In a previous blog, we talked about some fabulous vegetarian dishes you can enjoy while traveling in countries with meat-heavy cuisines. That way, you can still get a taste (no pun intended!) of the local culture without sacrificing your beliefs. This week we’re going to show you how to convert some classic meat dishes to vegetarian alternatives.
In most cases, being vegetarian when you’re at home is probably a bit easier than it is while you’re traveling, since you can do your own cooking, you know which restaurants to eat at, and you can communicate your dietary needs in your native language. However, even with these conveniences, the temptation to indulge in meat-based dishes might come around to haunt you, especially if others around you are doing so or if you’ve only recently made the transition to vegetarianism.
If you grew up eating meat and somewhere along the way became vegetarian, kudos to you for making a decision that can benefit your health, the environment, and your fellow living beings. And if you still crave meat or feel tempted to eat it, fear not! You are not alone, and this blog is here to help. Becoming vegetarian is easier for some than for others, and missing meat is normal. It takes some time to re-think meal planning so that you’re getting your essential nutrients while still having meals that you enjoy.
Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to find “fake meat”—soy-based products that are made to taste and feel like the real thing without some of the collateral damage of actually having the real thing—thanks to companies like Hampton Creek, Field Roast, Gardein, Beyond Meat, MorningStar Farms, and Quorn, among others. There are also creative ways that you can use natural vegetarian ingredients as substitutes for meat in some of your favorite meat-based dishes, which we will explore in this blog. Specifically, we will look at how you can make chicken tikka masala, spaghetti and meatballs, veal parmesan, chili, goulash, schnitzel, brisket, shawarma, and meatloaf vegetarian. No, these substitutions won’t taste exactly the same as the original, and yes, it might take your taste buds some time to readjust. But experimenting with some of these substitutes is a step in the right direction if you are serious about following a vegetarian diet while not completely sacrificing all aspects of your former non-vegetarian diet.
Chicken Tikka Masala
Chicken Tikka Masala is a popular dish in Northern India—a comfort food to many. This recipe typically consists of chunks of chicken marinated in spices and yogurt and served in a spicy, creamy tomato sauce or gravy. Chicken tikka masala can be enjoyed on its own, but most Indians have it over rice or with some sort of bread (usually roti or naan). Instead of chicken, you can try making this recipe with cauliflower, tofu, paneer (Indian cottage cheese), or chickpeas (the meatiest legume).
Cauliflower is a great alternative because it absorbs the flavors of whatever it’s cooked in and has a meaty consistency when it is charbroiled or steamed for 10 minutes. Broiling it in the oven for 20 minutes at 375F will give it a nice umami flavor and a crunchy snap, adding some texture to your dish. Tofu also soaks up all the flavors of what it’s cooked in. Be sure to bake it until it’s chewy on the outside and soft on the inside, just like the original chicken would be. Since the flavor will be a little blander than the chicken, make sure you spice up the recipe a bit, perhaps with some chili pepper. With chickpeas, something to keep in mind is that the sauce might be a little watery. If you want to make it thicker, add some cornstarch or arrowroot flour to the curry and stir vigorously for 5 minutes. Then let it cool before serving. If you wanted to go a step further and make this delicacy vegan, use any of the above substitutes other than paneer, and use coconut milk instead of yogurt or cream.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
A traditional Italian recipe, spaghetti and meatballs are enjoyed by many all over the world. The recipe is pretty much exactly what it sounds like—spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs are usually made from beef, and the dish is typically served in some sort of tomato sauce. Of course, you could always cut out the meatballs and this dish would be vegetarian, but for many, the meatballs are part of the fun!
So how do we turn meatballs into, well, non-meatballs? For one, you could use tempeh, or fermented soybeans. You could also use tofu. Note that tempeh is less processed than tofu, which makes it firmer and more nutritionally dense. In fact, one 4-ounce serving of tempeh contains 20 grams of protein! Mushroom balls are another popular substitute. Cremini and Portobello mushrooms are the best options because of their rich, earthy, meaty flavor. You could mix the mushrooms together with lentils or black beans and use that mixture to create meatball substitutes. You can use flax seed as a binder so that they won’t crumble on you. Falafel balls, which are made of chickpeas, are another great option. Falafel balls do taste quite different from meatballs, and you might feel as if they don’t quite go with the pasta, but they do make for a hearty, satisfying meal. Plus, you could season them the same way you would a meatball. You could make chickpea or lentil balls and add in couscous to give them a meaty texture. For every pound of ground beef you would use, use ¾ cups of raw lentils in your recipe. If you want crispy, crunchy non-meatballs, pan-fry them in avocado oil, which has a high smoke point.
Veal parmesan is a breaded veal cutlet topped with tomato sauce and melted parmesan cheese. This is another popular Italian dish. The most common way to make this delicacy vegetarian is substituting the veal with eggplant for a scrumptious eggplant parmesan.
When making this recipe, keep in mind that you might want to use extra breadcrumbs, especially if you’re not a huge fan of eggplant. The extra texture of the crust will make the texture of the eggplant less noticeable. Furthermore, the tomato sauce and cheese will help mask some of the eggplant flavor. You could also season the eggplant the same way you would the veal. To make this recipe vegan, you can either use vegan cheese or nutritional yeast. Including more seasoning will also give the eggplant parmesan more flavor.
In the US, chili usually refers to “chili con carne,” which means “chili with meat.” The dish originated in Texas. The recipe for this spicy stew consists of meat (usually beef), chili peppers, and usually tomatoes and kidney beans. It can be enjoyed on its own, over rice, or with tortillas or chips. Cheese, jalapeños, and sour cream are popular accompaniments.
If you leave out the meat and use vegetable stock or water, you’ll have a vegetarian chili. You can add more kidney beans to make it heartier and more filling and flavorful. Other meat substitutions you can try in your vegetarian chili include tofu, potatoes, lentils, black beans, chickpeas, corn, squash, mushrooms, leeks, and beets. Add in some spices (especially cumin), and you’ll have a chili rich in flavor and so satisfying you’ll forget that no meat was used.
Chili is quite the versatile dish, so you should definitely feel free to experiment and see which flavors work best for you. Remember that whether or not your recipe includes meat, the chili peppers will really give it a chili con carne feel, so make sure you use plenty of them.
Goulash is a traditional Hungarian soup or stew consisting of meat, vegetables (especially potatoes), noodles, paprika, and spices. Outside of Hungary, other countries in Europe, especially Eastern and Central Europe, have their regional variations of goulash.
As substitutes for the meat, you can add in extra potatoes, bell peppers, beans, mushrooms, carrots, zucchini, squash, and/or rutabaga, or any other firm, earthy vegetable that has a meaty texture. Adding a little bit of red wine can also give you a bit of the meaty flavor. If you don’t use alcohol, balsamic vinegar is another good option. You could also try adding vegan Worcestershire sauce, which will add some umami taste. If you can, use Hungarian paprika instead of regular paprika. Recommended spices for something close to the original are cayenne and caraway.
A schnitzel is a breaded piece of thinned meat (usually pork)—a favorite among Germans and Austrians. You can make a schnitzel vegetarian by replacing the meat with a potato and turnip mash, pumpkin, Portobello mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, chickpeas, and/or zucchini. Potatoes are a good option because they are flavorful and filling. Portobello mushrooms hold up well when battered and fried because the exposed gills beneath their caps allow air to flow and evaporate any excess moisture.
Any firm vegetable works well when you want to imitate a traditional schnitzel because it will give you a similar texture to the meat. Adding some more breadcrumbs will also make the recipe more similar to a traditional schnitzel because it will enhance the crispy, breaded texture. Make sure you use cornstarch or arrowroot to give the breading a crispy, light, airy texture. To get the breading to stick, you can use an egg, but if you want to go vegan, you can mix together chickpea flour, water, salt, and stir until you get an egg-like consistency. Using lemon juice as a seasoning can also give it more flavor.
A brisket is made from beef or veal. This is a popular kosher dish and is often an option at barbecues. To make a vegetarian-friendly brisket substitute, try using jackfruit or tofu instead of the meat.
If you use jackfruit, you’ll want to use green jackfruit, since it is nice and firm, and you can pull it the same way you would meat, so it has a chewy texture. Jackfruit has a strong scent, but that will go away once you start to cook it. You also want to check the moisture level frequently when cooking jackfruit. If you find that it is drying out, reduce the heat. One great thing about the jackfruit recipe is that you can prepare it 2-3 days in advance and just heat it through when you are ready to serve.
If you use tofu, slice it length-wise, like you would an actual brisket. Make sure you cook it just enough so that it’s crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.
If you want to bring a vegetarian substitute to a barbecue or gathering, try grilled kabobs with tofu, seitan, mushrooms, and/or any of your other favorite vegetables. For extra flavor, marinate your substitutes similarly to how you would your meat with herbs, spices, and dressings a few hours before grilling.
Shawarma is grilled meat (could be chicken, turkey, beef, lamb, veal, or a mix of any of the above) usually eaten in a sandwich or wrap. Toppings generally include tahini, tzatziki and hummus, and accompaniments can include tomatoes, cucumber, tabbouleh, and fattoush. Shawarma is very much enjoyed in the Middle East and Mediterranean.
A vegetarian shawarma should most definitely include chickpeas—a staple in much of Middle Eastern cuisine, and as we mentioned earlier, the meatiest legume. It is suggested that you roast the chickpeas. It can also include falafel, carrots, parsnips, bell peppers, Portobello mushrooms, or any kind of root vegetable. You could even make a paneer shawarma for an Indian-Middle Eastern fusion. Tofu is another option, just always remember that when using tofu, you’re going to need to spice it up so that you don’t have a bland-tasting shawarma. You’ll want to be sure to marinate it for a few hours. Recommended spices include cumin, coriander, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and cardamom. If you can handle any type of hot sauce, that’s a great way to spice up a shawarma.
A comfort food enjoyed by many Americans, meatloaf is ground meat mixed with other ingredients and shaped into a loaf. The meat is usually beef, but could also be veal, lamb, pork, poultry, venison, or seafood.
Similar to meatballs, meatloaf can be made vegetarian using lentils, rice, nuts, or a combination of the above as a base. You can almost think of cooked lentils as crumbled cooked beef. If they’re just slightly undercooked, you’ll probably feel as if you’re actually having meat.
Other options include mushrooms, sundried tomatoes, chickpeas, black beans, or quinoa. See descriptions of each of these substitutes under meatballs up above. Flax seed makes for a great binder so that your recipe won’t crumble. If you use chickpeas, your recipe might be a little soft at first. However, the longer it sits, the firmer it gets, so if you’re finding that it’s too soft for your liking, just let it sit for a few extra minutes. Also, using panko along with the chickpeas will help you get a nice meatloaf texture. This might surprise you, but when using a mushroom recipe, adding in 2-3 teaspoons of unsweetened cocoa powder will imitate the flavor you get when searing beef. When baking, oil the pan plenty, since your vegetarian dish won’t have as much fat as actual meatloaf. Your veggie loaf will taste great over a pile of mashed potatoes.
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