Alternative “meatlike” proteins and vegetable-based entrees continue to push the limits.
By Sharon Stello
Since Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger leaped onto the food scene with their plant-based patties in 2016, the alternative meat market has expanded to include vegan options made to taste like sausage, bacon, chicken and fish. There are plant-based deli meats, “chicken” nuggets and “steak” tips.
Impossible Foods now sells bowls with teriyaki “chicken” or sweet-and-sour “pork” as well as chili mac with “pork,” spicy “chicken” enchiladas and “beef” burritos, all made from ingredients found in the produce section. The Good Catch brand offers plant-based “crab” cakes, “salmon” burger patties and “fish” sticks and fillets. Another brand, Konscious, even has a vegan “tuna” poke bowl and “tuna” avocado sushi roll.
But veggie-based meals that don’t attempt to mimic meat are also popular. Take, for example, cauliflower steaks at The Loft at Montage Laguna Beach or portobello mushroom fries at Lumberyard. Chefs are getting creative with vegetarian dishes, showing the versatility of produce that goes way beyond a salad.
Meatless Menu Items
Cary Redfearn, co-owner of Lumberyard and Slice Pizza & Beer, and his family have followed a pescatarian diet for seven or eight years now. His daughter, Halee, who works for a company that creates plant-based egg white protein, influenced their decision by sharing information on the environmental effects of eating meat: the amount of water required to grow food for the animals and the amount of carbon dioxide produced by raising them.
“I feel better now with my diet than ever before,” Redfearn says. “We still eat fish, so [we’re] not true vegetarians. But it’s not like I eat fish every day. … I’m not trying to preach it, but environmentally, [something has to change]. … You can still eat hamburgers, but … if you’re going to eat two hamburgers this week, why not make one of them plant-based?”
Redfearn says, if he could, he would turn Lumberyard’s menu into all plant-based dishes. “But I know that it wouldn’t be viable,” he says. “I don’t think the world’s ready for it quite yet—enough to support us in this location in Laguna Beach, it’s not ready. So, I’m gradually trying to move the needle.”
In recent years, he added The Beyond Burger, a mezze platter and portobello mushroom fries with Parmesan and basil aioli to the Lumberyard menu. To complement these veggie-forward dishes, Redfearn says, “We’re adding a lot more Middle Eastern and Mediterranean types of spices and herbs and … methods of cooking than we ever used to.”
For example, the Lumberyard team is using herbs like za’atar and rose harissa, a red pepper paste. “We’re just kind of having fun with it,” he says. “The items we’ve been introducing have been really well received. So it makes me feel like, ‘OK, we can keep going in this direction.’ It’s not like I’m going to pull hamburgers off the menu or not serve my meatloaf, but I see that there’s a lot more room to grow there.”
Redfearn says The Beyond Burger, which always features a plant-based patty, has gone through several iterations including a recent version with Jack cheese, herb aioli, tomato, pickled onion and roasted red pepper. The current variety is topped with sprouts, avocado and house-made ketchup, but guests may always customize their burger if desired.
“As a pescatarian, I don’t really even care about having a hamburger anymore,” Redfearn says. “It’s really not for me. It’s for the person who wants a hamburger, but maybe wants to include more plant-based [ingredients] in their diet or wants to do it for the environment—there’s a multitude of reasons—or maybe is curious. So … [we were] offering it to be something that is different, but now we’ve gone back and said, ‘Let’s just offer it like we do our regular hamburger.’ ”
Across the street at Slice, a plant-based pizza is crafted with vegan cheese and sausage crumbles made from soy. And more vegetarian pizza options were planned to be added, including a mushroom pizza with fresh herbs and a potato variety with a base of ricotta cream plus thyme and rosemary.
In south Laguna, zpizza, which helped to pioneer the vegan pizza category, serves the Berkeley Vegan with nondairy cheese, plant-based sausage and lots of veggies from roasted zucchini, red onions and mushrooms to baby heirloom tomatoes and bell peppers. There’s also a Sweet & Spicy Pineapple Vegan pizza on the menu with chipotle marinara, vegan mozzarella and sausage, pineapple, red onion, jalapeno and crushed red pepper to give it a little kick.
Downtown, Zinc Cafe has long offered a wide array of creative vegan and vegetarian dishes, from potato-arugula pizza to the Zinc Reubenesque sandwich with roasted beets, sauerkraut, Gruyere, Zinc sauce and coriander on toasted rye.
A few of Zinc’s items include plant-based “meat,” like the breakfast burrito with scrambled eggs and vegetarian sausage. The burgers also feature vegetarian patties crafted with brown rice, walnuts, mushrooms, cheese and eggs. The cheeseburger layers white cheddar, avocado, tomato, butter lettuce and red onion with Zinc sauce while the mushroom Dijon burger brings together Dijonaise, Gruyere cheese, arugula, caramelized onions and roasted mushrooms for a meaty bite.
Yummy Dogs, which opened downtown last spring with an attached arcade, offers a vegan frankfurter that can be substituted in any of its gourmet hot dogs, from Chicago style with yellow mustard, diced onion, tomato and pickle spear to the Mac & Cheese Dog or a Laguna variety with avocado, tomato, white sauce and bacon bits. Chili—in a cup or as a hot dog topping—is also cooked up in traditional and vegan versions.
Harvest at The Ranch at Laguna Beach has a black bean and portobello burger on its lunch menu. This meatless meal between two buns ups the flavor factor with Swiss cheese, caramelized onion and harissa aioli in addition to the traditional lettuce and tomato. And The Loft at Montage serves an Impossible burger, tagliatelle Bolognese with a vegan meat sauce option, and a fried cauliflower steak with sesame pepita dredge, zhug (a spicy Middle Eastern sauce with cilantro and parsley), and an apple and frisee salad.
Meanwhile, in north Laguna, Jan’s Health Bar has both a sandwich and Fiesta Bowl using vegetarian “turkey,” which is also an option for the Protein Bowl. And vegan “bacon” bits can be found in all the sandwiches as well as the protein wrap and breakfast sandwich here. The regional chain has offered plant-based menu items like an avocado sandwich since opening in 1972, adding the vegetarian “turkey” in the late 1970s in response to customer demand.
“We find it is important to offer plant-based menu items, because we want to ensure that everyone looking for a healthy and delicious meal can find something to eat at Jan’s,” says owner Poppy Holguin. “Our business is centered around wholesome, nutritious eating, which is why we believe that vegetarian meals are beneficial for everyone, regardless of their dietary preferences. Our vegetarian and vegan customers can enjoy our offerings, and so can those who don’t adhere to a meat-free diet. For example, one of our original menu items, our avocado sandwich, is packed with nutrient-rich vegetables and healthy fats. … One of our newer menu items, our Caesar salad, offers a plant-based version of the well-loved classic with a vegan cashew-based dressing.”
A hearty option is Jan’s Fiesta Bowl with diced vegetarian “turkey” on top of avocado-cilantro rice, black beans and white cheddar cheese, all layered with fresh guacamole and pico de gallo then finished with a Greek yogurt-based chipotle crema and served with salsa verde on the side.
“We believe that our vegetarian ‘turkey’ is delicious, and has a great flavor similar to that of real meat,” Holguin says. “We use Spike seasoning on a lot of our menu items, but our vegetarian turkey does have a blend of herbs and spices in it for added flavor.”
While vegetarian “turkey” or avocado can be requested as a plant-based substitute in any of the eatery’s dishes, many already feature high amounts of protein sourced from beans, hemp seeds, quinoa and nuts. For example, the Santa Fe Cobb salad, which contains no vegetarian “meat,” provides a whopping 40 grams of protein.
“Eating a variety of protein sources gives the most diversity of nutrients,” Holguin says. “This is why plant-based proteins are popular with those who are following a plant-based diet, as well as those who aren’t. Ultimately, we want to show that eating plant-based protein can be versatile and delicious.”
Plant-Based Plates at Home
For those who want to experiment with plant-based meats and other vegan meals at home, several products are available in local grocery stores.
“Customers appreciate the way plant-based items have evolved to be more similar to the real products,” says Richard Gillmore, vice president of center store for Gelson’s. “Plant-based milks, meats and cheeses are much more similar to their conventional counterparts and are much more appealing to less ‘committed’ consumers. This evolution continues every year and will likely continue into the future.
“… Our top-selling items remain Impossible burger and Beyond meat, but there has been a lot of innovation in frozen items like Daring, Gardein and Quorn [brand] items. Chicken nuggets seem to have gained the strongest foothold.”
Gelson’s sells everything from Upton’s Naturals taco-style fava bean protein crumbles to Gardein vegan plant-based Chick’n Sliders, Impossible chicken nuggets and MorningStar Farms meatless bacon strips. There’s even a frozen Marie Callender’s plant-based Chick’n Pot Pie, showing that mainstream brands are getting into the category. Similar options can be found at Whole Foods Market, Ralphs and Pavilions, which carries Good Catch’s plant-based “salmon” burgers, Konscious brand’s plant-based “tuna” avocado sushi rolls, and Gardein’s plant-based frozen F’sh Filets and frozen vegan Mandarin Orange Crispy Chick’n.
“One of the fun things about plant-based meats is that they are intended to be cooked in a similar way to traditional meat. The idea is to achieve the same feel,” says Tony Phi Dang, Gelson’s corporate executive chef. “Plant-based chicken nuggets can be baked or deep fried like the real thing. Plant-based hot dogs can be grilled on the barbecue. It’s really up to you.”
When cooking plant-based meat at home, there are a few things to keep in mind.
“The cooking time for plant-based meat can vary depending on the recipe and type of meat,” Dang says. “Plant-based meat tends to cook faster than regular ground beef. Make sure to adjust cooking time when substituting for regular meat so you don’t overcook the product. In general, you can season the same way you would a traditional meat, but it all depends on your taste.”
Dang notes that plant-based “meats” aren’t always the healthier option. “Make sure to read the labels on the packaging so you know exactly what you’re eating,” he says. “They can have high sodium or fat content depending on the brand.”
Of course, there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options that don’t require plant-based “meats.”
“Simplicity is best if you want to avoid processed food in your diet,” Dang says. “There is nothing wrong with sticking to fresh fruits and vegetables. You can also capture the feel of eating traditional meat by marinating fresh mushrooms like lion’s mane or portobello the same way you might with beef or poultry and then cooking them on your grill or gently in your home smoker.”
To his point, Redfearn makes a Bolognese sauce at home with mushrooms. “If I didn’t tell you, you’d think there’s meat in it,” he says. “… [It] probably takes 3 pounds of mushrooms for me to make the dish. And they’re all ground up and put in my sauce. And it’s absolutely delicious.”
Grilled Impossible Kofta
14 ounces Savory Impossible Ground Sausage
½ medium red onion, grated
6 garlic cloves, grated
1 ½ tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
1 ½ tablespoons fresh mint, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground oregano
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Grapeseed oil, for brushing
Special equipment: Six 8-inch wooden skewers
6 pieces mini naan
1 cup prepared tzatziki
1 cup shredded lettuce
1 cup cherry tomatoes, chopped
2 Persian cucumbers, sliced
Mint leaves, for garnish
Fill a shallow pan with 1 inch cold water, add the wooden skewers and soak for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 F. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine the Impossible sausage, onion, garlic, dill, mint, cumin, oregano, cinnamon, kosher salt and black pepper. Mix until completely combined. Divide the kofta into 6 balls. Wrap one kofta ball around a skewer. Evenly press the ball up the skewer and into a cylinder. Place the skewer on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining kofta balls. Bake the kofta for 11 to 13 minutes, or until firm and starting to brown. Heat a grill pan to medium-high heat and brush with grapeseed oil. Grill the kofta for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, until browned. Serve the koftas hot over a piece of naan with the tzatziki sauce, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Garnish with mint and serve with a lemon wedge. —Recipe courtesy of Gelson’s