For all of my adult life, I’ve revelled in rare rib-eye steaks and oozing Camembert. I won’t let go of my drumstick until I’ve gnawed off every bit of cartilage and golden skin.
Yet over the past few months, I’ve cut way down on my lamb chops and grilled cheese sandwiches. And if you’re meat-and-dairy eater who aches over the environmental state of our planet, then you may be thinking of doing the same thing, too.
It started in the spring, following a report on how our current food system is contributing to climate change. The results were crystal clear and deeply depressing. Meat and dairy production alone account for 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — as much each year as from all cars, trucks, aeroplanes and ships combined. It’s a staggering statistic.
Becoming vegan would be the most planet-friendly way to go, followed by going vegetarian. In my case, those diets would be a professional liability, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t know that I’ve got the willpower to stick to either one. I love meat and dairy too much to give them up entirely. But eating less of them — that I can do.
On the upside, eating less meat and dairy means there is more room on my plate for other delectable things: really good sourdough bread slathered with tahini and homemade marmalade, mushroom Bourguignon over a mound of noodles, and all those speckled heirloom beans I keep meaning to order online.
So how much meat and dairy should we actually be eating? And if we reduce our intake severely, do we then need to worry about getting enough protein?
According to Marion Nestle, an author and professor emeritus of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, if you are getting enough calories, then you are getting enough protein. (That is, unless you are an elite athlete.)
After some mental callisthenics, I landed on trying to limit myself to two to three meals that include meat, seafood or dairy per week, and thrice-daily splashes of milk in my tea (non-negotiable if I want to retain my sanity). I figure this is about a 40 per cent reduction from the six to eight meaty, cheesy, anchovy- and yoghurt-laden meals I had been eating weekly. (The rest were already meat- and dairy-free, and I don’t typically eat breakfast.)
Another way to strategise is to try keeping the daily mix of what you eat to 80 per cent plant matter and 20 per cent meat, dairy and seafood. (Going vegan all day, then having a small amount of meat or cheese with dinner is one way that people make this work.).
As we kick into veganuary month, here’s a personal guide to eating less meat, and dairy too, with tips, strategies and plenty of recipes.
1. Eat beans and more beans
We are a family of bean lovers, so adding more of them to our weekly menu makes for happiness all around. To keep us from getting bored, though, I’ve widened the net, seeking out less common varieties like brown-dappled cattle beans and purple-swirled lima beans, along with my usual roster of chickpeas, lentils and cannellini.
I’ve also changed the way I think about chili, one of my go-to bean-based meals. I used to add a small amount of ground meat to my chili pot as a matter of course, unless I was making a specifically vegetarian chili. Now, I usually skip the meat and I don’t miss it. Beans are also excellent stand-ins for meat in certain recipes, like using chickpeas in a riff on Indian butter chicken, and filling tacos with black beans.
2. Turn to high-protein grains (pasta counts!)
Yes, there’s quinoa, the quick-cooking staple that fills many a grain bowl. But there’s also kamut, teff, millet, wild rice, buckwheat, cornmeal and even pasta. Grains have a lot more protein than we often give them credit for, along with a host of other vital nutrients, especially when we eat them whole. (I’ll always have a soft spot for white rice, though, whether it’s steamed sticky rice, or basmati pilaf, or Carolina long-grain rice cooked into pudding.)
Grain bowls make diverse, ever-changing meals that I can throw together from whatever is in the fridge, anything from leftovers to condiments or both. These days I find myself putting together a grain bowl at least once a week, topped with roasted vegetables and some kind of savoury sauce to bind everything together. These bowls never get boring.
But within this category, pasta is my first choice, and I adore it in every incarnation. And using toasted breadcrumbs in place of Parmesan keeps the dairy quotient down, too.
3. Elevate your tofu game
Whether pillow-soft and fluffy or crisp-edged and browned, tofu is always welcome on my plate. This is not the case for the rest of my family, who give it the side-eye whenever I serve it. The trick in our house has been to pair tofu, which has a relatively neutral taste, with ingredients with pizzazz — the more umami-intense, the better. Miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, hot sauce and fermented black beans do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Another strategy is to mix in a small amount of meat — ground chicken — to add a large amount of flavour. Cooking it all on a sheet pan makes for an easy weeknight meal.
4. Embrace nuts and seeds
I could sing the praises of toasted nuts, nut butter and tahini here, but you probably already know everything you need to about them. Whether toasted and chopped so they’re satisfyingly crunchy, or pureed and seasoned to become alluringly creamy dressings or sauces, nuts and nut butters are a great way to round out a plate of roasted, steamed or raw vegetables.
What I really want to talk about is my newfound love of homemade vegan cheese (though I won’t turn my nose up at store-bought nut-based queso dip, either). The best recipes I’ve tried are made from cashews, ground up with nutritional yeast and all manner of seasonings (smoked paprika, garlic powder, oregano), and then set with agar powder.
No, they don’t taste anything like actual cheese. But when I rush home, ravenous and stressed after work, and there’s some in the refrigerator that I can heap onto my Wheat Thins and nibble.
5. Consider plant-based meats
There’s no denying how processed most vegan meats are, loaded with unidentifiable ingredients, but they do scratch the itch for burgers and meatballs. These products are often a starting point for people who want to cut down on their meat intake — and, with some brands, once that faux burger patty is stuffed into a bun and loaded with condiments, it may be hard to tell the difference.
6. Make every bite of real meat count
Now that I’m eating less meat, every single morsel of it needs to hold its own. Which means I’m less likely to bother with a chicken breast when a smaller amount of Italian turkey sausage, sauteed until crisp and strewn over my spinach salad, delivers a lot more oomph. Or how about some duck confit? Add salty brawn to roasted vegetables and grains, pastas and salads, and a little goes a long way.
Then there’s good, concentrated broth, whether it’s bone broth or otherwise. Using beef broth in mushroom Bourguignon contributes tons of savoury character without adding any actual meat.
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Meaty mushrooms simmered with pearl onions and carrots make for a rich, wintry Bourguignon-style stew. The quality of the stock here makes a big difference, so if you’re not using homemade, buy a good brand. If you’re a meat eater, beef broth adds a familiar brawny character to this dish, but mushroom or vegetable broth work just well, especially because the whole dish is rounded out with a tamari for depth. For the best flavour, use as many kinds of mushrooms as you can get, and let them really brown when searing; that caramelisation adds a lot of depth to the sauce. Maitake mushrooms give this a brisketlike texture, in a very good way.
6 tablespoons butter or extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
900g mixed mushrooms, such as portobello, cremini, white button, shiitake or oyster, cut into 1-inch chunks (about 10 cups)
220g peeled pearl onions (2 cups), larger ones cut in half
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large leek or 2 small leeks, white and light green parts, diced (1 1/2 cups)
2 carrots, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves (2 minced, 1 grated to a paste)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups beef, mushroom or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce, plus more to taste
3 large fresh thyme branches or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
85 to 110g chanterelle or oyster mushrooms, thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
Smoked paprika, for serving
Polenta, egg noodles or mashed potatoes, for serving
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, for serving
1. Add two tablespoons butter or oil to a large Dutch oven or pot and set it over medium heat. When the fat is hot, stir in half the mushrooms and half the pearl onions. (If it doesn’t all fit in the pot in one layer, you might have to do this in three batches, rather than two.) Without moving them around too much, cook the mushrooms until they are brown on one side, about three minutes. Stir and let them brown on the other side, two to three minutes more. Use a slotted spoon to transfer mushrooms and onions to a large bowl or plate and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Repeat with another two tablespoons butter and the remaining mushrooms and pearl onions, seasoning them as you go.
2. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add another one tablespoon butter or oil to pan. Add leeks and carrot and saute until the leeks turn lightly golden and start to soften, five minutes. Add the two minced garlic cloves and saute for one minute longer. Stir in tomato paste and cook for one minute. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, for one minute, then add broth, one tablespoon tamari, thyme and bay leaf, scraping up the brown bits at bottom of pot.
3. Add reserved cooked mushrooms and pearl onions back to the pot and bring to a simmer. Partly cover the pot and simmer on low heat until carrots and onions are tender and sauce is thick, 30 to 40 minutes. Taste and add more salt and tamari if needed. Stir in the grated garlic clove.
4. Just before serving, heat a small skillet over high heat and add half tablespoon butter or oil. Add half of the sliced chanterelles or oyster mushrooms and let cook without moving until they are crisp and brown on one side, one to two minutes. Flip and cook on the other side. Transfer to a plate and sprinkle with salt and smoked paprika. Repeat with remaining butter and mushrooms. Serve mushroom Bourguignon over polenta, noodles or mashed potatoes, topped with fried mushrooms and parsley.