Low-fat, low-labor vegetarian meals

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

CONCORD, N.H. -- Need to drop 10 pounds? Maybe you need to drop animal products from your diet.

That's the message from Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He advocates vegetarian and dairy-free diets as easy ways to health and happiness -- not to mention a trimmer waist.

"For most people just going vegetarian, even carelessly so, even following a Twinkie-and-cookie diet, they are going to lose weight compared to what they were doing before, which had just as many Twinkies and just as many cookies, but also had a hunk of meat, instead of some rice," Barnard said in a recent interview.

He added that the average person loses about 10 pounds after switching to a vegetarian diet, even without watching calories and fat grams.

"Don't worry about portion size, unless you are really overdoing it," Barnard said. "If you're eating low-fat vegetarian foods, get away from the idea that you have to scrimp on calories."

Monitor fat intake

Barnard, whose nonprofit group studies the connection between diet and health, said people's bodies often regulate themselves at a comfortable weight when fed a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, grains and beans.

But that doesn't mean have a food free-for-all. A vegetarian who doesn't eat a balanced diet is just as likely to pack on the pounds with veggie-friendly potato chips and soda pop as with pork chops and prime rib.

For long-term health and weight maintenance on a vegetarian diet, Barnard said, the trick is to monitor fat intake and avoid processed foods, which tend to be fat- and cholesterol-laden.

However, following that advice can be tough. Avoiding processed foods means taking the time to get in the kitchen and cook. But homemade and healthy need not be hard work, especially if much of the meal can be made the night before.

For example, breakfast sweet potato pudding, from Barnard's book, "Turn off the Fat Genes," (Harmony Books, 2001, $23.95), is a great way to fill up with a warm and hearty porridge -- and stay full until lunch.

Barnard suggests steaming or baking the sweet potatoes the night before to speed the morning process.

Breakfast Sweet Potato Pudding

1/3 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup soy milk or rice milk

1 cup cooked sweet potato or yam

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Transfer pudding to a small saucepan and heat gently over a low flame. Serve warm.

Makes 3 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 119 cal., 1 g total fat, 21 mg sodium, 3 g pro.

For lunch try grilled polenta with portabella mushrooms, another low-fat, high-taste meal that can be partially prepared ahead of time. Polenta is a dense and savory cake made of coarsely ground cornmeal.

To prepare ahead of time, make the polenta the night before and let it chill overnight. When ready to eat, just cut it into squares and throw it on the grill or under the broiler with the rest of the dish.

Grilled Polenta with Portabella Mushrooms

1/2 cup coarse cornmeal

2 cups vegetable stock

1/2 cup water

4 large portabella mushrooms

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 tablespoons red wine

2 garlic cloves, crushed

1 roasted red pepper, cut into strips for garnish (optional)

Combine the cornmeal, vegetable stock and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until very thick, roughly 15 to 20 minutes.

Pour the mixture into a 9-inch-square baking dish and chill for at least 2 hours. When ready to grill or broil, cut into wedges, brush or spray lightly with olive oil, and cook over a medium-hot flame until lightly browned.

To grill the mushrooms, clean them and remove the stems. Prepare the marinade by combining the remaining ingredients in a small bowl. Place the mushrooms in the marinade upside down and let sit 15 to 20 minutes.

To grill or broil, cook upside down over a medium-hot flame for about 5 minutes. Turn the mushrooms over, pour more of the marinade over them and cook until tender, about another 5 minutes.

To serve, garnish polenta and mushrooms with slices of roasted red pepper.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 141 cal., 3 g total fat, 308 mg sodium, 4 g pro.

(The recipe for Grilled Polenta with Portabella Mushrooms was provided by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)

For dinner, turn to "Versatile Vegetarian" (Hungry Minds, 2001, $14.95), a new book by Weight Watchers, for a stick-to-your ribs meal of rice and cabbage stuffed with chicks that can be made the night before.

"This stuffed cabbage, made with brown rice and chickpeas, is even better the day after it is made," the book says. "Bake it on a weekend, then reheat it for an easy midweek supper."

Rice and Cabbage Stuffed with Chickpeas

1 large green cabbage, cored

2 teaspoons vegetable oil

2 onions, chopped

15-ounce can chickpeas, drained, rinsed and chopped

1 1/2 cups cooked brown rice (use 3/4 cup raw rice, cooked in 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups water)

1/4 cup dried currants

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon dried marjoram or sage

1 cup tomato sauce

1 cup sauerkraut, rinsed and squeezed dry

1/4 cup minced dill

1 teaspoon sugar

1 1/2 cups water

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the cabbage, core end down, and simmer until the leaves are easily separated, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain the cabbage and rinse under cold water. Peel 8 leaves from the cabbage and trim off tough parts at their bases, so the leaves are pliable. Set aside remaining cabbage.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a medium skillet, heat the oil over a medium flame. Add the onions and cook, stirring as needed, until softened, about 5 minutes.

In a medium bowl, combine the chickpeas, rice, currants, salt, pepper and marjoram or sage. Stir in the onions.

In a small saucepan combine the tomato sauce, sauerkraut, dill, sugar and water, and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour a thin layer of this sauce into a 2- to 3-quart baking dish.

On a flat work surface, place one cabbage leaf. Place 1/3 cup of the chickpea mixture in the center of the leaf, then fold in the sides and roll up. Place in the baking dish seam side down. Repeat with remaining leaves and filling.

Pour the remaining sauce over the cabbage rolls. Cover loosely with foil and bake until the cabbage is tender and the sauce has thickened, about 1 1/2 hours. Let stand 30 minutes before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 303 cal., 5 g total fat, 860 mg sodium, 11 g pro.

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