By David Hagedorn
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 31, 2010; 1:26 PM
What images come to mind when you plan a menu for Labor Day? Hot dogs and juicy, fist-size burgers dressed in condimental finery? Lightly charred pieces of poultry shellacked with barbecue sauce? Two-inch-thick rib-eye steaks crusty and burned on the outside, purple-rare on the inside?
That might be how things will play out at your house, but not at mine. This year, the chuck wagon will be replaced by a bandwagon pulling a load of vegetables. There won't be a morsel of meat on it.
While I was strolling one recent Saturday through the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market, the panoply of late summer fruits and vegetables inspired me: Why not use Labor Day as a kickoff for Meatless Mondays?
Huh? Where did that come from?
I'm one of those people who just don't think a meal is a meal without meat (breakfast excluded). Introducing fish selections to the weekly menu was already a tremendous concession; going the full Del Monte, even for a day, was a Promethean challenge.
The nonprofit group Healthy Monday and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health launched the Meatless Monday campaign in 2003 as an awareness program designed to reduce the amount of saturated fat in our diets. Material on its Web site makes the link, albeit in a ham-handed way (pardon the expression), between meat consumption and: Heart disease! Strokes! Diabetes! Cancer! Obesity! Not to mention depletion of the water supply (the 2,500 gallons of water it takes to produce a pound of meat, as opposed to 220 gallons for a pound of soy), fossil fuel dependence (to manufacture, transport and store the meat) and global warming (ruminant livestock is responsible for 28 percent of global methane emissions, according to the EPA).
Look, I get it. I read "In Defense of Food," in which Michael Pollan lays out the succinct imperative (stretched into a lengthy diatribe) to: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I've had my share of health problems and struggled to bring my cholesterol into the "excellent" range, lose weight and keep it off, and modify bad eating habits. (Including, by the way, opting for lean meats over ones high in saturated fats. They do exist.)
Still, it is taking me a while to cozy up to the idea of doing without meat one day a week, even if John Tesh, Yoko Ono and Gwyneth Paltrow are telling me to do so at MeatlessMonday.com.
As a dinner-party theme, the idea troubles me a little. It is one thing to invite vegetarians, but quite another to foist the idea on guests as some kind of statement. One evening, after a friend served a vegetarian meal, I was politely effusive about how delicious everything was but yearned to stop off for a burger on the way home. (I didn't.)
When the rumor circulated that Chelsea Clinton would offer only vegan fare at her wedding (she didn't), I felt sorry for the guests. To me, the most compelling reasons to attend events like that are pigs-in-blankets, humongous iced shrimp and steamship rounds of beef.
But I'm as susceptible to peer pressure as the next person. More and more of my friends are going meatless on Mondays, and it is nearly impossible to pick up a magazine, turn on the TV or go online without hearing about the movement.
So vegetarian it will be for Labor Day, and for Mondays thereafter. Dinner guests will be forewarned.
When putting together the menu, I chose not to go the pasta route. Aside from the fact that it just seemed like an easy way out, merely replacing fat with carbohydrates in the main course does not fit into the eating regimen I follow.
The abundance of brightly colored bell peppers, globe zucchini, pattypan squash and spherical heirloom eggplants displayed at the farmers market fairly begged to be stuffed and baked. I adapted a recipe for them from one of my favorite cookbooks, "Food of Life," a collection of Persian recipes by Najmieh Batmanglij. Such dishes usually are made with ground lamb or beef; in my rendition, crumbled extra-firm tofu stood in as a reasonable substitute and boosted the protein that yellow split peas contributed to the recipe. A generous amount of chopped shiitake mushrooms simulated the texture and body of ground meat; for good measure, I added toasted pine nuts to the mint-and-tarragon-infused stuffing and emboldened the peppers' accompanying tomato sauce with charred ancho chilies.
I decided to use the idea of stuffed food as a running theme of the meal. Baked whole portobello mushroom caps filled with thyme-laced caramelized onions and a bubbling brown Manchego cheese topping will be the first course. For dessert, I will pack scooped-out nectarine halves with almond streusel and butter, bake them and serve them with vanilla bean or peach ice cream and a sauce made of reduced apricot nectar.
For an hors d'oeuvre, I'd planned to re-create Komi chef Johnny Monis's signature (and heavenly) warm Medjool dates stuffed with mascarpone cheese, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. But during a trip to Whole Foods Market to buy the dates, I eyed a display of freshly made guacamole. Some vegetable stock and milk whisked into the guacamole, already nicely flavored with cumin, jalapeno pepper, bits of red onion and red pepper, upgraded the dip to a refreshing, and refreshingly easy-to-prepare, chilled avocado soup. The addition of diced cucumbers and blanched corn kernels transformed the soup into - guacapacho!
When I returned from the market, I emptied the bags of vegetables into a wide, shallow, garnet-colored glass bowl. It instantly occurred to me that this, instead of flowers, would make a perfect centerpiece for the inaugural Meatless Monday dinner.
While developing the recipes for the menu, I made two other discoveries. The peppers were so satisfying and full-flavored that I could foresee a day in the distant future when I might actually buy tofu again. And the baked portobello with caramelized onions and Manchego cheese turned out to be a thrilling complement to the rosy slices of grilled balsamic-and-herb-marinated leg of lamb I had made for dinner that night.
I made a mental note to serve them together at a party some night.
A Tuesday night.Recipes