Don't we all have friends who are sort of vegetarian, but not quite? Though the bulk of their diet is made up of grains, fruits and vegetables, beans and nuts, they'll occasionally eat meat, poultry and fish. The newest term for those folks, coined by culinary experts and nutritionists, is "flexitarian."
In a 2006 article published by scientists at Oxford University, it was noted that there are no clear differences between the health of vegetarians and flexitarians. According to the lead scientist, Timothy Key, eating meat or fish from time to time does not have a massive effect on people who eat healthy in general.
Both groups have a lower risk of obesity and being overweight than those who eat large portions of meat at most meals. Researchers concluded that very low meat intake over a long period of time increased life expectancy by as much as 3.6 years.
According to the American Dietetic Association, the goal of a flexitarian is to make at least 80 percent of ingredients in meals vegetarian. That's no hardship. Check the refrigerated cases of supermarkets and you'll find numerous soy-based items, some infused with international flavors. There's soy ground round, tempeh, baked tofu, even a whipped topping.
For heavy meat eaters who want to change their habits, dietitians suggest scaling back on just one item to start — for instance, using soy ground round for ground beef in chili, or eliminating beef in a lunch sandwich, using cheese and veggies instead.
The Institute of Medicine — an independent research group out of Washington — says that 10 percent to 35 percent of calories should be protein. As in the Mediterranean diet, which is a combination of the cuisines of Spain, Italy, Greece, the south of France and the Middle East, olive oil is used instead of butter, fishes rather than meats, and grains, fresh fruits and vegetables are the basis of each meal.
The trick is to think of meats as a garnish, rather than the main ingredient on your plate. Consider the following recipes:
Asian Omelet Stir-Fry
2 Tbsps. snipped cilantro or parsley
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
2 tsps. sesame oil
2 Tbsps. chopped ginger root
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
2 cups shredded carrots
1 small zucchini, trimmed and thinly sliced
4 scallions, cut in 1/2-inch lengths
1 cup jicama, shredded
4 oz. package bean sprouts
4 cups Chinese cabbage, shredded
1 Tbsp. seasoned rice vinegar or to taste
Whisk eggs with the cilantro or parsley.
Heat 2 teaspoons olive oil in a nonstick omelet pan over medium heat.
Pour in just enough egg mixture to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook for 1 minute, or until set. Flip over and cook about 10 seconds longer to dry underside. Tip omelet out onto a plate.
Repeat with egg mixture, adding a little more oil as needed. This will make about 3 omelets. Roll up as for a jelly roll and slice thinly. Keep warm.
Heat the remaining olive oil and sesame oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat.
Add the ginger and sauté for 1 minute. Raise heat to high.
Add the celery, carrots, zucchini, scallions and jicama. Stir-fry for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the bean sprouts and cabbage. Stir-fry for 2 minutes longer, until vegetables are tender but crunchy.
Spoon the vegetables onto a warm platter and sprinkle with the rice vinegar.
Top with the sliced omelets.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 182; protein, 5 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 15 g; cholesterol, 106 mg; sodium, 127 mg.
Bean and Vegetable Burgundy
3 Tbsps. all-purpose flour
salt and freshly ground pepper
3 Tbsps. olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced thin
1 tsp. (rounded) chopped garlic
11/2 cups dry kosher red wine (such as a burgundy or a Bordeaux)
2 beef bouillon cubes, crumbled
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 package (16 oz.) frozen baby onions, thawed
16 baby carrots
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, quartered
1 cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 oz.) baby corn, drained
Place the beef chunks in a plastic bag. Add the flour, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Toss to cover the meat with the flour mixture.
Heat the oil in a large, heavy, nonstick pot over medium-high heat. Add the beef and any flour mixture left in the bag. Cook to brown on all sides.
Add the onion and garlic; cook till brown, about 5 minutes.
Add the wine, bouillon cubes, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the baby onions, carrots and mushrooms.
Cover, reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 11/4 hours, or until meat is tender. Add the black beans and baby corn. Heat through.
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Remove the bay leaves before serving.
Note: If a thicker gravy is desired, blend 1 tablespoon flour with 1/4 cup water or broth. Add to the beef mixture, raise heat to medium, and stir until boiling and thickened.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 327; protein, 25 g; carbohydrates, 11 g; fat, 15 g; cholesterol, 51 mg; sodium, 379 mg.
Grilled Tilapia Tacos
1 lb. tilapia fillets, cut in 1/2-inch pieces
2 Tbsps. fresh lime or lemon juice
2 Tbsps. chili powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried oregano
12 taco shells
2 large tomatoes, diced
2-3 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
11/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
low-fat sour cream
lime wedges to garnish
Preheat oven to 250°.
Preheat the broiler. Spray a baking pan with nonstick vegetable spray.
Warm the taco shells for 10 minutes in a preheated oven. Set aside.
Sprinkle the tilapia with lime juice. In a shallow dish, mix the chili powder, garlic powder and oregano. Add the tilapia and toss.
Place on the prepared baking pan. Cook under broiler, turning once, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until tilapia is cooked through (flakes will be opaque when separated with a knife).
Divide equally into the warm taco shells.
Top with the tomato, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
Place a lime wedge on the side.
Makes 12 tacos.
Approximate nutrients per taco: calories, 152; protein, 12 g; carbohydrates, 9 g; fat, 8 g; cholesterol, 33 mg; sodium, 179 mg.
Red-and-Yellow Onion Pie
1 sheet (8 oz.) frozen puff pastry, thawed
1/4 cup olive oil, divided
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
1 medium Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
1 tsp. bottled minced garlic
3 Tbsps. snipped fresh parsley
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
3 Tbsps. finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes
freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup goat cheese, crumbled (optional)
Preheat oven to 425°.
Spray a 9-inch pie dish with nonstick cooking spray.
Roll out the pastry into a 10-inch round and fit into the prepared pie dish. Flute the edges with fingers and prick all over with a fork. Refrigerate while making the filling.
For Filling: Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic. Cover and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until soft. Do not brown. Stir in the parsley and thyme.
In a small bowl, mix the sun-dried tomatoes with 1 tablespoon oil. Spread over the pastry.
Top with a few grinds of pepper. Spoon onion mixture over top. Drizzle with remaining oil.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until pastry is nicely browned at the edges. Scatter the goat cheese over top (optional).
Cut in wedges and serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 292; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 18 g; fat, 23 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 129 mg.
1 cup corn meal
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 Tbsps. sugar
21/2 tsps. baking powder
1 cup low-fat plain yogurt
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans
11/3 cup diced red bell pepper
1/3 cup diced canned green chilies, well drained
Preheat oven to 400°.
Spray a tray of 12 muffin cups with nonstick cooking spray.
Measure the corn meal, flour, sugar, and baking powder into a large bowl. Stir to mix.
Make a well in the center, and add the yogurt, butter and egg. Stir until ingredients are just moistened. Fold in the corn, pecans, bell pepper and chilies.
Divide equally between the muffin cups. Bake in preheated oven 25 minutes, or until firm and golden-brown.
Makes 1 dozen.
Approximate nutrients per muffin: calories, 213; protein, 4 g; carbohydrates, 25 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 40 mg; sodium, 125 mg.
Old-Time Banana-Cream Pie
Banana-cream pie is all the rage in Los Angeles — a mingling of nostalgia and down-home flavors. Pastry cream, which makes for the authentic taste and texture, is simple to prepare. Just make sure to cook for 1 minute, whisking madly after the mixture comes to simmer. This ensures that the cream will remain pudding-like on cooling.
11/4 cups milk
5 Tbsps. sugar
1/4 tsp. orange extract
3 Tbsps. cornstarch
1 large egg
2 tsps. unsalted butter
1 9-inch prepared graham-cracker crust
2 medium bananas, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup French Vanilla flavored whipped topping
To Prepare Pastry Cream: In a heavy saucepan, over medium heat, bring the milk, 2 tablespoons sugar and the orange extract to simmer.
In a large bowl, mix the cornstarch and the remaining 3 tablespoons of sugar. Add the egg. Mix to blend smoothly. Whisk in about a quarter of the milk.
Pour this mixture into the milk in saucepan, whisking constantly. Set over medium heat, again whisking constantly to avoid lumping. (The success is in the whisking.) Bring to simmer and cook for 1 minute longer. The consistency will be like a very thick pudding.
Remove from heat and stir in the butter. Pour into a bowl, cover the surface with wax paper or plastic wrap and chill.
To Assemble: Line the bottom of the graham-cracker crust with a layer of sliced bananas. Pour the cream into a bowl. Whip until it peaks. Fold about 1/2 cup of the whipped cream into the chilled pastry cream, mixing until smooth. Gently stir in the remaining bananas. Spoon into the crust.
Mix the remaining whipped cream with the whipped topping.
Spoon the whipped topping mixture over the pie, swirling with a fork. Serve chilled.
Serves 8 to 10.
Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 296; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 33 g; fat, 17 g; cholesterol, 60 mg; sodium, 170 mg.
Ethel G. Hofman, the author of Mackerel at Midnight, is a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.