Tune In, Get Smart, Veg Out

Raw Summer Squash Carpaccio. Marinated squash slices topped with a micro green salad, fresh cracked pepper and capers accompanied by herbed sunflower seed cheese. Photo: Emily Wright | Great Sage

People become vegetarians for many reasons—weight loss, a desire to eat healthier food or to protest against killing animals or crowded feedlot conditions for cattle, pigs and chickens. Whatever the reasons, over the past decade it has become much easier to be a vegetarian in DC or anywhere else for that matter.

When my daughter declared herself a vegetarian at age 10, she suffered one grim Christmas Eve when we went out to dinner as a family. While the rest of us dined on duck breast or filet mignon, she was unceremoniously served a plate of overcooked bland vegetables.

But today most restaurants offer more than one vegetarian option, and even mass grocers like Safeway offer organic vegetables and fruits, whole grain pasta and tofu. The Eastern Market is a great year round source of fresh fruits and vegetables, as are the pop-up farm stands that appear around the neighborhood in the summer.

People who call themselves vegetarians usually fall into two categories: vegan (no dairy or eggs) and lacto-ovo vegetarian (dairy and eggs).

Health and Common Sense

Considering the explosion of obesity and its related ailments—diabetes, hypertension and heart disease—most people know it’s in their best interest to eat healthier. Numerous studies have found that a vegetarian diet can reduce the incidence of diabetes, coronary artery disease and certain types of cancer.

On the other hand, nothing raises people’s hackles more than being told what they can and can’t do (or eat). It doesn’t help that numerous celebrities have jumped on the vegan bandwagon, urging us to save the world by giving up meat and its byproducts. And there’s a lot of confusing information out there.

While this is by no means a comprehensive guide to becoming a vegetarian, here are a few suggestions for eating healthier and possibly transitioning to a meatless lifestyle. Remember, you can eat mostly vegetarian, but you don’t have to be a fanatic.

Ease In

First, you don’t have to go cold turkey. Frances Moore Lappe, author of the seminal 1970s cookbook “Diet for a Small Planet,” said that her family never set out to be vegetarians. But the more they started experimenting, the less interesting meat became, until they finally swore off.

More recently, the food writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman has devised his own system—detailed in a new book—called VB6, or vegan before six p.m.  He also outlines different approaches, such as vegan until the weekend, or even ‘meatless Mondays’ as ways to ease in. Using this method, Bittman notes that he has lost 35 pounds and significantly lowered his cholesterol, without medication.

Acqua al 2

(L) Fussilli Lunghi alla Contadina, Long fussili pasta with a vegetarian ragu, finished with a touch of pargmigiano. Photo: Andrew Lightman

I’ve included this Italian-esque restaurant on the Hill because of its lovely salads and veggie pasta samplers. The choices are up to the chef, but in the past, we’ve had different types of pasta with eggplant tomato sauce, vodka cream sauce and pesto. Salads feature mixed greens, fennel and arugula with shaved parmesan. There’s also a nice cheese plate and several risos (risottos) that might fit the bill for vegetarians. The wine list is extensive and features both familiar and unusual names and regions.

Acqua al 2, 212 7th St. SE, 202-525-4375, www.acquaal2dc.com.

Book Savvy and Restaurant Smart

Next, get a good cookbook (my two favorites are Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian” and “World Vegetarian” by Madhur Jaffrey), or at least a few reliable vegetarian websites (such as www.savvyvegetarian.com, www.vegweb.comor, for vegans www.vegfamily.com) for recipes. Otherwise, you could get bogged down in endless repetitions of pizza, pasta or mac and cheese. 

Learn how to dine out without meat, which is getting easier all the time. Many establishments now mark their vegetarian and vegan dishes on the menu. Some of the more reliable cuisines for the vegetarian are Indian, Mediterranean, and Italian.

Food Intelligence

Try to cook more at home and shop smart. Avoid overly processed foods. Focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes, brown rice and whole grain pasta. Vegetarian cooking can be a little more labor intensive, but it’s definitely worth the extra effort.

Finally, eat smart to ensure you’re getting enough protein and other nutrients. Karyn Baiorunos, a nutritionist with the Kirov Ballet Academy in Washington, cautions that vegetarians, and especially vegans, need to be sure they get enough iron, calcium and vitamin B12.

Baiorunos, who holds a master’s degree in nutritional biochemistry from MIT, notes that vegans should load up on beans and legumes, nuts and soy products, in addition to fruits and vegetables. Soy is particularly good, she says, because soy is a complete protein.

Here are some dining out options around the Hill and the District and beyond for great vegetarian food.

Rasika

(L) Carrot Halwa at Rasika. Photo: Michael J. Colella

Sometimes Rasika can be downright heartbreaking.  The food is fabulous, but it’s impossible to get into at short notice.  Try to anticipate your craving for Indian food well in advance, because even with two locations, Rasika is always packed.  Once you go there, you can see why.  The signature palak chaat alone is worth the wait—flash-fried crispy spinach with sweet yogurt and tamarind-date chutney that really does melt in your mouth. Try the potato-chickpea patties, cauliflower with green peas and ginger, smoked butternut squash with tomato and onion, or really, anything on the vegetarian menu.  And if you simply can’t get into either of the Rasikas, you can always try a sister restaurant, the Bombay Club, which has some of the same delicious food and is easier to book.

Rasika, 633 D St. NW, 202-637-1222, ww.rasikarestaurant.com/pennquarter; also, Rasika West End, 1190 New Hampshire Ave. NW, 202-466-2500,www.rasikarestaurant.com/westend.

Cava Mezze

Cava is one of a handful of Mediterranean cafes on Barracks Row and one of the most reliable sources of creative vegetarian dishes.  Its small plate menu means you can try lots of different dishes, from the familiar hummus, falafel and spanakopita to slightly more exotic plates like white bean tomato ragout, crispy Brussels sprouts with yogurt and zucchini fritters.  And if you’re a fan, try their dry, only slightly resin-y Retsina for a white wine accompaniment.

Cava Mezze, 527 8th St. SE, 202-543-9090, www.cavamezze.com. Two other locations, in Clarendon and Rockville.

CityZen

(L) CityZen Truffle Grit Dish. Truffle Grits at CityZen. Photo Courtesy of CityZen

Everything is stunning about this upscale restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Southwest DC—the food, the service, the décor, the price.  We went to try the vegetarian tasting menu, and it was maybe the most creative vegetarian meal we’ve ever eaten. From the outset, with a citrusy French 75 to sip on, we were served one incredible dish after another, six in all. Highlights included a spring radish salad with poached rhubarb, wild mushroom torchon—sort of like a pate served on brioche with pickled ramp tempura and red beet glaze, char siu tofu steam bun and roasted cherries with corn cake and buttermilk ice cream.  Definitely worth trying at least once, though be aware that it will cost you dearly. And make sure to book well ahead, unless you like dining at 5:30 or 9:30.

CityZen, 1330 Maryland Ave. SW, 202-554-8588, http://www.mandarinoriental.com/washington/fine-dining/city-zen/

Great Sage

If you’re feeling adventurous and want a full-out vegan place, take a drive out to Clarksville, MD, and turn in at something called “Conscious Corner,” an eco-take on strip mall culture.  Each store is green and aware of its eco-footprint.  You can feel virtuous eating at Great Sage, though we did find we liked the appetizers and dessert more than the main course (as first timers, we may have ordered the wrong things). Try the veggie spring roll, a crunchy concoction that’s wrapped in dough so thin and clear it looks like Saran.  And the two dipping sauces—soy-based and peanut—are delicious. The cashew 'Brie' works synergistically with its toppings of apple, raisin and salted peanuts. We also loved the dessert, a combination of cherries and raw chocolate. Great Sage features a nice selection of organic and kosher wines as well.

Great Sage, 5809 Clarksville Square Dr., Clarksville, MD, 443-535-9400, www.greatsage.com.


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