No More Street Meat

Right now, right at this very moment, a ponderous line is snaking its way down the sidewalks of downtown Berkeley, roiling with ravenous foodies clamoring for a taste of what some have called the best Halal food in the entire country. It doesn’t matter what time you’re reading these words; I guarantee that line still persists, waxing and waning well into the darkest hours of the night, thinning but remaining ever-present even once the doors shut for a brief reset in the morning. The hype behind New York’s famous Halal Guys is no joke. Even though their first outpost in the bay area is fully accessible in downtown San Francisco, the demand for these middle eastern platters of street meat has reached fever pitch.

Rarely have I read reviews so overstuffed with outrageous hyperbole; you’d think these writers were describing lucid dreams after one too many drinks, or perhaps something a bit stronger. From the glowing golden rice, infused with a mysterious savory flavor that no one can quite agree on, to the legendary “white sauce” described as a particular excretion from an angelic source, it’s hard to believe that any real life experience could ever live up to such bold advertising.

Though halal truly refers to the method of slaughter, deemed acceptable by Muslims to eat in good faith, the concept has come to simply indicate a sort of middle eastern cart cuisine, strong on spices, quick and easy to eat on a brief lunch break, and always there for you after a late-night binge. Such culture really only exists in NYC, but cravings know no boundaries, and so that same style of food has begun to take root on the opposite coast.

Allow me to tempt you to step out of line for a meatless rendition that needs no breathless amplification to sell itself. Leave the social media madness behind and focus on the flavor here. Tempeh soaks in all the rich, nuanced spices of a deceptively simple marinade to pack all the protein punch you could ever ask for. Load it up in a generous mound over fluffy, fragrant yellow rice, lavish it with white sauce of more reputable origin, and finish the plate with a few fresh garnishes for the complete experience.

Sure, it’s no 10-minute meal, but every single second is worth the wait for this unrivaled flavor explosion. Each piece is quite winsome in its own right, but the harmony that happens when the whole platter is united is difficult to describe in words. It’s something that must be experienced to be fully understood, just like the original inspiration.

Besides, you’ll still easily work your way through the whole process in half the time it would take to arrive at the front of that interminable line.

Halal Cart Tempeh Platter

Tempeh Shawarma:

2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Fresh Oregano
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
3 Tablespoons Olive oil
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
2 (8-Ounce) Packages Tempeh, Cubed
1/2 Cup Finely Diced Yellow Onion

Yellow Rice:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
2 Cups Vegetable Stock
1 Cup Jasmine or Basmati Rice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

White Sauce:

1 (5.3-Ounce) Container Plain Vegan Yogurt
2 Tablespoons Tahini
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
2 Tablespoons Fresh Mint, Minced
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

To Serve

Shredded Romaine Lettuce or Cabbage
Tomatoes, Sliced or Cut into Wedges
Pita Bread, Lightly Toasted and Cut into Wedges

The longer you can let the tempeh marinate, the better, so begin preparing this meal at least 2 hours in advance, if not a full day. Start by whisking together the lemon juice, soy sauce, spices and herbs, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Mix well and add in the cubed tempeh and onions, tossing thoroughly to coat. This is also fantastic to prepare in a zip-top plastic bag to ensure complete coverage and an airtight seal. Place the mixture in your fridge and let rest for an hour at minimum, and 24 hours at best, before proceeding.

When you’re ready to cook the meal, get the rice started so that it’s hot and ready when you are. Place the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat, swirling it to coat the bottom. Sprinkle in the turmeric and coriander, sauteing very briefly just to toast the spices and allow their full flavors to develop. Deglaze the pan with the vegetable stock, stirring well to ensure that there are no spices sticking at the bottom, and add in the rice, salt, and the pepper. Cover, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for about 20 minutes until all the liquid has been absorbed. Let rest for 5 minutes and fluff with a fork.

Meanwhile, return your attention to the marinated tempeh. Set a large skillet over medium-high heat and bring it up to temperature before dumping in the entire contents of the zip-top bag. Don’t be alarmed if it immediately begins to sizzle and smoke; that’s what you want to see! Spread out the cubed tempeh so that it’s arranged an an even layer, with full contact on the skillet. Let cook, undisturbed, for at least 5 minutes until browned on the first side. Flip and continue to cook, repeating until all sides are golden and crispy.

For the white sauce, simply whisk together all of the ingredients until smooth.

Finally, you’re ready to serve! Layer a sturdy base of fluffy golden rice on each plate, followed by a mound of hot tempeh. Drizzle generously with white sauce and garnish with any or all of the suggested accompaniments. Offer a dish of harissa paste or any other hot sauce on the side. Devour immediately!

Makes 4 – 5 Servings

Printable Recipe


The Other Wheat Meat

Living “High on the Hog” has always meant enjoying the finer things in life, originally in reference to the choicest cuts of meat found on the upper half of the animal, which almost always meant one thing: ham. For many, a holiday just isn’t a proper celebration without a lavish roast on the table to both flaunt and share their prosperity. Such deeply ingrained customs are slowly evolving right alongside the shifting landscape of food preferences, so it was only a matter of time before someone was bold enough to take this tradition to task. I can’t think of any company more qualified to do so than Tofurky.

Makers of the original alternative roast, touting veganism before it was cool, Tofurky hasn’t stopped innovating since that fateful first product launch over 30 years ago. Trussed in genuine butcher’s twine and accordingly crosshatched by the pressure, the Vegetarian Ham Roast plays along to fit the bill, albeit on a much smaller scale. This beige football is said to feed five, but presumably a full feast with additional side dishes could stretch that number if need be.

Sharing many qualities with the classic turkey substitute, this porkless roast thaws out from a frozen state to meet a toasty preheated oven for about 1 1/2 hours of cooking. The biggest difference is that this rendition has no stuffing inside, but exterior embellishment instead. Included in the box is an “Extra Special Beer Glaze;” a thick syrup featuring Hopworks Velvet ESB, with a slightly granular texture owing to the inclusion of coarse, stone ground mustard. Make no mistake, it’s very sweet, first and foremost, but ultimately a good contrast to the saltiness of the roast.

That said, I had other plans for my roast and decided against the glaze, in favor of a more nuanced, herbaceous root beer brine, playing off the complex spices from the soda and contrasting with the savory heft of the roast. Dense, chewy, and quite solid, the texture is best when sliced thinly. No one would mistake it for meat, no doubt about that, but it’s a welcome departure from the standard faux-fowl or straight soybean fare for more festive occasions. Additionally, leftovers are brilliant additions to typically porky dishes, like a simple pot of creamy white beans or split pea soup. Since ham isn’t an entree that I encountered frequently as a child, it resonates more as a flavorful, protein-packed new ingredient than a whole entree for me.

That’s why I was especially excited to play around with the extra slices to make mock chashu, a Japanese form of marinated pork belly. Fanned out atop a bowlful of hot, steaming ramen, the visual and flavorful impact was quite stunning. Even with my otherwise humble assortment of vegetables cobbled together out of the pantry, this meal became an instant, unforgettable hit thanks to that exceptional meatless inclusion.

As further recipe experimentation has proven, this new plant-based ham roast provides more than just an annual comestible experience, but a promising year-round addition to anyone’s daily menu.

Root Beer Brined Ham

1 12-Ounce Bottle (1 1/2 Cups) Sugar-Sweetened Root Beer
1/4 Cup Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Teaspoon Black Peppercorns
1 Teaspoon Brown Mustard Seeds
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Allspice Berries
1/2 Teaspoon Whole Cloves
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Thyme
1 Bay Leaf
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 12 hours, but ideally 24 or even 48 if you can bare the wait.

To cook, bake the roast in a preheated 350 degree oven for 75 – 90 minutes, until golden brown on the outside and hot all the way through. Meanwhile, set the leftover brine back on the stove and simmer until reduced to a thick, syrupy sauce.

Slice thinly and serve with the root beer reduction on the side.

Makes 5 Servings

Printable Recipe


3/4 Cup Water
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Tablespoon Agave Nectar
1 Tablespoon Red Miso Paste
2 Tablespoons Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Mirin
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Sliced
2 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 Tofurky Ham Roast

Just like the previous preparation, this procedure couldn’t be simpler. Simply combine all of the ingredients in a medium-sized pan and bring to a vigorous boil. Turn off the heat, cover, and cool to room temperature. Refrigerate and let the roast marinate for at least 8 hours.

Slice thinly and add to your favorite bowl of ramen noodles to serve. The warmth of the soup should reheat the slices without any additional cooking necessary.

Makes 8 – 10 Servings

Printable Recipe

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!

Summertime Snow Day

“Healthy” ice cream is all the rage these days, churning up new pints that promise more protein than your average energy bar, often with an equally chalky flavor to match. Seeking to redefine the category without the hype, Snow Monkey has an ambitious goal of crafting a frozen treat that is both delicious and nutritious. Superfoods like hemp seeds and sunflower butter blend into unconventional treats, taking a wholesome and unrefined approach to the concept, unlike the icy alternatives.

Fully loaded with 20 grams of protein and 12 grams of fiber all told, eaters are encouraged to indulge in the entire pint without remorse. That would be one hefty snack, if not a full meal, as this is one genuinely satisfying and energizing scoop. I daresay the Goji Berry variety may just be the new acai bowl, brilliantly purple and every bit as refreshing, fruity, yet subtly tangy and tart. I must say, however, that the Cacao was easily the winning flavor between the two. Gentle, measured sweetness allowed the natural bitter edge of the chocolate to remain, granting it a greater depth and dimension than most purely chocolate treats are allowed. Reminiscent of chocolate sorbet, it’s light, easy to eat; a refreshing way to refuel without weighing you down.

Granted, Snow Monkey hasn’t hit on the fabled perfect food quite yet. Don’t dig in expecting a decadent ice cream experience, as this powerful formula was conceived of less as an indulgent dessert, but more as high-octane frozen fuel to suit an active lifestyle. Not quite creamy in the traditional sense, but smooth and silky, thick enough to linger momentarily on the palate, it’s a tasty reward that comes close, but may not quite fulfill every sweet tooth’s craving. The banana-forward flavor is another potential barrier to mainstream acceptance, owing much of its sweetness to the pureed fruit.

For a healthy treat, there’s no comparison; I’d dig into the freezer for a spoonful rather than another bite of a boring granola bar, any day of the week.

Bursting with Flavor

It was a warm summer day, just like any other, when I boarded a plane in Austin with a bomb in my luggage.

No, scratch that: Dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny little bombs, all packed neatly in my carry-on bag. Rest assured that security was no slouch, pulling me aside to examine the explosive contents, but still I slid through without much incident. Before I incite mass panic here, let me clarify that these bombs were only of the edible variety, bursting with energy and flavor, rather than actual firepower.

Returning home from a food-focused convention, I still felt like I was getting away with robbery, if not a greater crime of terrorism. Enjoy Life Foods had been one of the very few vegan sponsors and at the end of the event, unloaded nearly their entire supply of uneaten samples into my hungry hands. Yes, untold numbers of the brand new ProBurst Energy Bites were now mine to savor, if only I could transport them back across state lines. Though the physical weight was considerable, there’s nothing I won’t do for good food… Even if the x-ray results looked mighty questionable, and TSA cross-examination is never a fun addition to the travel agenda.

Think of the classic Larabar composition of a blended nut-and-seed bar but considerably less chewy, chop it up into bite-sized pieces, and drench the whole thing in chocolate, and you might get a vague idea of the goodness that goes into each little nugget. Each of the four flavors straddles the thin line that separates dessert from snack, pulling in impressive nutritional numbers while handily satisfying the most demanding sweet tooth.

Adventurous flavor combinations further distinguish these treats from the wide variety of energy bars already flooding the marketplace. Mango Habanero and Cranberry Orange are slightly less conventional pairings, yet there’s not a loser between them. SunSeed Butter offers nut-free peanut butter doppelganger, and my personal favorite, Cinnamon Spice, adds a balanced warmth to the dark chocolate foundation.

Although it seemed like an absurd haul at the time, guaranteed to last a lifetime for any reasonable snacker, it was a sad day when my supply finally ran dry. Thank goodness these bites are finally available for retail purchase– Especially if it means I won’t need to secretly smuggle them back home in bulk anymore.

NuGo On the Go

The idea of going “back to school” has taken on a new meaning. Mere months after graduating, I find myself returning to campus bright and early each morning once again, eager to learn about the latest in photo technology. Now the difference is that instead of heading into the classroom, I plunge into the stacks of rental lenses in the equipment room, trying furtively to teach myself the intricate codes to their order and maintenance. These lessons are quite possibly even more difficult than those I grappled with as an undergrad, and while the days are long, the hours seem to evaporate in an instant. It’s the most I can do keep my head above water in the flood of paperwork, let alone steal away a full 30 minutes for a lunch break. After just a few hours in this position, I came to realize how little I appreciated those assiduous lab techs in my days as a student.

Times like these call for emergency sustenance; packable and compact, shelf-stable and easy to eat, healthy but of course, above all else, delicious.

The field of energy bars certainly has exploded over the past decade, expanding into a dizzying array of flavors, macro-nutrient combinations, and special dietary considerations. A blessing and a curse to those in need of quick snacks on the go, it’s difficult to discern when you’re actually picking up a cookie bar or sidewalk chalk dressed up in a shiny Mylar wrapper.

NuGo is a brand that’s been on the scene for ages, diversifying its offerings along different lines to accommodate shifting eater demographics. While their more old-school products contain milk and some admittedly questionable ingredients, their vegan NuGo Slim bars are more than enough to sustain the discerning herbivore. The company was kind enough to share a taste of their new Chocolate Mint and Toasted Coconut bars with me, and both were fine fodder for these busy days on the job.

Dressed in a cloak of dark chocolate, each one gives off the impression of a candy bar, but at half the sweetness, bear no threat of inducing a sugar coma. Although slightly dry, the texture is soft, with an easy bite that is not difficult to swallow- No pun intended. Imagine a very firm cookie dough binding together crispy rice cereal, and you’d come pretty close to the heart of these chocolate-covered protein bombs.

For those in need of a midday wake-up call, the mint option is the one for you. Sharp like spearmint rather than the more standard peppermint, it’s not messing around, leading with a fresh, bright punch of mint right from the first bite. Coconut, on the other hand, takes somewhat of a backseat to the chocolate, but still sings loud and clear with a comfortingly nutty resonance.

Though I can’t say either has instantly risen through the ranks to reach a new personal favorite, both are a boon to busy, hungry eaters of all stripes, with very impressive nutritional stats to boot. I’m certainly happy to have them on standby in my camera bag, ready in a flash when it’s time to go back to school all over again.