Written by Tei Kue.
Photos by James Creange.
“If you don’t know a vegetarian, you don’t have enough friends in your life,” Chef Instructor Mark Hitri of The Culinary School of Fort Worth told my class during a recent lecture. He was explaining the importance of his decision to include a portobello burger on the menu when he was executive chef at Billy Bob’s. His words are more relevant today than ever as vegan and vegetarian diets seem to be on the rise.
Earlier this month, news outlets were abuzz with talk of Beyond Meat’s, a producer of a plant-based meat substitute, initial public offering. The company’s share price rose 163% in the first day which made it the most successful IPO in nearly two decades.
This rapid rise may not just be public hype. Research firm
MarketsandMarkets projects a growth in the meat substitute’s market from its
current $4.6 billion to $6.4 billion in 2023, while Beyond Meat is more
optimistic with an estimate that the market will reach $35 billion by 2028.
National food chains are recognizing the vegetarian market’s potential. Burger King plans to release a vegetarian burger, the Impossible Whopper, within the year. Carl’s Jr., Del Taco and TGI Friday’s now offer Beyond Meat on their menu, and Ikea plans to revamp their veggie meatballs to make them better replicate meat.
The veggie trend is even spreading to the meat obsessed Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, where steaks and burgers reign supreme. In January, Cinnaholic, a small vegan bakery franchise, began serving customers is downtown Fort Worth. Two months later a Grand Prairie restaurant specializing in veganized soul food, Itso Vegan, opened. That same month Vegan Food House, a vegan creole restaurant, opened its doors in Dallas.
Gallup polls tell a different story about the plant-based diet trend. A comparison of 2012 and 2018 polls indicate the percentage of vegetarians remained steady at 5%, while vegans rose from 2% to 3%.
Vegans and vegetarians are not proliferating; it’s the
products and businesses which serve them that are on the rise. And it’s the
growing public discourse that amplifies their prevalence. With
environmental awareness in the public limelight, it only makes sense that
veganism is also of interest. Going vegan has a bigger impact on greenhouse gas emissions than reducing flights and buying an electric car, according to Joseph Moore of Oxford University. In his 2018 study published in the Journal of Science, he suggests that cutting animal products from your diet may be the biggest step you can take to reduce your environmental impact.
This information and the veggie trend in general led me to reevaluate my diet. I’ve got good reasons to cut meat. I’m overweight and I’m still getting bigger. A diet high in beef exacerbates my risk of developing gout which is something I’m already at risk of because it runs in my family. Most importantly, I care about the welfare of animals and our environment.
The barrier is, when it comes to food, I’m a sybarite. I want to indulge my gluttonous cravings without compromise. Usually that means I eat my favorite dishes: burgers, steaks, sushi, pho and ice cream. Their veggie alternatives have never held the same appeal to me.
But when I began working on this blog post, I still hadn’t tried the Beyond Meat burger which I had heard comes close to the real thing. Nor had I ever had vegan pho or ice cream. It occurred to me that my belief that there weren’t good veggie alternatives was not backed up by my own experience.
So, for the sake of my diet and this blog, a Culinary School of Fort Worth classmate and I tried cooking up a few vegan and vegetarian variants of my favorite dishes to see how they compare. Steak and sushi were out of the equation because there are no equivalent substitutes for the flavor and texture of a medium rare steak or raw fish. That left burgers, pho and ice cream.
I cooked the savory dishes, and my classmate, She’myra Rolack, who prefers to cook pastry dishes, made the ice cream.
For the burgers, I grilled up some Beyond Meat that I bought from Central Market. They weren’t difficult to cook, but I did have trouble with one of the burgers sticking. I think the fault lies on me, not the patty, because I forgot to oil up the grill before I put the burgers on. It just wasn’t something I thought about because I’m used to cooking burgers on my grill at home, which is well seasoned with burger fat. I also didn’t know how to tell when they were done cooking (I hate using thermometers), so I just went with my gut and it worked out fine.
As people walked through the kitchen, each one of them noted how amazing the burgers smelled. And when I shared them with my classmates, other students at the school, and some of the staff, they were well received.
I thought the Beyond Meat burger tasted fantastic. The flavor and texture were closer to meat than I’ve ever tasted in a veggie burger. It can definitely satisfy my future cravings. My only qualms are the small diameter and high price ($3 each) of the patties.
The vegan pho, on the other hand, was a disappointment.
I made a vegan broth which I slowly simmered with star anise,
cinnamon, lemongrass, ginger, cloves, and cardamom. As it cooked, the aroma of
what smelled like real pho left me with high hopes and a watering mouth. But
after I finished cooking it, the flavor let me down. It lacked the richness and
depth of the real thing. I’m open to trying it again, but I am not optimistic.
She’myra is a fantastic pastry cook. I always look forward to eating her desserts, but the ingredients list of her vegan ice cream recipe left me unenthusiastic. Instead of cream and eggs, she used coconut milk and coconut cream to achieve the creamy texture I enjoy in the real deal.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed the finished product, but it wasn’t close to what I want when I’m in the mood for ice cream primarily because the texture wasn’t what it should be.
For the fun of it, we also made two other vegan dishes.
The day before I began work on this blog, I scoffed at someone eating vegan pesto by rhetorically inquiring how it could be any good without parmesan. To find out, I decided to make a vegan pesto for a vegan pasta salad. I simply made a traditional pesto and substituted the parmesan with nutritional yeast. And now I feel like a fool because vegan pesto is great.
The last dish She’myra made was gluten-free vegan brownies. I tried making some before and it was the most horrendous experience I’ve ever had in the kitchen. I’m not a fan of baking and making gluten-free brownies is just baking with extra steps.
Luckily someone who likes pastry was behind the wheel, because the brownies she made stole the show. They were rich, chocolatey and sweet yet not overwhelming. The brownies had a fudge-like creaminess but still had a crackly brownie crust on the top. Vegan brownies every day, please. They can replace the ice cream.
The things I’ve learned while researching for this blog post have allowed me to make a compromise. When I have cravings, sometimes there is a good and healthy alternative to the real thing. I’m not going to become a vegetarian or a vegan, but I know I can decrease the amount of animal products I eat while still indulging my hedonistic desires.
Perhaps I won’t have as much environmental impact as getting an electric car, but maybe I can have as much impact as getting a hybrid…or perhaps more realistically, getting the 4 cylinder instead of the V8. I look forward to the day when I can eat whatever I want and feel good about it because I know I’m doing what’s right for myself, animals and the environment. And with meat substitute producers, national chains, our local vegan restaurants and good chefs continuing to improve the veggie alternatives, I know that day is on the horizon.