Where’s the beef? Vegetarian sojourn requires creative menu-making

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I started preparing myself for the move weeks before the actual departure, taking every possible opportunity to experience the Italian life. Waking early before work to walk into town for a cappuccino, cornetto and bit of Italian conversation, picking up an extra can of my favorite tuna in olive oil and a few balls of mozzarella di bufula and hunting down a bottle of local, sweet and tangy dolcetto wine.

Leaving my favorite country after months of living there was going to be hard. I even got a bit of a sore throat and had difficulty swallowing on our last day, waiting at the airport for our plane to Bristol. It hurt to choke down my last panino filled with a decadent array of cured meat, aged provolone and arugula. The bottle of wine we shared while watching passengers board their planes helped a little and added some humor to the next step on our adventure.

We were headed for England, a country not known for its fine culinary fare or delicious coffee, which I had grown so accustomed to. But trying to keep a positive attitude, I looked forward to a new place, some beautiful country hikes and learning about a place I had only previously experienced through books and movies.

Our first morning we woke to a delicious homemade breakfast at our B&B, a proper “Full English” with sausage, mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, beans, hashbrowns and an interesting selection of sauces and sides that intrigued me: HP brown sauce, pickle cheese, malt vinegar and lemon curd. OK, I admit I’ve had lemon curd before, but this one was house-made, and perfectly rounded out the meal. And the breakfast was delicious. A welcome change from months of bread, butter and jam. A little heavy for every day, but the weather being cold, and having a big travel day ahead of us, it was perfect. We were off to our first English farm. The sore throat disappeared along with my resistance to change. I’m going to like it here!

The first meal at our new farm was a lovely variety of produce from the garden, fresh-baked bread, hearty soup and a curious nutloaf. Hmmm. An English meal without meat? And a nutloaf? I caught on quickly that we’ve stumbled upon a vegetarian community. I sulked for a moment, recalling all the tasty meats of Italy. What had I done? Left a delicious food paradise for a place that serves nutloaf?! My depressed thoughts were interrupted when a friendly curly-haired girl across from me engaged me with “So we heard you’re a chef! Are you willing to help out in the kitchen? We’re so excited to see what you can come up with!”

A challenge! All the meat thoughts left my head, replaced by inspiration to develop a satisfying meat-free meal to please both my family and this group of hardworking farmers and craftsmen. Being previously vegetarian and working in a co-op deli, I have an arsenal of amazing meatless dishes. Using only the supplies on hand, what could I come up with?

As I lay in bed at night I’d process the available ingredients and possible dishes, and awaken in the morning with new inspiration. We ate really well during our three-week stay, and the workers were all very appreciative of having a break from the nutloaf. I felt good eating so much fresh veggies and didn’t really even miss the meat. Each day was different and I had an opportunity to make all the ideas invented in my late-night inspiration sessions.

Now that we’re off on our own for 12 days of camping, we are incorporating some of those meatless ideas into our mealtimes. Once forced to think vegetarian, my thoughts moved away from meat-based meals and opened my mind to other sources of protein. Without proper refrigeration while camping, beans and grains are a better option for us. And we feel lighter and more vibrant with less meat in our diets. I almost don’t miss Italy.

For the novice vegetarians, or those trying just trying to eat less meat, I suggest checking our a few good vegetarian cookbooks from the library. Among the millions of veggie books out there, I find the most inspiration from the newer ones with pictures. The River Cottage had a lovely one, as does Moosewood Restaurant.

Walla Walla chef and nutritionist Melissa Davis and her family are spending time traveling in Europe, backpacking, cooking and working on organic farms. Their adventure can be followed at www.freerangeadventures.wordpress.com.

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