The Minimalist – Putting Meat Back in Its Place

MARK BITTMAN

New York Times, June 11, 2008

LET’S suppose you’ve decided to eat
less meat, or are considering it. And let’s ignore your reasons for
doing so. They may be economic, ethical, altruistic, nutritional or
even irrational. The arguments for eating less meat are myriad and
well-publicized, but at the moment they’re irrelevant, because what I
want to address here is (almost) purely pragmatic: How do you do it?

I’m not talking about eating no meat; I’m talking about cutting back, which in some ways is harder than quitting. Vegetarian
recipes and traditions are everywhere. But in the American style of
eating — with meat usually at the center of the plate — it can be
difficult to eat two ounces of beef and call it dinner.

Cutting back on meat is not an isolated process. Unlike, say, taking
up meditation or exercise, it usually has consequences for others.

The keys are to keep at least some of your decisions personal so
they affect no one but yourself and, when they do affect others,
minimize the pain and don’t preach. (No one likes a proselytizer.)

On the other hand, don’t apologize; by serving your friends or
family less meat you’re certainly doing them no harm, and may be doing
them good — as long as what you serve is delicious, and that’s easy
enough.

Reducing the meat habit can be done, and it doesn’t have to make
you crazy. Although there will undoubtedly be times you’ll have
cravings, they’ll never give you the shakes. So, in no particular
order, here are some suggestions to ease your path to eating less meat.

1. Forget the protein thing.
Roughly simultaneously with your declaration that you’re cutting back
on meat, someone will ask “How are you going to get enough protein?”
The answer is “by being omnivorous.” Plants have protein, too; in fact,
per calorie, many plants have more protein than meat. (For example, a
cheeseburger contains 14.57 grams of protein in 286 calories,
or about .05 grams of protein per calorie; a serving of spinach has
2.97 grams of protein in 23 calories, or .12 grams of protein per
calorie; lentils have .07 grams per calorie.) By eating a variety, you
can get all essential amino acids.

You also don’t have to eat the national average of a half-pound of
meat a day to get enough protein. On average, Americans eat about twice
as much as the 56 grams of daily protein recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture (a guideline that some nutritionists think is too high). For anyone eating a well-balanced diet, protein is probably not an issue.

2. Buy less meat.
How many ounces of meat is a serving? For years, the U.S.D.A.’s
recommendation has been four ounces a person, yet most of us have long
figured one-and-a-half to two pounds of meat is the right amount for
four people. (Our per capita consumption of meat hasn’t changed much
over the years, and remains at about a half-pound a day.) Change that
amount, and both your cooking style and the way the plate looks will
change, and quickly.

Remember that most traditional styles of cooking use meat as a
condiment or a treat. This is true in American frontier cooking, where
salt pork and bacon were used to season beans; in Italy, where a small
piece of meat is served as a secondo (rarely more than a few ounces,
even in restaurants); and around the world, where bits of meat are
added to stir-fries and salads, as well as bean, rice and noodle
dishes. In all of these cases, meat is seen as a treasure, not as
something to be gobbled up as if it were air.

For many of us who grew up in the United States in the last 60
years, this is the toughest hurdle. The message (remember “Beef: it’s
what’s for dinner”?) was in our psyche from before we could hold a
fork. We may have vegetarian nights, or seafood nights, but when we
have meat nights, there’s often a big piece of meat (or poultry) on the
plate, with starch and vegetable to the side.

3. Get it out of the center of the plate.

You don’t have to jump into utterly unfamiliar territory; just try
tweaking the proportions a bit. You might start by buying skinnier pork
chops, or doling out smaller slices of steak .

Build the meal around what you used to consider side dishes — not
only vegetables, but also grains, beans, salads and even dessert, if
you consider fruit a dessert — rather than the meat. Nearly every
culture has dishes in which meat is used to season rice or another
grain. Consider dirty rice, fried rice, pilaf, biryani, arroz con
pollo: the list is almost endless.

Similarly, there isn’t a country in the world that cooks legumes
that doesn’t toss a little meat in now and then. And mentioning
stir-fries and pasta dishes here seems almost too obvious.

But you need not go transcultural. When you make stew, soup or
another dish with many ingredients, you make a decision about its main
ingredient and about the quantity of that ingredient. If you think of
meat stews or soups, chicken pot pie, even lasagna, you’ll quickly
recognize that the decision to load them up with meat or to use meat as
an ingredient of equal importance to the others is entirely yours.

The same is true when you’re grilling. Compare these statements:
“We’re grilling a leg of lamb and throwing a few vegetables on there,”
and “We’re grilling vegetables and breads, and will throw a few chunks
of lamb on there.” Again, if you see the meat as a treasure, things
change.

4. Buy more vegetables, and learn new ways to cook them.

If you’re a good cook, you already know you can make a meal out of
pretty much anything. If you open your refrigerator and it’s stocked
with vegetables, that’s what you’re going to cook. You’ll augment the
vegetables with pantry items: pasta, rice, beans, cheese, eggs, good
canned fish, bacon, even a small amount of meat. We’re not discussing vegetarianism, remember?

If you’re not a good cook, you have the opportunity to learn how to cook in what could turn out to be the style of the future.

5. Make nonmeat items as convenient as meat. There
is a myth, even among experienced cooks, that few things are as
convenient as meat. And while there’s no arguing that grilling,
broiling or pan-grilling a steak or chop is fast, it’s equally true
that almost no one considers such a preparation a one-dish meal.

By thinking ahead, and working ahead, you can make cooking
vegetables as convenient as what in India is often called “non-veg.”
Spend an hour or two during the course of the week precooking all the
nonmeat foods you think take too long for fast dinners.

Store cooked beans in the refrigerator or freezer and reheat as
needed, with seasonings. Keeping precooked beans in the freezer will
change your cooking habits more easily than any other simple strategy.

Reheat cooked whole grains (the microwave is good for this) for
breakfast with milk or dinner with savory seasonings. Wash tender
greens and store in a salad spinner, covered bowl, or plastic bag. Most
other vegetables can be poached, shocked in ice water, drained, and
served cold or reheated in any fashion you like — sautéed quickly in
butter, steamed, grilled or made into a gratin or something equally
substantial.

6. Make some rules.
Depending on your habits, it may be no bacon at breakfast; it may be no
burgers at lunch; it may be no fast food, ever; it may be “eat a salad
instead of a sandwich three times a week,” or “eat a vegetarian dinner
three times a week.” It may mean meatless Fridays. It may mean (this is
essentially what I do) meatless breakfasts and lunches and
all-bets-are-off dinners.

7. Look at restaurant menus differently.
If you’re cutting back on meat, there are three restaurant strategies.
Two are easy, and one is hard, but probably the most important.

The first: go to restaurants that don’t feature meat-heavy dishes.
It’s harder to go overboard eating at most Asian restaurants, and
traditional Italian is fairly safe also.

The second: Once in a while, forget the rules and pledges, and eat
like a real American; obviously you can’t do this every time, but it’s
an option.

The third is the tricky one: Remember you’re doing this voluntarily,
for whatever reasons seem important to you (or at least seemed, until
you were confronted with the lamb shanks on the menu). Then order from
the parts of the menu that contain little or no meat: salads, sides,
soups and (often, anyway) appetizers. If all else fails, offer to share
a meat course among two or even three or four people; many restaurant
entrees are too big anyway.

I distinctly remember (no great feat; it was just over a year ago),
the first time I was in a restaurant and ordered two salads and a bowl
of soup.

My companion, who had long known me as a meat-first kind of guy, asked, “Really?”

The waiter asked, “How would you like that served?” And then life went on as usual. Wasn’t bad at all.

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