As if I don’t impose enough dietary restrictions on myself being a vegetarian, I recently decided to go on a low-carb “diet.” I put the word diet in quotes because it isn’t just your run of the mill eating plan to try and lose weight (though that has been a bonus). I’m trying to make my body healthier. In the ten years I’ve been a vegetarian, I’ve learned to rely heavily on carbs. I would think nothing of having a granola bar for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, chips as a snack, and pasta with bread for dinner. And then a few cookies for dessert. Don’t get me wrong, I love fruits, veggies, dairy, and everything else, but I’ve always been a carb addict. Put chips in front of my face, and I’ll eat the whole bag.
It finally clicked with me recently that I wasn’t seeing results in my personal fitness plan and that I was constantly feeling sluggish and having stomach aches because my diet leaves much to be desired. Sure, I baked my own bread and made most of the snacks I noshed on from scratch with organic ingredients, but I was still overloading my body with carbohydrates, which in turn was leaving me to crash and burn with the carbs sitting like dead weight in my stomach.
It hasn’t been easy giving up carbohydrates when I’m already a vegetarian. Finding healthy sources of protein and energy has been a challenge; many of the fake meat products I’ve always relied upon contain gluten. Eggs, almonds, cheese, and vegetable chips have become staples in my house. I have had to completely overhaul the way I eat, the way I buy food, and the way I think about meals. For someone who is completely emotionally dependent on food, it was really hard to NOT buy a bag of chips or chocolate chip cookies; instead I use the money I’ve saved on junky snacks to splurge on stuffed olives, fresh mozzarella, and hummus.
I have to honestly admit that I have never felt healthier. I’ve lost a little weight, but that isn’t even my main focus. I just feel more energized and clear-minded. I don’t get stomach aches anymore, and I’m far less sluggish. My allergies are clearing up, and my migraines have stopped, too. I even find myself not craving soda anymore, which is a major feat, considering I used to kick back Coca-Cola in my bottle as a toddler and have been addicted ever since.
As summer approaches, I imagine it will be more difficult for me to turn away from delicious grilled breads, chips and dips, and other delicious summery fare. So far, though, I’m really feeling great about my new eating habits. I’ve said from the beginning I’ll only try it on for size, and when I feel like it isn’t working for me anymore, I’ll welcome the carbs back with open arms. So far, though, I don’t want them.
Shepherd’s Pie is something that I love to make in cooler weather. I got especially attached to it in New Zealand, where you can buy pre-made miniature round pies topped with buttery, cheesy “mash” just about everywhere, from cafes and dairies to gas stations. I started making them myself a few years ago. My old recipe included packaged vegetarian brown gravy mix, russet potatoes, and bread crumbs. The new version has omitted all gluten and substitutes sweet potatoes for the “mash” part and tomato paste instead of gravy (sounds weird, but it is actually really delicious and savory). I do realize that sweet potatoes are anything but carb-free, but sweet potatoes are a “cheat” vegetable of mine because they are incredibly healthy for you and are, by all accounts, a “good carb.” I also added zucchini and asparagus, which aren’t usually found in Shepherd’s Pie, just to give it some added healthy vegetable-ness.
Teeray’s Vegetarian, Low-Carb Shepherd’s Pie
1 package vegetarian crumbles (there are gluten free options out there)
1/4 cup chopped portabello mushrooms
1 shallot, minced
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
1/2 medium sized zucchini, cubed
1/4 cup chopped fresh asparagus
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 medium sized sweet potatoes, cubed
1 medium sized parsnip, cubed
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/2 cup shredded cheese blend (I used cheddar, swiss, and parmesan)
Low fat milk/soy milk
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 vegetable bullion cube (optional)
Get a medium sized pan going on medium-high heat with a splash of olive oil. Add garlic, celery, shallots, and mushrooms. Once the mushrooms are slightly brown, add one or two generous splashes of soy sauce, and salt and pepper to your taste. Add vegetarian crumbles, carrots, and asparagus, then reduce heat to medium; cook for an addition 2-3 minutes or until vegetables are beginning to get tender. Add tomato paste and stir to incorporate. When vegetables are al dente, remove the pan from the heat and add the zucchini. Set aside.
In a large pot, heat water to a rolling boil. If you are using the vegetable bullion cube, add it now. Add cubed sweet potatoes and parsnip; boil until very tender. Drain and return to the pot; reduce heat to low. Add a few splashes of milk and cream cheese, stir or mash until desired consistency and very creamy. Add half of the shredded cheese, salt and pepper, and stir.
Add vegetable/crumble mixture to a medium sized glass baking dish and spread out evenly. Spread mashed potato mixture evenly over the top. Top the potatoes with the remaining cheese. Bake at 350 F for 20 minutes or until the cheese is bubbly and slightly browned. Serve immediately.
Feel free to omit the dairy ingredients if you’d like to make this vegan. It is just as delicious! I’m sure this would be equally delicious for you carnivores with some ground chuck or even ground turkey or chicken.