December 31, 2010

Lightlife Smart Deli Bologna

Next up in my Mega Sandwich series is Lightlife Smart Deli Bologna. Now, I'm going to be perfectly honest here and say that it's been years since I last had bologna. I know this is something that I always complain about, at least with the "I haven't eaten meat in forever, but I'm pretty sure this tastes just like it!" kind of reviews that prompted me to start this blog in the first place, but that's how it goes. If you really don't like it, let me know and I'll go buy some bologna and do a head-to-head comparison. I'll make that sacrifice for my readers.

In the meantime, however, I do feel like the bologna experience is pretty…distinctive. Not something I'd expect to romanticize. When assembling my mega sandwich, I (unfortunately?) did not have any good, old-fashioned American cheese in my fridge (mostly because it's gross) which I thought would go best with the bologna, so I had to make do with some cheddar.

Once assembled, with one slice on this third of the sandwich, I couldn't taste anything. I added a second slice, and still couldn't taste anything over the other ingredients. I had to resort to a naked testing (the bologna - not me) for this one. On its own, I have to say that, other than a slight fake-meat gluten flavor, this was strikingly similar to my memory of bologna, for better or worse. I wonder what this would taste like on some cheap white bread, with some American cheese, maybe (and I don't even like it but…) some mustard. You know, the typical bologna experience. I don't wonder enough to actually go buy the crappy bread and the crappy cheese, however. Feel free to experiment on your own and let me know.

In non-fake-meat news, I turned 30 yesterday! Happy birthday to me and also my birthday twin, Eliza Dushku! And for the rest of you, happy new year and be safe out there. Make good choices, as my mom used to say whenever I left the house. See you all next year!

The experience:
Texture - pretty chewy, but in a very bologna-ish way
Flavor - yep - tastes pretty much like bologna

Final grade for this attempt: A-

December 24, 2010

Tofurky Deli Slices, Peppered

This is the first post in a three-part series I'm calling "Mega Sandwich". I had these three lunchmeats in my fridge that were waiting patiently for me to try them out, and, as I've said before, I'm not that big into sandwiches. So what I did was make one sandwich, in three segments, with three different fillings, because I'm cool like that.

First of all, I started out with some homemade sandwich bread, because that's what I had. This bread was pretty dense, which definitely had an effect on some of the results, so I ended up tasting each lunchmeat both as part of the sandwich and alone. I also had, on all three parts, a thin layer of mayo, some lettuce, and a slice of tomato. If I was going to call this a mega sandwich, it had to be serious.

For the first segment, I used Peppered Tofurky Deli Slices with some swiss cheese. I started each segment out with one piece of each deli slice. When I took a bite of this segment, I tasted the bread, lettuce, tomato, and pepper. Now, this wan't a huge surprise, as it does claim to be peppered, but I did sort of hope to taste something other than pepper. I thought that maybe the rest of the ingredients were drowning out other flavors, so I tasted the fake meat on its own. Alone, it was VERY peppery, with not much else going on. I'm really not a fan of lots of black pepper, so I really didn't like this one. I suspect that if other people like to eat their pepper in lunchmeat format, they'd really dig this, but it's not for me.

Meanwhile, for those of you into this sort of thing, have a great Christmas! And for those of you not into it, have a great weekend!

The experience:
Texture - Sort of a dry-lunchmeat-turkey texture. Reasonable in a sandwich, not great alone.
Flavor - PEPPER!

Final grade for this attempt: D

December 17, 2010

Gardein BBQ Skewers

This week, I'm reviewing another Gardein product, since I actually tested both of them at the same meal. It's even another barbecue product: Gardein BBQ Skewers.

These got cooked in a skillet with a teensy bit of oil, in the hope that I could get them a little crispy on the outside. The amount of sauce that was in the packet with the two skewers, however, prevented this. They pretty much just got poached in their own sauce, which wouldn't have been a bad thing if the sauce was tasty. I'm just going to tell it like it is here. This claims to be a barbecue sauce, but I tasted no tomato flavor, no vinegar flavor, no smokiness, not even any sweetness. Nothing that even remotely resembled a barbecue sauce. It was a little more like a bad teriyaki sauce. Not a good start.

Once I got the skewers heated up, I attempted to pull the fake meat chunks off the skewer, which is when I discovered that they weren't cubes of fake meat, it was one fake meat log with indentations to make it look cubed. This reminded me of one of this big Tootsie Rolls that you don't see too often anymore - the long ones with multiple segments. Please tell me you know what I'm talking about here.

Anyway, I ended up cutting the cubes apart so I could get them off the skewer without tearing them. Finally I popped a cube into my mouth. The texture was a little less springy than the shreds I reviewed last week. The flavor though… in addition to the terrible non-barbecue sauce I've already mentioned, there was a horrible aftertaste. I don't know if it was due to the sauce or the fake meat itself, but something unpleasant stuck around. I tried another piece, mainly to drown out the aftertaste, and the experience was pretty similar. No improvement. Maybe with a better sauce this could be something. But as is, no thank you.

The experience:
Texture - A little springy, but not terrible
Flavor - Don't call it barbecue if it's not going to taste anything like barbecue. And the aftertaste was awful.

Final grade for this attempt: D-

December 10, 2010

Gardein BBQ Pulled Shreds

Last week I discovered, in a comment, that an employee of Lightlife is reading my humble blog. This is pretty exciting, and a teensy bit intimidating. Rest assured, however, that this knowledge will not affect my ability to perform my duties of rating fake meat honestly. If it's terrible, I'll still say so, because frankly, they should know

But this week, I'm going to talk about something unrelated to that. I'm going to be reviewing Gardein BBQ Pulled Shreds. The very first thing I'd like to say is that their website requires more dexterity than I'd prefer to learn about their products. At the top of the page is this picture gallery and you're supposed to click on the product you want to learn more about. The tricky part is that it moves when the mouse moves, making it really difficult to get the cursor exactly where you want it, without way too much fiddling around. So there's that. Website: D-

Now let's get down to why you're here - the fake meat itself. This is my first time trying out a Gardein product. I'd heard good things, so I was kind of excited. I tore open the plastic packet and dumped its contents into a saucepan on the stove. After a couple minutes, it was heated through and bubbling. One problem though, right off the bat. These were supposed to be shreds, and for the most part they were. However, and I'm sure this is just a random packaging error, about a third of the volume was consolidated into one big blob, rather than shreds. I tried to break it up a bit, but it was pretty stubborn, so I just worked around it for my test.

Before I potentially wasted a perfectly good bun, I popped a shred into my mouth, just to check it out. I was right to do so. The texture was definitely weird - very springy. As in, I bit down, and my teeth bounced back apart. The sauce it was in was an okay barbecue sauce. Not the best I've had, but decent. Unfortunately, it was overpowered by the gluten-y flavor of the fake meat. I took another taste, just to see if it was something I could get used to. The second bite was a little better, but still not something I wanted to keep eating. Even my exchange student, who will eat pretty much anything, opted for a veggie burger instead of this.

The experience:
Texture - Oddly springy
Flavor - The sauce was okay, but not strong enough to drown out the gluten flavor

Final grade for this attempt: C-

December 8, 2010

I've been interviewed!

Head over to Let Them Eat Meat to read an interview I did.

December 7, 2010

Grading System

Hello, everyone! April here -- I'm the webmaster for Adventures in Fake Meat, working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure everything is running smoothly and is easy to use.

As our regular readers know, every product reviewed here gets assigned a letter grade ranging from A+ to F. This makes it easy to determine at a glance whether a food is either a perfect meat substitute, a dismal failure, or somewhere in between. And we've put all those grades in a useful chart, ordered by product type (beef, chicken, etc.) and then by product name. If you've not visited it yet, I highly recommend giving it a look.

Since the start of Adventures in Fake Meat back in August of 2009, we have reviewed a total of 61 fake meat products, ranging over about a dozen brands. As you can see, the quality of fake meat products on the market varies quite widely across the board:

Product Grades

The average grade across all fake meat reviews is halfway between a B and a B-, or slightly better than average. Hopefully as manufacturers get more experience producing fake meat products, product quality will start drifting towards the "A" end of the scale.

December 3, 2010

Amy's Macaroni and Soy Cheeze

This week, I'm testing out something a little different. It's not fake meat, but it is fake food. Fake cheese, in fact! I've always been a little curious about how soy cheese tastes. Keep reading to find out what I discovered.

For my first soy cheese experiment, I went with Amy's Macaroni and Soy Cheeze. Now, I really like macaroni and cheese. I'm not a macaroni and cheese snob - I eat the Kraft version (the whole grain one - try it sometime!) just as often (well, almost) as my awesome homemade version. I was really looking forward to trying this product.

After heating it up in the microwave, as directed, I got ready to eat it. Unfortunately, immediately upon removing it from the microwave, I was confronted with a horrible stench. It reminded me of two things that both smell the same to me - blue cheese and barf. Neither of these things are even remotely appetizing to me. I know some people like blue cheese, but I really can't understand that. Sorry. So I suspected, maybe the scientists who put this together were trying to imitate blue cheese for some unknown reason instead of the more traditional cheddar cheese. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, hoped as hard as I could that it didn't taste like it smelled, and took a bite.

It did not taste like it smelled. Not to say that it tasted good, of course. It was very bland, which improved a little with some salt. The texture was definitely a problem, which is pretty common with frozen macaroni and cheese entrees, but I don't think it was the pasta. The fake cheese sauce wasn't smooth and creamy, like you'd expect from a macaroni and cheese - instead it was gummy. It totally stuck to the inside of my mouth and took a fairly good deal of effort to remove. Luckily it didn't taste as horrible as it smelled, because I'd have been stuck with it for quite a while. For some reason, I decided to give it a few more bites to see if I could get used to it, and four bites in, I was starting to get accustomed to the gumminess of the sauce, but here's the thing. Every time I brought a bite up to my mouth, I caught another whiff of the extremely unpleasant smell, which really interfered with my very moderate enjoyment of the experience. I eventually gave up after the fourth bite or so. It just wasn't worth it.

Sorry, Amy - this product just doesn't meet my macaroni and cheese standards. Maybe your real-cheese macaroni is better, but soy cheese just isn't a satisfactory replacement.

The experience:
Texture - the sauce was unpleasantly gummy
Flavor - not too terrible if you can get past the smell, but as smell is a big part of flavor, I'm going to have to ultimately say "ew"

Final grade for this attempt: D-

November 26, 2010

Yves Meatless Pepperoni

Back when I was first trying to research fake meat and not having much luck finding what I was looking for, I read a lot about a brand of fake meat from Canada, Yves Veggie Cuisine. People RAVED about their products. So when I finally found them in one of my local stores, I was pretty excited to try them out. The first product of theirs that I'll review is Yves Meatless Pepperoni.

The plan for this was to throw it into a stromboli, but I was worried about the results, so I also picked up some real-meat pepperoni, just in case. Before actually baking it into the delicious homemade pizza crust, I had to check them out.

Visually, these kinda resemble pepperoni, if all you know about pepperoni is that they are small round red disks. The biggest problem was merely a random occurrence, which I'm sure most packages wouldn't have - a couple of the slices, instead of tiny specks of mysterious colored substances, had huge blobs of mysterious colored substances. One was yellowish, the other was a grayish brown. Neither looked terribly appetizing. I did not eat those two slices.

The next step, after visual inspection, was to smell them. Not that I could help it - as soon as I opened the plastic, I was hit with a terribly unpleasant smell - that intense gluten-y flavor that I just knew would translate to the flavor as well, and I was correct. It had no flavors that one would associate with pepperoni. It wasn't just that they tried to make it taste like pepperoni but it came out mildly pepperoni-ish… there was no spice whatsoever. The ingredients list indicated that the product contained "spices, garlic and onion powder" but obviously not enough to actually taste them.

Now that I've bashed the appearance and the flavor, let's talk texture. For those who may not remember because it's been too long, real-meat pepperoni is kinda greasy (let's not lie here…) and chewy. This stuff was a little crumbly. It sort of fell apart in my mouth while I was attempting to chew it, which was extremely unpleasant. To be fair, I didn't cook it at all, and it's possible that the application of heat does something to the texture to improve it. If the texture were the only problem, I probably would have tested that out, but I know for a fact that heat would not add pepperoni flavor to something that had none to begin with, so I ended up ditching these and resorting to my real-meat pepperoni.

If you're looking for a fake meat substitute for pepperoni, do not eat these. Instead, try these instead.

The experience:
Texture - crumbly and weird
Flavor - horrible… just horrible

Final grade for this attempt: F

November 19, 2010

Field Roast Grain Meat Sausages, Smoked Apple and Sage

Sorry for the lack of post last Friday - I was dealing with a death in the family and was doing funeral stuff all last week, and just didn't manage to fit in any review-writing. But now here I am, with another fabulous review for you all.

This week, I finally got a chance to test out one variety of Field Roast Grain Meat Sausages - the Smoked Apple Sage, specifically. I had this recipe that I'd found online a while back for a roasted pumpkin and garlic lasagna and I had a feeling that the flavors in the sausage would go well with the lasagna. Plus, adding fake meat to it would still keep the spirit of the original post, which was a Meatless Monday post. Still meatless!

The lasagna took a long time to put together, as most lasagnas do, and it turned out more dry than I tend to prefer for my lasagnas, but it was tasty. I made sure to taste the fake meat sausage before adding it to everything else, just to make sure it wasn't horrible, and that the flavors would indeed mesh. It had a fairly good flavor alone, and was just a little bit spicy. I'm not sure if it's something I'd just pop in a bun and chow down on, but as part of this recipe, it really added a nice textural element. I don't think there was a whole lot added flavor-wise, since the rest of the ingredients were pretty flavorful, but overall, it was definitely a good combo.

I'm not sure what else I'd use this sausage for, really. The website had a recipe for some breakfast polenta with peppers and onions, which sounds kind of good, but a lot of work. This positive experience does give me hope for the other flavors of this brand, though. Hopefully the flavors of the other sausages are also as good.

The experience:
Texture - A
Flavor - B+

Final grade for this attempt: B+

November 5, 2010

Boca Cheeseburger

I'm testing out another Boca veggie burger this week - it's Boca Cheeseburger. Obviously not vegan, this burger has cheddar cheese mixed right into the patty. I admit, I'm not sure exactly why this is something especially nifty about it, since it takes about ten seconds to put a slice of cheese onto a burger, but hey - whatever people want to do with their veggie burgers is none of my business.

So, usual routine with the veggie burger - couple minutes per side in a lightly oiled skillet. I am such a veggie burger pro by now. Served up this time on a couple slices of toasted ciabatta as I had no hamburger buns in the house. I highly recommend this, if you can get your hands on some tasty ciabatta. I often get to bring some home from the bakery where I work - we make some awesome ciabatta. Anyway, back to the veggie burger. Toasted ciabatta, some ketchup, a crispy-looking veggie burger that apparently has the cheese built right in - let's do this thing.

First bite - awesome. This tastes, to me, just like a real-meat cheeseburger. I don't say that a lot, but these are fantastic. I eagerly chowed down on the rest of it, and am looking forward to eating the remaining three burgers in the box. I kind of wish the cheese was also an imitation cheese so I could be even more impressed, but I'm okay with real cheese being used here.

The experience:
Texture - no problems here - similar texture to a fast-food hamburger
Flavor - super tasty - tasted like a real-meat cheeseburger

Final grade for this attempt: A+

October 29, 2010

Dr. Praeger's Tex Mex Veggie Burger

Back in March, I reviewed Dr. Praeger's California Veggie Burgers and found them wanting. When I saw the Tex Mex variety for sale, I just had to pick it up. The problem with the other burger was an unpleasant off-flavor that I just couldn't get over. I was hoping that the spicy flavors that are usually associated with the Tex-Mex experience could overcome the problem.

So, I fired up my skillet and got ready for another taste of Dr. Praeger's veggie burgers. None of the cooking directions said anything about a skillet, but I went with the BBQ instructions, figuring that was closer than the broiler instructions. (how the heck could you broil this tiny patty for 16-20 minutes and not turn it into charcoal?) I heated it thoroughly and dug in.

My very first impression was "ew" but then before I even finished chewing the initial bite, it changed into "huh". I had to give it a second bite, just to make sure. The fact of the matter is, this burger is actually pretty tasty. Aside from the flavor, however, was the texture. The veggies had a good texture, but there was an off-putting mushiness to the patty itself. Whatever is holding together all those vegetables didn't quite work for me. From the ingredients, I'd guess maybe it was the corn meal that was problematic. I think that was what contributed to my initial reaction of "ew" - the mushiness - before the flavor had a chance to kick in.

If I were eating a plate of mixed vegetables that had the same seasonings as this patty, I think I could really enjoy it. But the texture of the binder kind of ruined it for me. Sorry, Dr. Praeger - maybe next time.

The experience:
Texture - Veggies had a nice texture, but the mushiness of the binder was no good
Flavor - Nice spiciness (but not too spicy), and good flavor overall

Final grade for this attempt: C

October 22, 2010

Amy's Light in Sodium Veggie Loaf Whole Meal

This week, I'm testing out another frozen entree. This one is Amy's Light in Sodium Veggie Loaf Whole Meal. I kind of wish the store I'd bought this in had the regular Veggie Loaf meal, for reasons I'll explain later, but this was the one they had, so this was the one I bought.

Before I start reviewing the meal, I'd like to make a comment about Amy's website. They have some crazy-detailed info about their foods, which is great. It was also a little confusing for me, since, even after reading the list of (mostly organic) ingredients, I couldn't figure out why this meal didn't get the vegan badge. I dug a little deeper, and discovered that the fact that it contains honey was the reason it didn't get labeled vegan. This led me to a bit of a problem. On this site, I've been labeling things as vegan if they have no dairy and no eggs, but I haven't been checking for honey. Is this a big problem for anybody? I could go back and check, but I don't know how many vegans are really serious about honey. Please advise. In the meantime, I will go ahead and mark this as vegan.

In the meantime, let's test out this Veggie Loaf meal. It came with mashed potatoes and some peas and corn. I popped it in the microwave for a few minutes, and got ready to enjoy a mostly-organic veggie loaf experience. First thing I noticed was that the potatoes and the veggie loaf tasted completely bland. I mean, no flavor whatsoever. This is a direct result of the low-sodium claim. Sorry Mom, most food needs at least some salt. I will say, though, that the peas and corn tasted pretty good without extra salt. I don't even really like peas, but these were a very good example of the species. Once I salted the mashed potatoes, I could safely say that these mashed potatoes were probably the best frozen mashed potatoes I've ever tried. I don't know what they do differently from most other frozen meal companies, but these had a great texture. Well done!

The loaf, on the other hand… pretty disappointing. There was a strange creamy texture (lima beans?) mixed with a weird chunky texture and a not-delicious flavor that I couldn't identify (lima beans again? it's been a while…) I tried to like it - the gravy that it came doused in was pretty tasty, but not enough to cover up the weird flavor of the loaf itself. I ended up just eating the potatoes, corn, and peas, leaving half the veggie loaf uneaten. I found it kind of funny that the veggies trying to be meat-like were totally eclipsed by the veggies just being themselves. Maybe that's a lesson most vegetarians already know - fake meat just isn't as good as real vegetables.

The experience:
Texture - Potatoes: awesome; Corn and peas: awesome; Veggie loaf: creamy and chunky at the same time… sounds good, but it made my mouth unhappy
Flavor - Potatoes: awesome with salt; Corn and peas: awesome; Veggie loaf: blech. Anyone out there a big lima bean fan who can confirm my theory about the lima bean flavor?

Final grade for this attempt: C

October 15, 2010

Trader Joe's Breaded Chickenless Nuggets

It's been a while since I reviewed some fake meat chicken nuggets. I'd had good luck so far with fake meat chicken nuggets, probably because real-meat chicken nuggets are so processed anyway, it's not too difficult to imitate the experience.

One day, recently, I was feeling lazy, so I baked these up for dinner. We had some awesome homemade barbecue sauce on hand, and so I was feeling pretty optimistic about this experience. They looked pretty normal, as far as frozen nuggets go. The problem started when we actually started eating them. Now, to be fair, they didn't taste bad. But they definitely didn't taste good either. I derived absolutely no pleasure from eating these nuggets. I considered cooking up something else to eat, but I didn't dislike the nuggets enough to motivate me to go back into the kitchen. Even the barbecue sauce wasn't enough to pull these nuggets up to the realm of tastiness. What a bummer!

The experience:
Texture - got fairly crispy on the outside, kinda weird on the inside, but not terrible
Flavor - nothing to say, really. nothing bad, but nothing good either.

Final grade for this attempt: C-

October 8, 2010

Tofurky Italian Sausage

It has been a while since I reviewed a fake-meat Italian sausage, so let's take a look at this one. This week, I'm going to take a look at Tofurky Italian Sausage.

I was going to use these in an Italian sausage recipe from The Best 30 Minute Recipe, which, if you don't own, you should probably buy. This recipe combined Italian sausage with peppers, onions, and potatoes, with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar and a few other delicious things. I'm not going to type up the whole recipe, because honestly, it's not that tough. Just cook up some peppers, onions, and potatoes, then add things that sound tasty (okay… tomato paste, garlic, white wine, and oregano) in quantities that seem reasonable.

For the sausage in this recipe, however, since it was written for real-meat sausage and I was using fake meat, I changed those directions only slightly. I still sliced them up and browned them in a little olive oil and set them aside before cooking all the rest of the stuff, but then instead of adding them back while the rest of the ingredients were simmering, which would almost certainly result in them overcooking, I just tossed them back in at the very end, and heated them just until they were warm again.

The results? Well, I tried a plain piece of the sausage after I browned the slices, just to see what it was like. It wasn't anything spectacular. It wasn't terrible, but it wasn't awesome either. I was hoping that the rest of the ingredients would help pep it up.

Once the full meal was cooked, we dug in. It was… okay. We added more salt, which helped a bunch. Season to taste, people! That direction is there for a reason! However, it was still missing something. We came to the conclusion that it was probably missing that meaty and/or sausage-y flavor that wasn't present in the Tofurky sausage. I think if this meal had cooked with some real-meat sausage, or possibly a stronger-flavored Italian fake-meat sausage, this could have been great, but with the weak flavor of the sausage, it just didn't contribute much.

Oh, and as for the sun-dried tomatoes and basil that the website claims give these sausages a "wonderful, slightly sweet taste," I'm going to have to disagree. Sorry, Tofurky. This one was not a winner.

The experience:
Texture - nice, chewy texture
Flavor - not much to speak of

Final grade for this attempt: C

October 1, 2010

Lightlife Smart Deli Turkey

This week, it's another lunchmeat! We have a foreign exchange student staying with us this school year, and she's really been digging the fake meat lunchmeats for her school lunches (she finished off the Tofurky Hickory Smoked slices that I still had around) and wanted more. I picked up some Smart Deli Ham and some Smart Deli Turkey recently, and she picked the turkey to dig into first, so I grabbed a slice before she could eat it all so I could review it.

Just like the Tofurky Oven Roasted Deli Slices it had kind of a weird flavor. A very similar flavor to the other slices. I wouldn't be terribly surprised to find out one company owned the other or something like that, they were that similar. After the first bite, I really didn't want to eat the rest of the slice, but I wasn't about to throw it out. So I grabbed a cracker, and folded the deli slice onto it. Even with two layers of fake meat, the flavor of the cracker completely drowned out the flavor of the fake turkey. It tasted like absolutely nothing, just like the Tofurky brand.

So I don't really know what else to say about these. Not a great flavor on its own, invisible when combined with other stuff. When it comes to fake lunch meats, this was not terribly exciting.

The experience:
Texture - Standard lunchmeat experience here. Nothing notable to report.
Flavor - Not great alone, no flavor to speak of when combined with other elements.

Final grade for this attempt: B

September 24, 2010

Trader Joe's Corn Dogs

Sorry for missing last week's review - I realized late Saturday night that I hadn't posted anything for Friday morning, and by then it was too late to do anything, so I figured I'd just wait until I had something solid to post, rather than cobble something together. Nothing but the best for my readers.

So today, I'm going to talk about something that's been in my freezer for quite some time. I'd made a big fake meat purchase at Trader Joe's a while back, about half of which was refrigerated stuff and half frozen, so I had to use up all the non-frozen stuff first. You know how it goes. So here comes my next Trader Joe's review.

As recommended by j spiker here, I decided it was time to try Trader Joe's Corn Dogs.

Easy enough preparation - bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Nothing fancy - it's just a frozen corn dog, for crying out loud. Usually, when I get frozen real-meat corn dogs, I have to bake them for quite a bit longer than indicated, to get the level of crispy-crunch I like. These, however, were super crunchy and perfect at the end of the prescribed 20 minutes. I was pretty excited to dig in, to be honest. Texture is a big thing for me. So, I busted out some ketchup (much as I try, I just can't get into mustard), and took a big, optimistic bite.

Luckily, I was not disappointed. The texture of the cornbread part was awesome! Ditto the flavor! Just like the real-meat corn dogs I like. However, the dog part was a little different, as you'd expect. A little background - when I get real-meat corn dogs, I prefer the beef dogs to the pork (or, as my favorite brand calls it, "classic"), because they have a more meaty flavor. Pork hot dogs just don't cut it, ever since I switched to beef hot dogs. So I've built up a pretty high standard for corn dogs. Once I got over the fact that it wasn't beef, I was able to fully embrace the experience. No weird flavors from the dog - at least, none that I could detect over the taste of the cornbread - and the texture was just mushy enough to simulate a cheap hot dog (the kind with ingredients that you try not to think too much about).

There's a very good chance that we'll eat these again. They are close enough to satisfy a corn dog craving (at least, for me), and are drastically lower in fat than a real-meat corn dog. We're talking about a 65% reduction in fat, here, plus a bonus 3 grams of protein per corn dog. The calorie content is relatively similar, but if you're concentrating on eating less fat (especially saturated fat) and cholesterol (no meat = no cholesterol), then this is a good way to go.

Well done, Trader Joe's - you've restored my faith in your products. Until next time, perhaps. We'll have to see.

The experience:
Texture - Crunchy on the outside, squishy on the inside - very accurate representation of a frozen real-meat corn dog
Flavor - Cornbread part was great - hot dog part didn't have a great deal of flavor on its own, but it's not intended to be eaten on its own, so who cares?

Final grade for this attempt: A

September 10, 2010

Tofurky Deli Slices, Hickory Smoked

This week, we're checking out another lunchmeat product: Tofurky Hickory Smoked Deli Slices. I had tested out the oven roasted variety before, and was a little disappointed at the lack of flavor, but was hopeful that the actual flavored varieties might work better. Let's take a look.

As before, they bragged about their thin slices, but I keep forgetting that whenever I go to the package. I see what looks like nice, thick slices, and I pull one out, only to discover that it's two slices stuck together. And then, since I'm generally not excited by paper-thin slices of meat (or meat analogues), I went ahead and used the two slices still stuck together. Take that, thin-slice mafia! Once again, I went the crackers and cheese route, since that's the way I do things at my house. But first, I sampled a bite of deli slice on its own. Gotta say, not great. Same off-flavor as the last deli slice product. But, it seemed a little bit less prominent, as the slice had a more smoked-turkey-ish flavor.

So I loaded up some crackers with Swiss cheese and some fake meat turkey slices. Once I had everything all together, and I don't say this often, it actually tasted just like real lunchmeat turkey. The powerful Swiss flavor overwhelmed the off-flavor, but the hickory-smoked flavor stuck around. I assume this was also due to the fact that I had a double layer of the deli slice - not sure if a single super-thin slice would have stood up to the cheese. Honestly, this was very tasty, and I've eaten it again since testing out this product. Once I'm done trying out all the other flavors of deli slices that Tofurky has to offer, I just might end up buying this on a more regular basis.

The experience:
Texture - Standard lunchmeat texture - nothing much else to say about that.
Flavor - Not great alone, but when combined with other ingredients, it actually tasted just like turkey lunchmeat.

Final grade for this attempt: A

September 3, 2010

Trader Joe's Chicken-less Pulled Chicken

This week, we veer away from the meatless meatball realm and towards some chicken-less chicken. That's right - more Trader Joe's Chicken-less Chicken! Pulled chicken, this time, with barbecue sauce! As with the chicken-less stuffed cutlets, the box is less than enthusiastic about its contents. The highest praise it can muster is "good, home-style barbecue on every count." But in my experience, a good barbecue sauce can cover a myriad of flaws, so maybe these won't be so bad.

This was one example of the picture on the package not looking as good as the contents of the package. Not sure what exactly they were going for, but the picture has some really dim lighting, which leads the food to not look terribly appetizing. It does look better on a bun than in a plastic pouch, but still… Actually, the package itself looks worse than the scanned version I posted here. Weird.

I followed the instructions carefully - again, the recommended method was the microwave. I pierced the bag and placed it into a bowl, and microwaved that sucker for the required 2 minutes (until hot, as indicated). Then I carefully cut open the bag the rest of the way (careful - it really does get quite hot), and scooped out a chunk of chicken-less chicken. I took a deep breath and ate it. First off, the sauce was very nice.

Side note: I've been coming around to the whole barbecue sauce thing over the years. I was never much into it - in fact, my parents would leave a couple pieces of chicken un-sauced for me when my dad was grilling some barbecued chicken, because I just liked it better that way. But now, thanks to my wife's near-obsession with the stuff, I eat it a lot more.

Okay - back to the chicken-less chicken. The sauce was good, but it was unable to disguise the flavor of the chicken-less chicken. That's some serious flavor happening if barbecue sauce can't cover it. It did, however, mute it significantly. And, with further experimentation, when eaten on some bread, the flavor was much more manageable. In fact, I thought I'd go ahead and eat some more of it. While I was munching away, I pondered the texture. Plain, it still had that weird springiness that I noticed in the stuffed cutlets, but for this application it didn't seem terribly out of place. With the bread involved, the springy texture was also downplayed a bit.

One more thing I noticed while working my way through my chicken-less pulled chicken sandwich: if I waited too long between bites (at least 30 seconds or so), a weird aftertaste crept in - sort of reminiscent of body odor. Not great, and it actually prevented me from finishing my sandwich, because after this happened a couple times, it got me thinking about what might be in there that would cause that aftertaste, and suddenly I just didn't want to eat it anymore.

The experience:
Texture - Weirdly springy, but didn't seem too bad for this purpose
Flavor - The barbecue sauce took care of most of the nastiness - the bread took care of most of the rest. That aftertaste though…

Final grade for this attempt: B-

August 27, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 4 - the finale!

It's the final week of meatless meatball reviews! Let's see how Quorn's Meatless Meatballs stack up. Also in this review, as promised, be sure to check out my Swedish meatball sauce recipe. It's super delicious, and I invented it myself!

On their website, Quorn brags that their meatballs are, "so flavorful and succulent that your meat-eating friends and family will not be able to tell the difference." This is the first Quorn product I've tried that isn't trying to be poultry… let's see how they do with beef!

Same routine for preparing them. Put them on a tray in the oven at 375 degrees for 10-ish minutes. (not precisely what the package says to do with them, but the idea is just to get them hot, which I accomplished) The first thing I have to say about these, is that they looked… not very meatball-like. Let's see… how can I put this delicately? Eh - I'll just say it - they looked like frozen dog poop. I mean, look at that picture! Would you want to put that in your mouth? Maybe if you cooked them in a sauce, they'd look more appetizing. But there you go. It is what it is.

We ate them anyway… let's hear from our guest reviewers:

April: Bit dry, good texture.
Dan: Poopy [I'm assuming he was describing the appearance], very nice texture, good seasoning taste.
Ginny: Most meatball-like; appearance: sunburned marshmallows. Springy; best with Swedish and BBQ; taste B+. Tastes better than it looks.
Anonymous: Good consistency and texture, best all around.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by these. They did have a very nice texture. They were definitely the most meat-like of anything else we ate that night, but I can't say for sure that I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between these and meat. By the time the night was over, I don't think I knew what meat was supposed to taste like anymore. So many different versions of meatless meatballs! I'd like to do a head-to-head at some point - perhaps a blind taste test? As far as sauces go, these were very good with both the BBQ sauce and the Swedish sauce, as Ginny said, but I didn't like it with the marinara. We'll stick with the Nate's meatballs for that one.

The experience:
Texture - Nicely chewy, pretty meat-like, as far as I could remember by the time we got to them
Flavor - Not much of a flavor to speak of on its own, but meatballs aren't usually eaten on their own, so that's okay.

Final grade for this attempt: A

I'd like to thank all of my guest reviewers for providing me with their insights for my meatless meatball month, and for being my most loyal readers for the past year. You guys are awesome! And now, the moment some of you have been eagerly waiting for…

Swedish Meatball Sauce
makes 2-3 cups of sauce

3 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white wine
2 cups vegetable broth or stock
1 tsp dill, more or less to taste
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 to 1 cup sour cream (I use light sour cream, but you use whatever you'd like)

First up, gather and measure out all your ingredients before you start - some of this goes pretty quickly, and you don't want to be scrambling for ingredients at the last second.

In a 2-qt saucepan over medium to medium-high heat, melt the butter, then stir in the flour. Use a whisk to combine them thoroughly, and use a rubber spatula to make sure none of the roux (that's cooked flour + butter, is pronounced "roo", and is used to thicken your forthcoming sauce) gets stuck along the edge of the bottom of the pan. Let it cook for just a minute or two, stirring either with the whisk or spatula, your call, to cook out the starchy taste a little. You don't want to brown it, since this is a white sauce.

Next up, pour in your wine. If you have objections to using wine, you can substitute 1/4 cup vegetable stock. This will bubble like crazy - just keep whisking! It'll get really thick really fast, sort of like a pudding-consistency. This is right. Don't worry. As soon as it's all combined, whisk in your vegetable stock. It'll go back to being soupy and maybe lumpy - just keep whisking. As soon as the temperature approaches a boil again, it'll thicken up. Once it's nicely thickened, you can add in your salt, pepper, and dill, and leave it alone to bubble away over very low heat until you get close to needing it. It'll thicken up more as it simmers, so keep an eye on it, stirring occasionally. It's okay if it gets a little thicker than you were planning, because you're still going to add the sour cream. I wouldn't leave it simmering for more than 20-30 minutes - if you need that long, definitely put a lid on it (that will slow down evaporation), and/or pull it off the heat until closer to the time when you need it. As long as we're not talking hours, it'll still be safe.

A couple minutes before you're ready for it, stir in the sour cream. I have a range there, because some people might want more, some people might want less. Start with a half cup and taste it, adding more if you'd like. Only heat it until the sour cream is hot - do not let the sour cream boil! It will curdle and look unpleasant. It'll still taste okay, but it won't be as pretty. Finally, re-season with salt and pepper if it needs it, and serve!

If you're going to prepare this ahead of time, that works just fine - just prepare as written, and then refrigerate. It'll keep for a good week or two - just reheat it when you need it!

August 20, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 3

Continuing meatless meatball month, we're on week three with another homemade meatless meatball. This week, we're testing out a recipe from this website. This is a lentil-ricotta meatless meatball. The creator of this recipe actually states: "It looks like a meatball…smells like a meatball…[and] most importantly, it tastes like a meatball." The pictures on the website definitely look like meatballs, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

First problem I had with the recipe - it just calls for lentils. I have never used lentils, so I did some research on what sorts of lentils were out there, and tried to figure out which one would be best to use. Since they were going to be pureed, I went with a red lentil, which I learned does not hold its shape well when cooked - I figured I'd just save myself some time and use an already-squishy lentil. This was a mistake, which I'll get to in a second. Side note, after printing out the recipe, I did not go back and look at the pictures until I was done cooking them, so I had no idea how wrong I was. The rest of the ingredients were pretty straightforward.

I cooked up my bright salmon-colored lentils, and then drained them, where I lost a bit of the mushy-lentil goo through the strainer. I couldn't leave it in the strainer too long, or it would have oozed out completely, I suspect, so I just got as much water out as I could, then dumped them into a bowl and finished mashing up the ones that hadn't yet disintegrated (not many). This, right here, I believe is the source of all the future problems I had with this recipe. Too much water, and too-mushy lentils. I forged ahead anyway (again - I hadn't looked at the pictures on the website in a day or two), adding the remaining ingredients. I tasted it, for seasoning purposes. This definitely did not taste anything like a meatball, but it tasted fairly good, so I decided not to abandon the project. I popped it in the fridge for the required two hours, hoping it would firm up a bit during that time.

When it came time to cook them, I got my pan of oil ready to go, then pulled the bowl of lentil-ricotta goo out of the fridge. It had firmed up slightly, but not nearly enough. Maybe with more time… In any case, I scooped spoonfuls of the goo into the pan of hot oil, and watched them totally flatten out. Again, looking at the pictures on the website now, that was very wrong. But it was way too late to do anything about it, so I continued. They browned nicely on the bottom, but then I had to flip them. They were really soft, which made them very difficult to flip. Probably also a result of too much moisture. I did my best, only ruining two or three in the process. That was okay, since, even though the recipe said it made 18, my batch made close to 30. I finished cooking up the lentil balls, and then froze them.

When meatless meatball party day arrived, I arranged the meatless meatballs patties on a tray with the other meatless meatballs, and baked them in the oven. That part went well. Nothing unexpected there. So let's get to the reactions:

April: Forgettable. (ouch!)
Dan: Cheesy, almost gritty, no real flavor, has potential.
Ginny: Delicious taste on own. Texture kinda mashed-potato-y with crunchy outside. Best on own - no sauce. Or Swedish. A little grainy.
Anonymous: Preferred potato pancake-like appearance. Dry, tastes of milled grain product.

I definitely agree that it had a mashed potato consistency on the inside. The exterior was nicely crispy. Texture-wise, this was pretty enjoyable, but nothing like a meat-filled meatball. Not even close. If I'd coated it in breadcrumbs before frying it, I could probably sneak it past someone by calling it a croquette. Which would be delicious. But we were going for a meatball experience here. And it tasted like lentils! Which wasn't bad, but it sure wasn't meat. And before anyone jumps down my throat, allow me to specify: it tasted like red lentils! Maybe whatever sort of lentils the original recipe poster used tasted more meaty. I'll have to try it again with different lentils and see if it's more meat-like. I'll get back to you on that.

The experience:
Texture - Crunchy outside, mashed-potato-y inside. Neither of those things are like a meatball.
Flavor - Lentil-y and cheesy. Neither of those things are like a meatball, either.

While these were tasty, I was promised a realistic meatball experience with no meat, so I had to give it a lower grade than I would have otherwise. But I'll try it again with different lentils and reassess.

Final grade for this attempt: B

Lentil Ricotta "Meatballs"
makes about 18
2 cups cooked lentils, pureed (warning - do not use red lentils, I guess)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2/3 cup plain breadcrumbs
1/2 cup fresh ricotta
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Canola oil for frying
Marinara sauce, optional

Add all ingredients to a deep bowl. Mix very well, using hands or a wooden spoon. Cover and refrigerate for two hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, shape mixture into 1 1/2-inch balls. Heat about 1/2-inch of oil in a nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add shaped "meatballs" and cook until browned all around, turning only once. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate and let excess drain off. Add to simmering marinara sauce if serving immediately, or store in a tightly covered container up to three days.

August 13, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 2

Welcome to part two of the month of meatless meatballs! This week, I'm reviewing one of the frozen products: Nate's Zesty Italian Meatless Meatballs. This is also where I shall reveal my secret recipe for amazing marinara sauce! Start getting excited now, people… it's really a great sauce.

But first, the review! Let's take a look at what the bag promised: "incredibly delicious flavor and a texture that rivals traditional meatballs", "try with pasta, stroganoff, Swedish meatball dishes, or goulash", "wholesome addition to gravies, tomato sauces, pesto, and sweet and sour sauces". Wow - this sounds like a great, all-purpose meatball. I had done a preliminary internet search for other people's opinions of these - overwhelmingly positive. But then again, the internet is full of mostly-positive reviews of fake meat. That's what I'm here for!

I'll tell you - right out of the bag, these looked very meatball-ish. I was pretty excited to cook them up and give them a taste. Again, I put them on a tray in the oven, un-sauced, at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes.

Now, let's take a look at what my guest-reviewers thought:

April: Nice and crispy, poor flavor.
Dan: Nice crispness, but poor texture otherwise, flavor is weak.
Ginny: Crunchy, crusty outside - seems pretty bread-dough-like inside, texture-wise. Best with BBQ. Doesn't taste much like meat but pretty inoffensive taste.
Anonymous: Dry and crunchy, but good meatesque flavor. Like chewing meat hay. Most authentic appearance.

I thought the exterior was awesome - super crispy. The inside was definitely mushy, though. It was also very fragile - it didn't take much pressure to cause it to fall apart. One of the cooking directions suggested heating up the meatballs in the pot of sauce. I think this is a terrible idea. It would eliminate my favorite part of these (the crispy outside) and, I suspect, turn them into a big pot of mush mixed with sauce. It didn't have too much flavor on its own, which is why the package was able to suggest so many sauce possibilities - it's not going to fight with anything, so put whatever you want on it! I thought it tasted pretty great with the marinara sauce, only ok with the barbecue sauce, and it didn't really work with the Swedish meatball sauce. Possibly the Swedish sauce didn't have enough oomph to improve the meatless meatball. But again, great with the marinara, which is why I'm pairing this review with that recipe.

The experience:
Texture - crispy/crunchy on the outside, mushy in the middle
Flavor - not much going on there - nothing bad, but nothing good either

Final grade for this attempt: B+

Marinara Sauce (makes about 3 cups - enough to generously sauce a pound of pasta)

1 28oz can crushed tomatoes
lots of minced garlic (I usually use more than most people would - I'd recommend starting with about a tablespoon (that's about three cloves) and work up from there until it is as garlicky as you'd like)
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried oregano
pinch or two of sugar, depending on how acidic your tomatoes are
salt and pepper, to taste
a pinch of red pepper flakes, if you like your sauce with a little kick (more flakes = more kick)

Just combine all the ingredients into a pot big enough to hold them all (I usually use my 2-quart saucepan, just to give it some room to bubble. Put it over low heat and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. Let it simmer long enough for the flavors to meld, which should take at least 20 minutes, and then keep it over very low heat until the rest of your food is ready. If you're going to serve it with pasta, start the sauce first, then put your pot of water on for the pasta while the sauce is simmering.

This sauce also freezes well, so feel free to make a huge pot of it, and freeze the sauce in plastic bags (or whatever you'd like to freeze the sauce in) in serving-size quantities, then thaw as needed later. So simple, yet so tasty! You can also use fresh herbs, if that's your thing, but I find that dried is easier. You can also dice up some onion and saute that in a little bit of olive oil in the saucepan before adding the tomatoes, if you like onions. Really, this is just a basic starting point. Go crazy with it!

August 6, 2010

Meatless meatball party, part 1

I started writing this blog nearly a year ago (first review posted August 24th, 2009), and I wanted to do something special to celebrate. So, welcome to the first installment of a four-part series of meatless meatballs! I got some friends together a few weeks ago, made them all eat a bunch of fake meat meatballs, and then take notes for me. So, not only will you get a bunch of meatball reviews, including two homemade meatballs (yes, you'll get the recipes!), I'm throwing in a couple meatball sauce recipes, and you'll get to hear opinions from people other than just me for once! I still get final word, though. It is my blog, after all.

Introducing your guest reviewers for the month:

April: My lovely wife, of course. She'll also be occasionally posting on here as my resident statistician, so be on the lookout for that.
Dan: My best friend from way back when he invited himself to my wedding in 2005. Not a vegetarian, but sometimes eats fake meat just for fun.
Ginny: One of my awesome pescetarian friends who inspired this project. She hasn't yet lost touch with the meat-eating experience, so I trust her judgment as far as whether things taste "like meat" or not.
Anonymous: Yes - one of my friends refused to let me use his name. I'm going to assume that it won't compromise his anonymity too much for me to say that he is also a pescetarian. If he would like to add anything to this, he can feel free to comment (or otherwise contact me) with whatever else he feels might be relevant here.

Alright, let's get to it! First installment is going to be a homemade meatless meatball. I got the recipe from this page. It's called Meatless BBQ Balls, but I did it a little differently, to suit my purposes. Disclaimer: the original recipe poster said that these do not taste like meat, and that wasn't her plan, but that "they are savory and rich and would make a good 'meat' part of a meal."

I guess I should explain my meatless meatball tasting party format. I cooked up four different types of meatless meatballs, and also prepared three different dipping sauces, just to get a full range of experiences. The three sauces I made were a basic marinara sauce, a homemade barbecue sauce, and a Swedish meatball sauce. I am not at liberty to share the barbecue sauce recipe, but I can definitely share the other two. Because I had three different sauces to test out, I cooked these balls with no sauce. Since I modified the recipe a little bit, I included my version below.

Something else that might be important to know is that I prepared these a few days ahead of time and then froze them after the first 20 minutes of baking time. I figured it wouldn't be terribly fair to serve two frozen meatballs alongside two freshly cooked meatballs, so I froze the two homemade meatballs to even the playing field, and also to make the meatball party run a bit smoother, with fewer stuff for me to put together last-minute.

This meatless meatball was pretty easy to put together. I didn't really run into any problems while preparing them, which is a little unusual for me. The… dough, I guess? had a really nice easy-to-work-with consistency that I think most people would be able to duplicate. I was really hoping they'd taste good, too. I wrapped them up in the foil, accidentally deforming some of them in the process, and put them in the oven. Twenty minutes later, I pulled them out, carefully extracted them from the foil, and froze them.

On meatless meatball party night, I put them on a tray with the others, and baked them for roughly 10-15 minutes in a 350 degree oven and served them up with the sauces. I'll let my guests weigh in first:

April: Mushy and gluten-y with a wheaty flavor. Tastes like stuffing.
Dan: Very bready. Tastes very pleasing.
Ginny: Bready. Stuffing-y in taste and texture. Best with Swedish sauce, pretty good with marinara.
Anonymous: Texture of stuffing. Tasty stuffing. Best with Swedish meatball sauce, which is like gravy.

My own impressions were pretty similar, at least texture-wise. They were definitely mushy. I wonder if they maybe didn't get cooked enough in the foil versus the parchment that the recipe originally called for (but is just stupid-expensive and I don't keep around). The principle is still the same - it's basically steaming the balls, whether using foil or parchment, so I'm assuming it just needed more time. But maybe they would have been mushy anyway. Hard to say. I didn't think of a stuffing flavor until everyone else said it - it mostly tasted like onion to me, which is not a bad thing. I do agree, though, that the Swedish meatball sauce was the best, with the barbecue being also fairly good. I thought the marinara was a bad combo, though. Just didn't work for me.

All in all, these were definitely not meat-like, but they weren't supposed to be, so they shouldn't be punished for that. On their own merits, these were a little tough to eat, being so mushy, but not unpleasantly flavored.

The experience:
Texture - very mushy
Flavor - like eating onion bread balls (or stuffing, if you're anyone else)

I wonder what these would be like with some actual stuffing flavorings - get some sage and thyme in there. Perhaps a future experiment is in order...

Final grade for this attempt: B

Meatless Pumpkin Balls

1 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup canola oil
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 cup vital wheat gluten
2/3 medium onion, finely chopped (or to taste)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp salt
1 cup breadcrumbs
about 1/2 cup of desired sauce, if you're using any

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare two fairly large pieces of aluminum foil. Mix all ingredients in a bowl--the mixture will be very thick. Shape into 18 balls and place half of them on each piece of the foil.

Fold edges of foil tightly to seal in the balls. Bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Unwrap and coat in sauce (if using) and allow to bake uncovered for 8 minutes. Add additional sauce if you think it needs more after you bake it a bit longer, and serve hot.

July 30, 2010

Trader Joe's Chicken-less Stuffed Cutlet

A few months back, I did this review, for Trader Joe's Chicken-less Chicken Strips. These were incredibly gross. Jason commented about a stuffed cutlet product that is made from the same stuff. He describes them as, "a violation, abomination, and unnecessary disruption to an otherwise pleasant day". With such high praise, how could I pass them up? I'm nothing if not thorough.

Before I get into my own experience, we need to explore the other end of the hyperbolic spectrum. Let's hear what the product packaging has to say about this item.

Trader Joe's Chicken-less Stuffed Cutlets feature the same great tasting "chicken-less" chicken found in our Chicken-less Strips. They're stuffed with black beans, corn and jalapeño peppers in a spicy (but not too spicy) tomato sauce. A little rice, maybe a salad… dinner's on the table in less then five minutes!

Ooh… that's all they have to say about it? Usually you can count on the package to really hype up the product. They can't even get excited about building a meal out of it. Such ambivalence.

So with terror in my heart, I busted this package open. This is some weird stuff. Two meat-ish blobs, and two pockets of sauce, all separated and vacuum sealed. The directions indicated that the microwave was the best option for preparing these, and who am I to argue? If I'm going to have to put these in my mouth, I guess I'd better give them the best possible chance, thus hopefully avoiding some random commenter telling me I did it wrong and that's why it tasted so gross. I followed the directions exactly. No way would I have to redo this one.

Okay… "pierce bag" - even the sauce? Won't that result in sauce pouring out all over the place? Better put it on a plate. Oh - "place bag on dish" - they're way ahead of me. "Heat on high 2 minutes". Okay - done. Now I have four super-hot steamy pouches. (I was planning on torturing my wife with this as well, so I prepared both cutlets in one go.) I removed the first cutlet from the packaging as well as I could, spilling some unidentified juice from the pouch all over the plate in the process. The tomato sauce did, in fact, ooze out all over the plate, so I scraped that up and smeared it on top of the cutlet. This did not look anything like the picture on the front of the box. I considered taking a picture, but decided against it. You're welcome. Then, before preparing the second cutlet, I decided to give it a taste. If it was completely inedible, I'd save myself the effort.

I cut into it with a fork, which took considerably more effort than I was expecting. This chicken-less chicken was TOUGH! Super springy, if that makes sense. I succeeded, eventually, in carving off a bite, and popped it into my mouth. The texture made more sense to my teeth than it did to my fork, but it still wasn't great. You could maybe replicate that texture if you had some really tough, overcooked chicken, but I don't think I've ever messed up chicken that badly. The flavor, however, was very similar to how I remember the Chicken-less Chicken Strips. In other words - totally gross. However, I didn't get much filling or sauce with that first bite. So, I went in again. I prepared a forkful with a bunch of filling and a bunch of sauce (which, by the way, tasted very good on its own), and reluctantly put it in my mouth. Much to my surprise, with enough other stuff, the flavor of the chicken-less chicken was mostly muted. Not gone, but muted. However, there was not enough filling or sauce to maintain that ratio all the way through the cutlet.

While picking at the rest of my (mercifully tiny) cutlet, I tried the filling on its own, just to see what it was like. Unfortunately, it had absorbed too much of the chicken-less chicken flavor to be good alone. Plus, the beans in it were super mushy, the corn was flavorless, and I couldn't taste the alleged jalapeños, which was fine with me. The sauce was great. I wouldn't call it a spicy sauce, though, even with my very weak spice tolerance.

Sorry, Trader Joe's - that's another lackluster performance with your name on it. Try again!

The experience:
Texture - super tough and springy cutlet portion, mushy filling
Flavor - cutlet - ew; filling - blah and ew; sauce - delicious!

And yes, I did make my wife eat her cutlet. Because I didn't finish mine, I gave her all my extra sauce. I'm such a good wife!

Final grade for this attempt: D

July 23, 2010

Dominex Eggplant Burgers

Things are starting to get weird now. Brace yourselves. This week, I'm reviewing a new veggie burger: Dominex Eggplant Burger. They claim to be "a healthy alternative to both conventional and meatless burgers". I'm not a big eggplant eater, but hey - antioxidants and low-fat/high-fiber things are good, right?

First thing I noticed were the painted-on grill marks. Man - these crack me up. I'm not sure why, but they do. The stove-top directions said to cook the burgers in a skillet with a little oil for 8-10 minutes, flipping occasionally. No way would these have been edible if I'd cooked them that long. I actually timed it, this time, and I cooked it for precisely four minutes, at which point it was definitely hot. If I'd continued cooking it for another four to six minutes, it would have been totally charred. So be aware - these will not take as long as the box says.

I still had some onion buns left over from the Sunshine Burgers experiment, so I toasted one up. Sooner than expected, the burger was done, and I put it all together. Like before, I tasted a bit of the burger alone before eating it with my awesome onion bun, just to get an idea. It actually tasted pretty good. One of the ingredients (which cracks me up about as much as the painted-on grill marks) is "natural grill flavor". If you're curious, this consists of maltodextrin and flavor from vegetable oil, whatever that means. I think this flavor contributed to the initial deliciousness. It had kind of a smokiness that I liked. So I sat down to devour the rest of the burger.

As I got further in, each bite had more and more of a strange off-flavor. I don't know how to describe it other than by saying it had a sort of sharpness to it. Mildly unpleasant, but not overwhelmingly so. Maybe that flavor came from the seeds and skins they brag so much about having in their burgers.

In any case, the odd flavor didn't stop me from eating the rest of my burger, but once they're gone, I probably won't pick these up again. There are other veggie burgers that I liked a lot more, and that I don't have to make a special trip to a co-op to find. If you really like eggplant, though, you might want to give these a try.

The experience:
Texture - nothing special - not much else to say about it
Flavor - nicely smoky at first, but turns sharper with each subsequent bite

Final grade for this attempt: B-

July 16, 2010

It's Friday again... more excuses

Sorry for no fake meat review again today, everybody. I tested out something new this week, but am unable to write about it as my brain is in the process of exploding. We just found out yesterday that we're going to be hosting a foreign exchange student from Japan this upcoming school year. For most people, this isn't such a sudden surprise, but we only applied last Saturday, so things are moving pretty quickly.

It's possible that I'll write up something later today, but more likely that I'll just skip this week. But I've got something big in the works. It's been almost a year (!) since I started this thing, and I'm doing a special series for the entire month of August to celebrate. There will be recipes! And pictures! Stay tuned!

July 9, 2010

Original Sunshine Burger, original flavor

We're heading deep into hippie territory this week with the Original Sunshine Burger. The ingredient list on these is ridiculous: brown rice, sunflower seeds, carrots, herbs, and sea salt. That's it. Also, according to the packaging, these burgers are not intended to be a beef imitation, but instead an "excellent flavor sensation of their own." Let's see if they can live up to the hype.

To prepare to receive this flavor sensation, I made some fresh burger buns. I used the King Arthur Flour recipe for Onion Buns, because I saw it a while back and recognized this as a golden opportunity to try them out. They came out looking gorgeous, and my whole house, in addition to the awesome freshly-baked bread aroma, smelled like onion, which is a plus. More on how they tasted later.

Once dinner time rolled around, I tossed the burgers into a skillet. These come three to a package, so I just cooked up all three. The box said "no oil needed" but after they thawed out, they started sticking pretty badly to my pan, so I put a little oil in there, just to keep them from being completely destroyed. As they approached the "desired warmness" (yes - the box says that - "All our burgers are fully precooked. Please do not overcook, just heat to desired warmness."), they started to become very fragile. Two of them broke in half when I tried to flip them. That was a little frustrating. Eventually, we got the three patties on some onion buns.

I tried a piece of burger plain, first, to make sure the bun didn't artificially inflate the grade. It was… okay. A little dry, a little crumbly, and tasted very much of sunflower seeds. Pretty much only sunflower seeds. That was probably the "sun" part of Sunshine Burger. They might as well have called it Sunflower Burgers. It wasn't bad, if you like sunflower seeds. But it wasn't exciting either.

Then I tried it on the bun. Way better now - the onion flavor matched the sunflower seed flavor pretty well. Still dry though. I added a slice of cheese (Velveeta singles… don't hate me! They have superior meltability!) Now I had something… The gumminess of the cheese helped hold the burger together, keeping it from being too crumbly in my mouth. But it still needed a little something. I squirted on some ketchup. And then some more, as the awesome bun absorbed it all, and I couldn't actually taste it. Finally, I had something that I could consider dinner.

The flavor experience was a little weird - first onion and ketchup, then the cheese flavor creeped in, and once those faded, all that was left was sunflower seeds. Not unpleasant, but it was a little weird. This brand has other varieties that I might check out in the future, including a southwest burger,  breakfast patty, and a barbecue burger. I'm intrigued...

The experience:
Texture - Dry and crumbly until it had some dairy to hold it together
Flavor - Imagine a mouthful of sunflower seeds - yep - that's about it.

Final grade for this attempt: C+

July 2, 2010

Tofurky Deli Slices, Oven Roasted

Before I get started on this review, I need to explain whatever crazy stuff I may end up writing. I started a new job last week in a bakery. Bakeries have weird hours. I get to work at three o'clock in the morning and stay there until eleven o'clock in the morning. Then I come home and try to nap. I got home from work a little early today, haven't gotten my nap yet, and thus am writing this post in a strange mental state. I apologize if anything seems too weird… Just bear with me while I'm adjusting to my new schedule.

Okay, now to the good stuff. This week, I'm reviewing Tofurky Oven Roasted Deli Slices. That link is as precise as the Tofurky website gets. Gotta say, I'm kind of excited to someday try out the "Philly-Style" Steak Deli Slices. Not a lot of steak-imitators out there. And I'm always up for some "'Philly-Style' cheese-steak fun"! Does anyone know what stores carry it? I don't think I've seen it any of the places I go. Anyway… time to focus.

A little back story - I actually first tested these out maybe a month ago, on some crackers with some Swiss cheese. I'll get to my impressions of that in a second. I kind of felt like I hadn't given it a fair trial, so I was going to make a sandwich or something with it to see if it fared any better. Just a couple days ago, I got together the fixings for what would have been an amazing sandwich - a homemade whole wheat pita, some lettuce and tomato, and some homemade ranch dressing. My house is awesome! But then once I got out the fake turkey, I realized I had delayed too long, and the poor deli slices were totally moldy! Noooo! Of course, I couldn't let those sandwich fixings go to waste, so I cooked up a couple slices of bacon and made myself a killer BLT. But that's not what you came here to read about. The point is, I only have one deli slice experiment to base my rating on. And here goes…

Something weird about me is that I'm not that into sandwiches as a food-delivery method. I don't know what it is about them - I just can't get that excited about a sandwich. (unless it's a grilled cheese sandwich - that's a whole other category) So what I usually do with lunchmeats is put them on crackers with cheese, a la Lunchables. My favorite cracker to do this with is Triscuits because they only have three (3!) ingredients, and that makes me feel good about myself.* So, since that's what I typically like to do, that's how I decided to test out these deli slices. I got my crackers and cheese ready to go, and started trying to peel apart the slices. It's been a little while since I last saw the package, but if I remember right, they made a big deal about having thinner slices, and more of them! This tells me that the package size is the same as it used to be, it's just more work for me to separate the slices, and they can probably charge more than they used to. I'm so jaded.

I sampled a little of the fake turkey, plain, just to get an idea of what we were working with. The texture was pretty turkey-lunchmeat-like, but the flavor had an off-note to it. Probably that gluten-flavor that brings down so many other products' ratings, but fairly muted. But lunchmeats aren't meant to be eaten solo, so I stacked it up with some cheese on the cracker. Eaten this way, any flavors the fake turkey may have had melted away into the strong flavors of Swiss cheese and salty whole wheat. This makes me wonder if maybe some of the flavored deli slices may do better. I played around with different fake-meat:cheese:cracker ratios, but the more fake meat I used, the more I could taste that not-awesome flavor. So, as a cheese and cracker accompaniment, I'd say it was that one group member who doesn't contribute anything but puts his name on the finished project anyway. How's that metaphor working for you?

I wanted, as I said earlier, to try it out in a more standard sandwich situation, but that just didn't work out this time. I'd like to try some of the other varieties of Tofurky deli slices. Hopefully they'll have more of a presence when combined with other components.

The experience:
Texture - No complaints here - very lunchmeat-y. No odd chewiness or unpleasant mushiness - just your standard deli slice
Flavor - Not much to say about it - not very tasty on its own, underwhelming when combined with other elements.

Final grade for this attempt: B

* Side note, nobody's paying me for anything I write. I sort of feel like I should do something about that one of these days…

June 25, 2010

Lightlife Tofu Pups, this time, on a stick!

I mentioned in my first review of Lightlife's Tofu Pups that these hot dogs might perform better in a more traditional hot dog setting. The other day, for lunch, I got ambitious and decided to transform my leftover Tofu Pups into corn dogs! Who doesn't like hot dogs wrapped in corn bread on a stick? I'm a little afraid of frying things at my house, since I don't have an actual deep fryer, so I went with the wimpier-yet-healthier route of a baked corn dog. I hunted around on the internet for a good recipe, and found one here that looked promising.

I got the corn bread portion of the recipe ready to go, stuck the tofu pups on skewers (all I had at the time) and wrapped the corn bread dough around the dogs. They looked fairly edible, so I went ahead and baked them.

The results: well, right away, the skewer was a failure. It pulled right out of the hot dog. I sort of knew it would, but hoped it maybe wouldn't. So I just picked it up with my hands and dipped it into the ketchup that way. It wasn't a big deal to do that, because, since it wasn't fried, it wasn't totally greasy. Disregarding the total dryness of the corn bread portion, the flavor of the corn bread melded very well with the flavor of the Tofu Pup. This is a very good application of this product. It still smelled terrible once you broke through the corn bread armor, but it tasted pretty okay all together. I would recommend (and may try for myself one day) a more standard batter and actually frying it. If you do this (or have done it in the past), let me know how it goes.

The experience:
Texture - the corn bread part was very dry, but the Tofu Pup itself still had that pleasing cheap-hot-dog texture that I like from time to time
Flavor - better than it smells, for sure

Final grade for this attempt: B for the dog, C for the corn bread recipe

June 18, 2010

Lightlife Smart BBQ

As many of you may have noticed, it's summer. And what's a good thing to eat in the summer? Barbecue! So this week, we're going to take a gander at Lightlife's Smart BBQ.

Just to compare, I also tossed some pork shoulder into my slow cooker in the morning, but ended up choosing not to make this a head-to-head post, which I'll explain in a bit. I decided to flesh out the meal with some traditional sides: corn on the cob and coleslaw, with an awesome strawberry-rhubarb crumble for dessert. I was going to do this right!

Once the real meat and the sides were just about ready, I put the package of Smart BBQ into the microwave, as directed. Right in the package and everything - just slightly tear the top to vent. Just a couple minutes later, everything was done! We loaded up our plates with both real meat and fake meat and got ready for some awesome barbecue.

First thing I noticed - the fake meat barbecue did not have even remotely the same texture as the pulled pork I made. The pork was melt-in-your-mouth tender, while the fake meat was super chewy. I decided that the fake meat was not meant to imitate a pulled pork recipe, but maybe some beef brisket, which is much chewier. With that comparison in mind, I took another bite. I would go ahead and say it is pretty faithful to the chewiness of beef. As for the flavor, well, barbecue sauce covers most flaws, and this was no exception. The sauce was nicely tangy and and smoky, as promised.

Unfortunately for the Smart BBQ, it was up against some very tough competition, so not too much of it got eaten, but the stuff that did was surprisingly good.

The experience:
Texture - Once we decided it was imitating beef, not pork, I totally got behind the (initially excessive-seeming) chewiness
Flavor - Can't really go wrong with a good barbecue sauce

Final grade for this attempt: A

June 11, 2010

Tofurky Kielbasa

Before typing up this review, I did some research on kielbasa, just to make sure I didn't say anything incorrect about polish sausages only to be told that there are different types and I am wrong and stupid. Turns out, there are different varieties of polish sausages (as I'd expected). With that in mind, I'll try not to make any sausage-ignorant comments about this Tofurky Kielbasa.

First of all, the picture on the package is grossly misleading. They are bright red in the picture. The reality is that these are sort of grayish beige. The picture had led me to expect a product I was pretty familiar with that I eat from time to time also called kielbasa (or polish sausage, or smoked sausage, depending on the brand that is cheapest at the time of purchase) that is more U-shaped and has a delightful spicy flavor. These were definitely not U-shaped, but that was okay, since I was really hoping they had the same flavor profile as the other sausage. Once I saw that they were gray instead of red, I lost some enthusiasm for the experience.

The package said they were "outdoor grill approved" whatever that means, but I didn't feel like firing up my little mini charcoal grill just for these sausages, so I tossed them on my foreman grill. Same basic idea, I reasoned.

When I get that U-shaped polish sausage, I like to eat it with some scalloped potatoes (although mashed is also good), so I whipped some of those up to go with these sausages, and some green beans, just to get a green vegetable in there.

I grilled them up, but not for too long! Side note, I'm intrigued by the paradox of directions on so many products that strictly warn you DO NOT OVERCOOK but then give you a time frame that is WAY too long. This package's grill directions only say, "Sausages only take a short time to heat up on the grill," carefully avoiding this paradox, but providing very little helpful information.

I was not terribly excited by the prospect of eating this sausage. It was still gray-beige, but now had grill marks. Still not the exciting bright red from the package. Anyway, I went ahead and tried it. It had sort of a peppery flavor, but not much else going on. The package claims the sausages have, "the perfect blend of fresh onion and garlic," but I would have to disagree. I tasted neither onion nor garlic. When combined with scalloped potatoes, whatever flavor was in there disappeared. It was just chewy potato flavor at that point, which was not terribly offensive, but not something I strive for in my meals.  The texture was pretty nice, however. Not mushy or too dry or anything like that. I just wish it had had an equally nice flavor to go with it.

The experience:
Texture - nicely chewy - a good "sausage" texture
Flavor - not much to speak of

Maybe, if I pick these up again, I'll try to cook it up in a soup or something, but the idea of enhancing a soup with the flavor of…not really anything…isn't terribly appealing.

Final grade for this attempt: C

June 4, 2010

Lightlife Tofu Pups

Oh man - it's time to delve back into the deep, dark world of imitation hot dogs. An old friend of mine recommended these way back when I first started this blog (Hi Leah!), so I hope she's still reading. Here we go! After the two-part Smart Dog debacle, I wasn't expecting much from Lightlife's other version of the hot dog: Tofu Pups. I was a little encouraged by the fact that it had no gluten - that's usually the major factor in things that taste gross. This dog is straight soy. With other stuff, of course, but no gluten.

Since I'd gotten yelled at by some random internet user for not following the package directions for cooking those gross things before, I decided to go by the metaphorical book. I cut the slits in the dogs and microwaved them for the prescribed amount of time. While that was happening, I was getting my macaroni and cheese ready. I was feeling optimistic on these.

Once the pups were ready to go, I cut off a chunk and checked it out. This was first accomplished by squeezing it between my index finger and thumb to assess the texture. Gotta say, hilariously squishy. The texture struck me as intensely amusing. It was very… springy. Yeah, let's go with that. Springy. I went ahead and put it in my mouth anyway. Oh wait - first I have to discuss the smell. The odor that emitted from the microwave when I took the dogs out was absolutely foul! I was not looking forward to tasting this item. Luckily, it did not taste like it smelled. It didn't really taste like anything, truth be told. And that's not because I was holding my breath or anything. It really tasted like nothing. I even tried it with a bite of my macaroni to see if it would disappear into the mac and cheese, leaving only a hilariously spongy texture. Oddly, it imparted a weird unpleasantness to the mac and cheese. Not a great combo.

Not ready to give up yet, I tried it in a more traditional hot dog setting. With ketchup! Now we're talking. It absorbed the ketchup flavor without competing. Very symbiotic. It lent a pleasantly squishy texture to the ketchup, and the ketchup provided a nice flavor to the flavorless hot dog. If I'd had any hot dog buns, I'd have tossed one on a bun and gone full hot dog on that bad boy. But that's for another review. I finished eating that whole pup, in chunks, with ketchup, next to my macaroni and cheese, and it wasn't too bad. One more note on the texture - I don't know how many of you out there have eaten those super cheap real-meat hot dogs. You probably know the ones I'm talking about - they cost about a buck for a package, and you just know that they can't be more than fifty percent meat? And certainly not from any recognizable cut. Well, the Tofu Pups had the texture of those down exactly. Nailed it!

The experience:
Texture - exactly the texture of cheap real-meat hot dogs
Flavor - not much flavor - seemed condiment-ready though - more experimentation may be necessary

Something occurred to me during the testing of this product. Many sausage-like products that fake meat producers attempt have a pretty strong flavor that is easy to impose on whatever fake meat element you're using. Breakfast sausage, Italian sausage, chorizo, kielbasa (stay tuned!), all have their own distinctive flavor profile. Hot dogs, though, are mainly about the meat (or "meat") contained within. They don't have a special "hot dog" flavor to try to imitate. This may make the job more difficult. That's all I'm sayin'.

Final grade for this attempt: B