I gave up all meat except fish more than eight years ago and have never looked back, even at barbecues where I’m the only one eating grilled eggplant. “Humans need meat to be healthy,” I often hear.
No. Humans need protein to be healthy, and protein is abundant in beans, grains, nuts, seeds and dairy. But not only is variety crucial to the vegetarian diet, it’s also the spice of life, so to speak. Convenience and money are also issues — I don’t always have time to soak beans, and sometimes the paycheck is gone before I can buy salmon fillets.
So, to the frozen foods section! Contrary to their reputation, there are a lot of tasty, nutritious meat substitute products on the market. While there are certainly disadvantages to eating only veggie burgers — too much sodium or soy are common dietary concerns — the quality of many of these products has transcended “fake meat.” Not to mention, they are much lower in saturated fat and calories, and most come frozen in packs of four for about $3.50-$4. (Have you seen the price of a pound of ground beef lately?)
Here’s a shortlist of some of my favorites, based on flavor and how convincing they are as substitutes for the real thing in recipes.
Morningstar Farms Garden Veggie Patties: This is one of those veggie burgers that you can actually see bits of vegetables in. Soy, yes, but real, crunchy vegetables. Because we aren’t soyatarians. Be fairwarned that these patties also contain textured vegetable protein (TVP), which purist vegetarians might avoid because it’s heavily processed. Again, moderation. They taste amazing, even if a big juicy animal burger is your craving.
Boca Chik’n Patties: For when you’re nostalgic for the high school cafeteria. Just kidding. They taste just like a processed, breaded chicken patty, which might not be the healthiest thing ever, but hey, vegetarians like to indulge, too. And why not? Show me a breaded or fried piece of chicken that has only 160 calories, 11 grams of fat and no cholesterol. Boca also has nugget, spicy and non-GMO soy versions.
Quorn anything: This brand is my personal fave. For those who don’t want to eat meat OR soy, Quorn uses a human-made fungi protein (mycoprotein) that is texturally very convincing. I mean it. I’ve used their “ground beef” in vegetarian chili and the carnivores hadn’t a clue. There’s the usual breaded “chicken” patties and nuggets, but Quorn is also the only brand I know of that has a grilled “chicken” chunk product — absolutely amazing added to stews and sauteed with veggies for wraps. They even have Gruyere-stuffed breaded cutlets, or at the holidays, a cranberry- and Gouda-stuffed version. Variety for vegetarians isn’t just about getting enough nutrients, but also about not being bored to tears in the process.
Gardenburger Portabella Veggie Burgers: I’m all about putting a marinated portabella cap on a bun with slices of tomato and provolone and calling it a meal. But when you have one minute to nuke something for lunch, this burger is the next best thing. It tastes shroomy and smoky and has brown rice in addition to the ‘bellas and other veggies. Again, processed, and higher sodium than some, but a winner taste-wise.
Morningstar Farms “Sausage” Egg and Cheese Biscuits: Whaaaa? was my freezer aisle reaction. Wow, was my first bite reaction. It’s not a breakfast sandwich, it’s a stuffed biscuit, so you get Hot Pocket portability, too. Tastes great, but don’t over-microwave or the biscuit gets hard. These come only three to a pack, but with both eggs and soy sausage, you’re getting more protein per serving. There’s also a “bacon” version. Now you know. You’re welcome.
Field Roast anything: This brand is a little more expensive, but worth it. “Artisan vegan grain meat” and “ridiculously delicious” are apt descriptions of Field Roast products. They do deli “meats” and quarter loaves (Lentil Sage, Wild Mushroom and Smoked Tomato flavors), sausages (Italian, Mexican Sausage and Smoked Apple Sage flavors), frankfurters and even a classic meatloaf. Their crowning glory is the Hazelnut Cranberry Roast En Croute, a loaf stuffed with cranberries and apples and wrapped in a puff pastry crust. I tried it for Thanksgiving one year. It’s only available during the holiday season, which is both fortunate (it costs around $18) and unfortunate (it’s incredibly delicious).
Seitan: No particular brand to tout here because in truth, I haven’t found one I don’t like, though some are firmer than others. Seitan is wheat gluten, left behind when the starch of wheat is rinsed away. It’s texture is the closest to meat’s that you can get, in my opinion — chewy and with a bite like sausage. Vegetarian restaurant chefs love it because it easily takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with, and it can be shaped. I’ve used it in place of sausage in a vegetarian Italian carbonara, smothered it in barbecue sauce and served it on sub rolls with onions and peppers and baked ground bits of it into enchiladas. It’s better in stir fry than tofu (pressed soybean curd, bland until it takes on accompanying flavors) or tempeh (cooked and fermented soybeans, nutty taste, firmer than tofu), which are also high in protein and calcium and low in fat, like seitan. Also, it’s pronounced SAY-tawn, in case you need to ask for it at your grocery store.
Have any favorites I didn’t mention? I’m always hungry for more.