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Westmont catering company plans expansion, food truck and more. Tammy Paolino/Courier-Post

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Years before she wrote her first book, Dawn Jackson Blatner, a well-known registered and licensed dietician and cooking instructor, had been hiding a secret. Despite her passion for a healthful vegetarian lifestyle and serving as a nutritional expert on CNN and NBC Nightly News, she was, in fact, an occasional “closet meat eater.”

“I was a vegetarian, but I’d ‘sneak’ meat,” said Blatner. “I didn’t want to say no to a burger at the family barbecue, or a hot dog at a ballgame, or to the turkey at Thanksgiving. I never felt bad about it, but I was calling myself a vegetarian.”

Then she came across a word that had been coined back in 2003 and was selected as the American Dialect Society’s Most Useful Word of the Year: flexitarian. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defined it as, “one whose normally meatless diet occasionally includes meat or fish.”

“The flexitarian movement is different than veganism or vegetarianism, as it has a very pro-plants slant as opposed to anti-meat,” explained Blatner. “You don’t have to be a full vegan or vegetarian to practice it and it’s both very flexible and healthful. It’s exciting.”

It was so exciting to her that in 2008 she wrote and published her first book, “The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life.” That same year, food journalist and activist Michael Pollan had published “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” which contained his definitive and pithy conclusion as to the ideal human diet: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Fast forward to 2017. The benefits of a plant-based diet have been well-documented, and many people have explored vegetarianism or veganism. Now, however, some are changing their diets because of an issue that goes beyond personal health or animal rights: the role the agricultural and livestock industry plays in global warming.

The industry is the third largest generator of greenhouse gases, according to recent data compiled by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. These gas emissions come from three sources: carbon dioxide from cultivated soils, nitrous oxide from manure deposited and left on pastures — and the largest source in this category, methane from “enteric fermentation” (otherwise known politely as the “flatulence” of livestock, predominantly from beef cattle).

Yet what if you want to be responsible, but simply love the taste of meat and can’t imagine a fulfilling culinary life without it?

Even Anna Lappé, a sustainable food advocate and educator (and daughter of Frances Moore Lappé, author of the 1971 environmental vegetarianism classic, “Diet for a Small Planet”), acknowledges it is difficult to expect longtime meat eaters to quit eating meat entirely. In her 2006 book, “Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It,” she suggests that “reducing the amount of meat on our plates is a good start and provides lists of “Low-Meat Alternatives” and “Vegetarian Meals for Meat Lovers,” and addresses the concept of “Meatless Mondays.”

That’s where being a ‘flexitarian” comes in. Blatner advises one of the keys to joyful, more plant-based eating is to make sure to have what she calls meaningful “meat moments.”

“I call them meaningful meat moments because they’re usually social, such as a juicy burger at a summer barbecue or a traditional dish at family dinner," said Blatner. “I think the idea is that if you want it, you can have it: but not just eating it randomly or by default. I usually pair it with vegetables, paying homage to them on my plate. And I think it’s a personal thing as to when and how to have it. “

The other key, she said, is to fill your plate with plants that have more of what makes meat so appealing to the palate: umami — a savory taste.

“When you miss meat, most of what you miss is that flavor. You can redirect some of your meaty cravings with vegetarian sources of umami," advised Blatner.

She points to soy sauce, mushrooms (including truffles), Parmesan cheese, tomato sauce, green tea, potatoes (both white and sweet), and walnuts as satisfying sources of umami.

Restaurants have begun to reflect this shift, even those that list meat on their menu and look to appeal to discerning “foodies.”

“I would absolutely consider our restaurant an ideal option for people choosing a flexitarian diet," said Cameron Cote, general manager at Harvest Grill and Wine Bar in Moorestown. “All of our menus have a ton of options for someone looking for meatless dishes that are made with locally sourced vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. But if you are craving a steak, we have meat that is sourced responsibly.”

Harvest Grill features a “Meatless Monday” menu each week, as well as a regular vegan menu that includes seasonal dishes such as Vegetarian Poutine (parsnip fries, oven roasted oyster mushrooms, charred Romanesco, and a vegetable demi-glace) and Winter Super Grain Salad (quinoa, farro, freekah, Tuscan kale, Moroccan carrots, pomegranate seeds, toasted almonds, toasted pumpernickel breadcrumbs, and a ginger carrot hummus vinaigrette). The main menu also includes vegetable-and-meat dishes such as a Local Grass-Fed Short Rib Quesadilla (jalapeño cheddar tortilla, Hope Springs Farm's white cheddar, green chilies, black bean hummus, chipotle sour cream, and chimichurri) and Vietnamese Chicken Tacos (ginger soy glazed chicken, baked flour tortillas, Napa cabbage, cucumber, sweet  and sour carrots, fresh jalapeño, cilantro, sweet chili-lime mayo, and pea tendrils), and fish-and-vegetable dishes including Cedar Roasted Organic Salmon (roasted carrots, asparagus, grilled lemon, and roasted fingerling potatoes).

“Over the past 10 years or so, we have seen more and more people wanting to know where their food is coming from and putting more thought and focus on what they consume,” said Cote, “And for good reason.”

Honeygrow, the expanding good-food-fast concept founded by Justin Rosenberg in 2012, was born from his own conversion to a plant-based diet and his frustration with the prevailing “mediocrity” in choices at restaurants.

“I think there is a major global epidemic correlated to how we eat," Rosenberg explained. “I was vegan for about a year and a half, which ultimately played a large role in the development of honeygrow. But today I'd say I’m more flexitarian.”

To “ensure mediocrity never seeps in” to honeygrow’s menu, he recruited Dave Katz as culinary director, the former chef-owner of one of his favorite restaurants, Mémé in Philadelphia.

“Dave comes from the fine-dining world,” said Rosenberg. ”I could have recruited someone with a more fast-casual approach, but we do not look at our food through this lens."

Honeygrow offers an array of salads such as the Winter Harvest (honey ginger vinaigrette, green kale, organic baby spinach, roasted yams, roasted Brussels sprouts, dried cranberries, local goat cheese, and toasted pumpkin seeds) or stir fries such as Chesapeake Crab (freshly made egg white noodles, Old Bay tomato broth, blue crab, grape tomatoes, bell peppers, red onions, scallions, parsley), Sour Cherry BBQ (freshly made egg white noodles, roast pork, bell peppers, green beans, red onions and fried shallots), Red Coconut Curry (rice noodles, organic roasted spicy tofu, pineapples, jalapeños, bean sprouts, scallions and cilantro) or the Philly Roast Pork (egg white noodles, Yards Brawler au jus, roast pork, organic baby spinach, broccoli, red onions, chili flakes, and asiago shavings). Most of the stir fries and salads are customizable with or without meat (antibiotic- and hormone-free), or by adding or subtracting whatever other options are most appealing.

There’s even a “honeybar” treat with all of the appeal of an ice cream bar or frozen yogurt shop: an array of three fruits (strawberries, blueberries, pineapples, apples, bananas or other seasonal fruits) drizzled with a choice of honey or maple syrup, and two toppings (coconut shavings, dark chocolate chips, granola, or plain yogurt).

“Hopefully, as time goes on and access to this kind of food becomes more readily available, eating more of a plant-based diet will become less of a phenomenon and more of a staple," said Rosenberg.

But if this lifestyle includes such an open, flexible approach to eating, is there really any difference between an omnivore and a flexitarian?

“The difference between a flexitarian and an omnivore is that a flexitarian wants to eat in a more vegetarian way. It’s about the intention. Their focus is on minimally processed, nutrient-dense vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy, and sometimes enjoying meat. They have a lot of flexibility in their diet,” explained Blatner.  “An omnivore, however, will simply eat anything.”

For those looking to make the shift from a meat-heavy diet to becoming a true flexitarian, Blatner recommends starting slow and eliminating more meat gradually, such as by simply downsizing the portion of meat on their plate (from six ounces, down to three ounces, then perhaps down to two) and increasing the portions of plant-based foods. Another way is to do it is by individual meals: looking at your favorite recipes to see if there is anything you can “swap” out for the meat.

“As a family at my house, we love pizza or taco night. We’ll eat them a lot — but you can experiment with new ways to make these things," said Blatner. “Can you swap the ground beef or turkey in your tacos out for beans or tofu, for example? Maybe you can ask friends what vegetarian recipes are they trying and try them for yourself. Some will be a keeper and some won’t, but even if all you pick is one per week, that’s 52 new meatless favorites in a year!“

Although approaches to food  have come and gone, proponents of flexitarianism are certain that the idea is here to stay.

“I believe that this is more than just a trend or a fad diet," said Cote. “It’s a change in lifestyle, and a movement that continues to grow the more we learn about the effects that different foods have on our overall health, the planet and our well-being.”

For more information

Honeygrow: Ellisburg Shopping Center, 1588 Kings Hwy N, Cherry Hill. Call (856) 520-8122 or visit honeygrow.com.

Harvest Seasonal Grill and Wine Bar: Moorestown Mall, Route 38. Call (856) 581-0044 or visit harvestseasonalgrill.com.

“The Flexitarian Diet: The Mostly Vegetarian Way to Lose Weight, Be Healthier, Prevent Disease, and Add Years to Your Life” by Dawn Jackson Blatner is available from $11.98 from amazon.com

Fried Beans (or Sausage) and Garlic Greens

Note: These recipes include a “Flex Swap” for the times you decide to include meat or fish in your meal, but are designed to be complete in flavor and nutrition in their vegetarian form.

3 teaspoons olive oil

½ cup canned butter beans (preferably the large, white Fordhook variety), rinsed and drained

2 cloves garlic, minced

Dash of crushed red pepper flakes

2 cups Swiss chard, chopped

1 small, whole-grain baguette or roll (about 4 inches), cut in half and toasted

1 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Flex Swap: substitute 2 ounces of cooked, diced, low-fat chicken sausage for the ½ cup butter beans)

Heat 1 teaspoon oil in skillet over medium heat and pan fry beans until slightly browned, about 8 minutes. Set aside. Sauté remaining 2 teaspoons oil, garlic and red pepper for 1 minute. Add chard and cook until tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Serve cooked greens on toasted baguette, and top with fried beans and a drizzle of vinegar.

Courtesy of Dawn Jackson Blatner from her book, “The Flexitarian Diet”

Yellow Rice and Grilled Bok Choy

1 baby bok choy, cut in half

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon curry powder

⅛ teaspoon cumin

Pinch of cinnamon

1 cup cooked brown rice

½ cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained

Flex Swap: 2 ounces of cooked salmon, tuna or other fish for the ½ cup black beans

Toss bok choy with 1 teaspoon oil and the garlic. Grill (either outdoors or on an indoor grill pan) for 5 minutes, flipping once. Sauté curry, cumin, cinnamon, rice and black beans in remaining 1 teaspoon oil over medium heat. Serve grilled bok choy over the rice and beans.

Courtesy of Dawn Jackson Blatner from her book, “The Flexitarian Diet”

Spicy Tofu (or Turkey) Reuben

1 slice (3 ounces) extra firm tofu, pressed to remove excess water

1 teaspoon olive oil

2 Tablespoons light canola mayonnaise

1 Tablespoon ketchup

1 Tablespoon sweet relish

Dash of hot sauce

2 slices whole-grain bread, toasted

3 Tablespoons canned or refrigerated sauerkraut

1 slice Swiss cheese

Flex Swap: 3 ounces of sliced turkey breast for the 3 ounces of tofu

Sauté tofu slice in oil over medium heat for 5 to 6 minutes on each side, until golden. Meanwhile mix mayonnaise, ketchup, relish and hot sauce until blended. Spread mixture on toasted bread. Assemble the sandwich with cooked tofu, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese.

Courtesy of Dawn Jackson Blatner from her book, “The Flexitarian Diet”

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