water. Stir in the crushed red chilies, wine, dill, and currants, grind in some black pepper, and cover the pan. Simmer the greens over low heat for 5 more minutes.
4. Add the barley to the greens in the pan. The barlotto can be finished to this point an hour or two ahead and kept in the pan, covered, at room temperature. Shortly before serving, stir in as much of the reserved barley liquid as needed to make a saucy risotto consistency; the dish should be thick but never stiff. Bring it back to a simmer, stirring, then add the lemon juice.
5. Serve the barlotto in wide, shallow bowls; drizzle some of your best olive oil over each serving, and then scatter a spoonful of pine nuts on top. Pass the feta cheese at the table if you like.
— Recipe and images from “Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore” by Anna Thomas