Friday, October 12, 2012

Who's Afraid of Mock Meat?

This is NOT what the Beyond Meat
"chicken" looks like. (Istockphoto)

If Tim Burton is interested in making a followup to his hit movie, “Frankenweenie,” about a family who decides to resurrect the family dog, I’ve got an idea for him. It’s about a scientist who spends years and years in a lab trying to create a substance that will seem, in as many ways as possible, like a boneless, skinless breast of white meat. The movie would be called, naturally, “Frankenchickie.” 

When our Let’s Lunch group – a virtual lunch date – decided to write on the topic of scary food this month, for the good old Halloween connection, I knew I’d weigh in on a subject that has fascinated me for so, so long. I’m talking about mock meat. Meat analogs. “Vegetarian meat,” if you don’t mind the oxymoron. Not as scary, perhaps, as the possibility that one day scientists will "grow" actual chicken breasts from cells in the lab, but sometimes it seems pretty close.

The thing is, the stuff isn’t new, just in case you were wondering. It has roots in the Buddhist traditions of ancient China, in the “mien ching” they created by rinsing and kneading wheat – what became known in Japan as seitan. (Could it be?) In grocery stores these days, you’ll see a crowded lineup of such products, much of them made from wheat and soy, and most of them, unfortunately, also full of unpronounceable ingredients and processed beyond recognition, or processed into disguise, I suppose.

I’ve never been that into mock meat, certainly not as a meat eater. But over the last few years as I’ve moved closer and closer to a vegetarian diet (I’m not 100 percent there), I’ve been more and more fascinated by them, and have even grown to like some of them. I particularly gravitate toward the mock meats that have connections to seitan, such as products made by my two favorite such companies, Field Roast and Upton’s Naturals. Honestly, there's nothing horrifying about these products in the least, as one look at their very minimal ingredient list will tell you.

But just the thought of mock meats comes with so many issues for vegetarians, doesn't it? I think it does. So when researching an essay on the topic for my upcoming book, “Eat Your Vegetables: Fresh Recipes for the Single Cook” (due out by Ten Speed Press in summer 2013), I talked to the men behind those companies. I also talked to the founder of one of the newer products, one that’s been getting a lot of press because of its backing by founders of Twitter and because high-profile writers such as Mark Bittman have said it was so close to meat that it fooled them in a blind taste test.
It’s pretty close to the aforementioned “Frankenchickie,” at least in the sense that it took many years of research to come up with the processing method that leads to this eerily chicken-like product. But that’s not what it’s called, of course. No, the company is Beyond Meat. It is primarily available in some regions’ Whole Foods Markets, in the prepared-foods sections, as ingredients in wraps, veggie chicken salads, and the like. As soon as I read about it, I had to get some samples from the company so I could do my own little taste test.

Before I put some of it out at a dinner party for guest opinions, I took it out of the package and noted some of my own thoughts: Besides that texture similarity, the flavor was very mild, with a slight, mysterious nuttiness to it. And then I heated it up with a little water in a saucepan, and things got a little weird: The stuff got softer, even gummy and doughy, until I let it cool to room temperature again. And even then the texture seemed much softer than it should be.

I served it simply, just lightly salted and on a platter. We were having a chicken-roasting party, trying to get rid of the last of the frozen chicken that my sister and brother-in-law, newly vegan, had raised and slaughtered themselves the year before. And I didn’t think it would be fair to compare the two head to head. So I just passed around the platter and told people I was trying to gauge opinions on this particular chicken, and took note of their reactions. This was a pretty food-sophisticated group, and yet several of them merely pronounced it “pretty good” or “fine,” until some qualifications started to seep in. “This tastes starchy somehow,” said one man, a local cheesemaker. “Did you poach it in noodles?” Another said, “What breed of chicken is this?” And when I refused to say, she answered, “It tastes almost like the meat eater’s version of tofu.” Others picked up on the situation more quickly: “The texture isn’t bad, but that’s not chicken,” one friend said after one bite.

The next day, though, I took it out of the refrigerator stone-cold and tossed it with some mayo and salt. Guess what? Even knowing that it wasn’t chicken, it was hard for me to accept the fact that it wasn’t chicken. The texture was similar. Since we've got a Halloween vibe going on here, I'll go ahead and say it: It was freakishly similar.

When I mentioned that difference to company founder Ethan Brown in a phone interview, he knew exactly what I was talking about. Turns out his team is working on that very issue of how to make the product as good when it’s warmed as it is when it’s cold. Given his commitment and financial backing, I have little doubt that they’ll figure it out before the product gets wider distribution. This was a couple of months ago; they might have solved the problem already.

I write much more about my conversation with Brown and others in the book. I ask them all a version of the question: Shouldn’t vegetarians be eating vegetables rather than highly processed foods like this? Their answers are pretty fascinating, and I don’t want to scoop myself by repeating them here. Suffice it to say that I have a lot of respect for anybody who is offering well-made, natural, delicious products that will help people who want to eat less meat do just that.

In thinking about all the issues brought up in researching the essay, I of course wanted to attach a recipe. It’s a cookbook, after all. The thing is, I don’t really cook with these products very much, for two reasons. First, I prefer to make food from scratch. Second, for the most part these products – even the ones I like -- are already spiced and/or sauced, so that leaves a little less room (or perhaps need, depending on how you look at it) for creativity on the part of the home cook. Besides, it seems obvious that a product spiced to taste like, say, Italian sausage could probably be effectively used in recipes that use Italian sausage. And there's no shortage of those recipes.

Nonetheless, I did happen upon an idea for a dish while I was testing recipes for the book. It was very off the cuff, an impulse to use up some of the mock meat products I had bought. It’s something I haven’t made in a long time, a dish I first resisted because of the name -- sloppy Joe – which I found almost as scary as the poured-from-a-package spice mix so many of my friends’ moms used when I was growing up in the 1970s. I reclaimed it by making everything from scratch, of course – well, everything but the chorizo-style seitan that goes into it. I use brands whose ingredient label I can read without fear.

I know some people still find the whole idea of mock meat frightening enough, but consider this: I could be making it with supermarket ground beef instead. You know, the stuff of pink slime? Now that scares the hell out of me.

Sloppy Vegan Joe

Makes 1 sandwich

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
1/2 cup chorizo-spiced seitan or other vegan meat (my favorites are Upton’s Naturals and Field Roast), crumbled or cut into 1/4-inch pieces
8 large cherry tomatoes, quartered
1 small yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Sea salt
1 hamburger bun or soft pita, warmed
1 medium sour pickle, thinly sliced

Pour the olive oil into a skillet over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the onion and garlic and saute until they soften. Stir in the red pepper, if using, and the seitan, and cook until it’s warmed through. Add the cherry tomatoes and squash and cook until the tomatoes collapse. Taste, and add salt as needed. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and continue cooking until the squash are tender but not mushy.

Pile the mixture onto the bun or in the pocket of the pita, top with the pickle slices, and eat.


  1. Hi Joe-- I'm afraid! Very interesting experiment you had with your dinner guests. I do marvel at the technology to create mock meat. I've never really been convinced of the versions I've had in Chinese Buddhist food as "meat," though I enjoy seitan as a food with its own identity. I've written about my experiences with this and how my own mother tried to trick me with real meat when I was vegetarian Have a spooky Halloween!

    1. Linda, you're the best for sharing your own link. A fun read!

  2. Yikes! Now this is some food for thought...thanks for investigating!

    1. My pleasure -- I think. Thanks, Rashda!

  3. I've cooked with mock sausage & ground beef before, but never could bring myself to trying any thing mock poultry. Then I went to Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant in Vienna, VA & had their General Tso's Surprise. There was no way anyone would be able to tell that it wasn't chicken. I was amazed and plan to go back and try other dishes. Not really ready to go out and buy a Tofurky and cook mock chicken myself--baby steps :-)

    1. Thanks for the tip, Toni -- when I'm back in the area, I'll have to give it a try...

  4. I can't wait until your new book comes out! I'm currently enjoying the heck out of your Serve Yourself book, by the way. I'm relishing my lunch of leftover Fedelini with Tuna Ragu from last night. First time eating anchovies--loved them!

    I'm also going more in the vegetarian/vegan direction with my diet, but backslide every now and then with some fish or organic chicken. :o) I've tried making several different seitan recipes from scratch...I'm kind of 'meh' about them. I really need to saute them in a little oil, like you do in this dish, in order to make them palatable.

    I tried making a dish using tempeh...and my technique must need a little work because that dish didn't even make it into the leftover queue. It went straight into the trash.

    But I'll try this one later this week. I have some homemade chorizo in the freezer I need to use up. Thanks!

    1. Daisy, thanks for the kind words. So glad you're liking SY!

      The thing about tempeh, I fine, is that it's really a good idea to cut it in pretty thin pieces, and to pan-fry it -- and then, my favorite thing to do is glaze it. A simple teriyaki-type glaze does the trick, either out of a bottle or a combination of soy, brown sugar, and ginger. Give it a shot!