Thrill of the Grill

Labor Day is right around the corner, signifying the dwindling days of summer while offering one last chance to celebrate. That means it’s time to gather up all your friends, neighbors, and coworkers, throw down an ice bucket packed with refreshing beverages, and uncloak that glorious grill in the heat of the midday sun. It’s your last best chance to fire that baby up, so make it count!

I’m probably the last person to ask about expert grilling practices, but I’d like to think that my novice status is actually my greatest asset here. I’m not about to pull some crazy, unreasonable, daredevil tricks when the metal grates get hot and the smoke starts blowing. While I can’t weigh in on the timeless debate of gas vs. charcoal, steering clear of debates over specific fuels or equipment, it shouldn’t be so complicated just to start a fire and get cooking outdoors. No matter what that means to you, even if the party gets rained out and you use a simple grill pan over the stove instead, it’s still important to start searing and making a mark!

Speaking of which, there are a few key principles to remember for emblazoning perfect stripes every time:

1. Start with a VERY hot grill. Give it at least 15 minutes, if not 25, to preheat before lubing up. If the food is par-cooked or semi-cooked (like meatless hotdogs or burgers, fruits or softer veggies,) aim for about 400 degrees.

2. Grease well to prevent sticking but do NOT use an aerosol non-stick spray over a hot grill! Trust me, you don’t want to light your backyard up like a torch here. Opt for an oil with a high smoke point, like rice bran oil, avocado oil, or peanut oil.

3. Don’t walk away, but don’t fuss with your feast either. Once you throw something on the hot grates, leave them there! Don’t start pushing them around, flipping again and again, repositioning them closer or farther apart. To leave a dark, solid mark, you need to allow full, uninterrupted contact. Yes, the food does still need to be turned over to even cooking, but just once, and only after a solid 5 minutes at minimum.

4. Use tongs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chased around ears of corn with a flat spatula because I was too stubborn to go back inside to get the right utensils. Seriously, save yourself the frustration, potential burns, and charred food. Just use the right tools for the job.

5. Go ahead and grill EVERYTHING! Once you’ve made the effort of dragging that beast out of storage, cleaning it up, and bringing it back to life, keep it busy from noon to night. Grill your tofu pups and corn on the cob, of course, but don’t stop there. Grill the buns! Grill the avocados! Grill pineapples and watermelon for a palate cleanser! Keep the party going and grill s’mores for dessert! Heck, if you’ve still got fire to burn and time to spare, grill any leftover veggies in the fridge to start meal prep for the coming week. After all, Labor Day is but a short respite from the daily grind… It’s right back to work tomorrow, ready or not.

Do you have any simple grilling secrets to share? I’m all ears, and not just with yellow kernels of corn. There’s a wide world of charbroiled delights to discover; I’m just getting started.

Many thanks to LightLife for simply providing meatless dogs to inspire this post. All content remains my own original creations, free of bias, and dedicated to an honest appreciation of cruelty-free food.

Where’s the Beef?

I’ve got a beef with veggie burgers, but not for their vegetable content. Red meat never held much allure for me prior to taking the vegan plunge, so I’ve always been delighted to have a patty composed of lentils, seitan, or any other plant protein instead. The trouble is that burgers are all too often the default meatless entree, shoehorned into an otherwise carnivorous menu; the throwaway dish that’s shipped in frozen and goes out barely thawed, mushy and bland all the way through. It’s pretty much the last thing I would order at a restaurant, just one step above the plain pasta and marinara sauce option.

Considering my distaste for both meat and burgers, I’m probably the last person to get whipped into a frenzy over the new breed of beef alternatives, but my culinary curiosity knows no bounds. Living by the mantra that anything vegan is worth tasting at least once, I could find no reason why not to give this fresh alternative the benefit of the doubt.

“It’s for people who love meat,” Beyond Meat founder Ethan Brown has boldly proclaimed on a number of occasions. No, I’m not the target audience, to say the least, but I can appreciate good food regardless. Besides, the end goal is not just a matter of taste, but to reach a whole new audience, which I can wholeheartedly support. As Brown explains, “We’re actually enabling customers to eat more [plant-based] meat,” instead of merely preaching to the choir.

Now available in the no-man’s land of the meat section, Beyond Burger patties are sold “raw” among the traditional ground beef products, right next to the bloody Styrofoam trays. It’s unnerving and frankly off-putting for a longtime herbivore, but the message comes across loud and clear. This is not just a melange of vegetables molded into a puck, but something designed to genuinely look, smell, and feel like raw beef. On those fronts, I would say the Beyond Burger conclusively succeeds.

Even before removing the patties from the package, the aroma of beef is striking and unmistakable. Seared brown on the outside but still unnervingly pink on the inside, it’s easily the meatiest thing I’ve eaten in over 14 years. Not quite “juicy” per say, but a satisfying fattiness is imparted by neutral coconut oil, giving it the gratifying richness of actual animal protein. Granted, the texture might be a little off, seeming a bit more fibrous than I recall, but my memories are admittedly somewhat hazy at best. Overall, the experience is one very true to the bovine-based inspiration; savory but subtle, a neutral palate for additional seasonings or toppings, and yes, very meaty.

But that’s far from the end of the story.

Competing for the same place at the table, Impossible Foods claims to take the plant-based burger one step further. Only available in a select few restaurants, it remains out of reach for most mainstream audiences at this point, especially considering the price tag it commands on the high-end eateries. Such exclusivity only adds to the appeal, creating an air of mystery for those without easy access. Though typically immune to such marketing tactics, I somehow found myself joining the line as soon as Gott’s Roadside announced that they would carry this new plant-powered patty.

Here’s the rub: It must be ordered on sourdough bread, not a bun, without cheese or sauce, and grilled on a separate surface to qualify as vegan. That would be all well and good, but their treatment of the meatless beefcake is downright abusive. Emerging from the kitchen not just well done, but truly overdone, the exterior is genuinely crunchy. Any sign of the signature pink heme has been completely driven out, which misses the entire point of this particular patty. While I didn’t mind eating it, I could have just as well been chowing down on any old school texture vegetable protein burger. Savory and meaty, yes, but lacking any distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from the pack, I was sorely disappointed by this fast food fix.

Furthermore, the actual cooking experience is an important and defining factor. Pan-frying the Beyond Burger at home meant that the aroma of the burger filled the entire house, lingering long after the meal was eaten, deepening the impact of its meat-like qualities. To be honest, this was almost too much to bear, and I wish I had the foresight to grill the burgers outside. Meat lovers should be thrilled, however, especially thanks to the greater accessibility provided by this mainstream option.

The conversation is just getting started, but at least for now, I have to call Beyond Meat the winner of this beefless debate.

Have you tried either of these burger alternatives? Do you agree, disagree, or just think the entire pursuit of plant-based beef is absurd? Where do your meatless loyalties lie? Beef up the comment section with your thoughts!

Green Grilling

The 4th of July is a holiday of many hats, and stands for a wide range of things to many people: Independence, the birth of a nation, family togetherness, parades, fireworks, and of course, grilling. It just wouldn’t be a celebration without someone whipping out one of those half-round furnaces and incinerating big hunks of meat. Now that sounds like a party, no? …Um, no. I’ve never gotten into the great annual tradition of setting the backyard on fire, and you’d better believe there’s been no meat on my menu for quite a few years now. Typically, I’m the one who provides a side dish for this sort of affair, like samosa potato salad, pesto quinoa salad, or bean dip, but am them relegated to some lame, bland soy pucks that someone scrapped out of the back of their freezer. Well, in the spirit of Independence Day, I’m here to say “no more!” and this time, I’m making my own veggie patties.

More interesting than your average mish-mash of random vegetables and textured soy protein, I went the route of taking the flavors of a crave-worthy salad dressing, green goddess, and translated them into burger form.

If you can operate a food processor, you can make these babies, so there’s no excuse for going the store-bought route yet again this year. Wonderfully flexible and customizable as well, feel free to swap out any herbs you’d like or have on hand, or try using another leafy green vegetable for the spinach; I’m thinking that kale might make an especially tasty substitute.

Though I do bake my burgers in the oven, you can make them in advance as written, keep them in the fridge, and then toss them on a well-oiled grill when you’d like to serve them up. You can even take them on the road with the right camping grill at your disposal. Just be gentle when flipping the patties, as they’re a bit more fragile than most mass-produced options.

Green Goddess Burgers

1/2 Cup Rolled Oats
2 Cloves Garlic
2 Scallions
1 14-Ounce Package Firm Tofu, Drained and Patted Dry
7 Ounces Fresh Baby Spinach
1/4 Cup Fresh Tarragon
1/2 Cup Fresh Chives
1/2 Cup Fresh Parsley
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
Pinch Cayenne Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and line a baking sheet with a silpat or parchment paper.

In your blender or food processor, combine the oats, garlic and scallions, and pulse to combine. Once finely minced and no large chunks of raw garlic remain, crumble in the tofu, and follow with the spinach and fresh herbs. Blend briefly to break down all of the greens (it may seem like a lot when you put them in the machine, but they’ll puree down pretty fast.) Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add in the mustard, lemon juice, cumin, cayenne, and salt, and processor one final time. When the mixture is thoroughly combined but still just a little bit chunky, it’s ready to go.

Scoop out 1/3 – 1/2 cup of the mixture onto your prepared sheet for each burger. It will be very wet, so you can’t really “shape” them, but use a spatula to spread the blobs out into as even circles as possible. Bake for 30 – 40 minutes, until darkened in color and they no longer appear wet. They should remain plenty moist on the inside. Let cool for at least 10 minutes on the sheet before serving as desired.

Makes 6 – 8 Burgers

Printable Recipe