Category Archives: Food

Beyond Beef Taco Night

If you have school aged children in any sort of activities you understand the struggle of dinner.  The solution, in my house, is taco night.  A few minutes of prep with some ground beef and a bevy of on hand ingredients mean a quick dinner before running out the door to dance or soccer practice or band…you get the idea.

However, ground beef is an ethical and environmental conundrum.  Regardless of how the animal is raised the production of ground beef results in the death of a cow.  No amount of time on pasture can change this fact.  Furthermore, most cows are raised in conditions that most people find deplorable.  Feedlots and CAFOs are horrible places.  Just driving by one on the interstate can make a person consider becoming a vegan.

America just loves ground beef.  More than half of the beef we consume in this country is in the form of ground beef.  Be it hamburgers, sloppy joes, loose meat sandwiches, chili, etc. Americans eat a lot of ground beef.  Estimates are hard to come by, but the clearest numbers I have seen put our annual consumption north of 30 billion pounds of ground beef consumed in the United States per year.  Most of that ground beef (>80%) comes from feedlot cattle.

This is the market that companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are trying to disrupt with their plant based alternative “hamburgers.”  The ground beef market is not just hamburgers thought and that is where Beyond Meat’s Beyond Beef product comes into play:

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It comes out of the package looking a little bit like a brick of protein:

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After a few minutes on medium-high heat the protein begins to break up into that recognizable crumble:

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A package of taco seasoning and a little bit of water gives you a pan full of taco meat.  It all worked just like cooking a pound of regular ol’ ground beef.

So, what is the verdict?

The process is the same as cooking traditional ground beef.  That is a wash.

The flavor is…close.  The texture is…close.  I do not know if it is psychological because I knew it was not actual ground beef or if it is something in the formulation.  It was just a little off in the same way that some meatless burger patties are off.  Perhaps it is the uncanny valley of fake meat.  No longer are we in the trough of the uncanny valley where the simulated product is off by enough to make it truly disturbing.  Instead we are climbing toward true meat replacements in every facet that only lack a few traits.

This has to be what is scaring traditional meat producers into strong arming state legislatures to pass laws banning the word meat or burger or whatever from faux meat products.  When someone who is conscious of the ethical and environmental impacts of meat production is given an alternative that has none of those concerns their choice is going to be easy.  If the meat alternative is close enough in taste and texture than it is a slam dunk for a larger percentage of the population.  Like Republicans holding onto an ageing base of older, rural, white Americans at the expense of a changing national demographic the meat industry is facing an existential crisis brought on by a competitor.

Beyond Beef is not cheap.  At my local coop it cost $9.99 per pound.  Compare that to a pound of grass fed, grass finished beef produced in Minnesota that costs anywhere from $6.99 to $8.99 a pound from the same retailer.  Consider it the cost of being an early adopter.

Orange Chicken Showdown: Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken versus Aldi’s Never Any Chicken with Orange Sauce

Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken is a perennial favorite of everyone’s favorite odd little supermarket.  Freezers across the country are stocked with bags of this weekday dinner delight and it has been a lifesaver in terms of getting everyone satisfactorily fed in my household as well.

However, we seem to be living in the age of meatless alternatives.  If you like hamburgers you can default to the old standbys like Boca or Morningstar Farms, but you are more likely to choose a Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger.  Heck, you can even get moderately priced meatless fair from the ever quirky Aldi.

You can also get a bag of meatless orange chicken from Aldi.  Or is it orange not-quite-so-chicken?  I digress.

Naturally, I wanted to compare Aldi’s offering with that of the old standby Trader Joe’s:

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An initial visual inspection reveals the primary difference between the two products.  The Aldi alternative is much more like chicken nuggets with sauce while the Trader Joe’s offering is more akin to Chinese takeout.  If you desire the craggy and crunchy thrill of deep fried chicken pieces than Trader Joe’s will win every time.  You can see the difference:

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In truth, that is the primary difference.  Let’s be honest for a moment.  The presence of actual chicken versus a textured vegetable protein is almost a non-factor because I do not know of anyone who eats frozen orange chicken because of the meat.  This is a show about crunchy fried bits and orange sauce.  Unless you run across a stray piece of cartilage there is nothing that you remember about the chicken.  I posit that you could sell people pieces of deep fried batter in orange sauce, minus any actual protein, and it would sell quite well.

Aside from the texture difference of the chicken pieces there is a slight difference in the taste of the orange sauce.  The Aldi version is slightly thinner and sweeter.  The Trader Joe’s version is thicker and has a vinegar bite.  Which do you prefer?  That would be personal as I know people who prefer thin red sweet and sour over thicker and more vinegary sweet and sour.

The real question I have is why Aldi could not have made a meatless orange chicken that duplicated the craggy fried goodness of the Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken.  It would seem to me that random and misshapen bits of protein covered in battered and deep fried would be an easier problem to solve versus the analogue of a breast meat nugget.  Just saying.

A Meatless Burger from Aldi?

There is a trope in economics about a product or technology getting to a “China price” or an “India price.”  The idea being that it is one thing for a product or technology to be affordable to American or European consumers, but to be truly transformative something needs to be affordable to the billions of consumers in China and India.

Like most popularized economic wisdom this is a little simplistic and overlooks much of the nuance that makes a product or technology transformative.  However, there might just be a corollary for meatless hamburgers.  I propose the “Aldi price.”

Flipping through the weekly flyer that comes in the mail while I waited for my daughter to finish her weekly piano lesson I saw several meatless foods advertised in the Aldi flyer.  Normally, I do not shop at Aldi.  It has little to do with the offerings and more to do with the fact that I just don’t seem to understand shopping at Aldi.  From the quarter deposit for a cart, the odd way the store seems structured, and so on.  It is just not my bag.

However, for approximately $3 I was able to buy a package of four meatless burgers under the Earth Grown label:

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This is half the price of what a Beyond Burger goes for in the grocery stores around here.  Heck, you cannot even buy the Impossible Burger for home consumption anywhere yet.  On a per ounce price basis the Aldi Earth Grown meatless burger is cheaper than decent ground beef.  At this price there can be little argument that a meatless burger is both an economic and environmental winner.  At the “Aldi price” a meatless burger is a burger that anyone can afford.

The question remains, does anyone really want an Aldi meatless burger:

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There is a definite disconnect between what is shown on the box and what comes out of the box.  I would guess that the patties—which come four to a box—are about half the thickness of the patty shown on the box.  Furthermore, the texture is less ground beef analog—which is what the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are going for—and more improved veggie burger.  This is an improvement on the lifeless Boca patties of your late 1990s backyard party.  This is not, however, a patty that will sit in the uncanny valley between actual hamburger and veggie burger.

It is amazing that we have come to a time and place regarding meatless hamburgers where we are arguing if the product is enough like actual hamburger versus is the product barely edible.  For anyone who soldiered through eating crumbly black bean patties or bizarre quinoa creations in the early aughts this is a revelation.

Another Plant Based Burger Hits the Shelves

It is amazing to see just how “hot” plant based burgers are right now.  It is difficult to spend any time reading food related websites without coming across a reference to either the Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat products. It is a long way from non-meat burgers being sad patties of soy protein, black beans, and some spices on the bottom shelf of the freezer section at your local natural foods store.

Take the Don Lee Farms organic plant based burger:

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I picked up this particular package from my nearest Costco.  The Costco connection is interesting because apparently the company sold more than a million patties in just 60 days earlier this year. [http://www.cookinglight.com/news/costco-sold-more-than-one-million-plant-based-don-lee-burgers]  Now, I do not know if that is a truly gangbusters number for Costco where mayonnaise is sold in literal buckets.

Naturally I felt the urge to try out this new entrant.  A package of ten frozen patties cost about $11, which is a far sight cheaper than the Beyond Burger.  The cheapest Beyond Burger was on special at my local coop for $4.99 for two patties.  In terms of value the Don Lee Farms product was running away with things.

It is suggested that the patties be cooked from frozen, so I fired up the grill and got to cooking:

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The babies cook up fast.  Like a couple of minutes per side and the internal temperature was already in the 150 degree Fahrenheit range.  The patties also got a little crispy around the edges really fast.  Faster than the Beyond Burger and definitely faster than a regular old grass fed beef patty.  As the Don Lee Farms burgers were cooking I noticed a distinct lack of oils or fats which is a departure from the Beyond Burger.  It seemed more in line with more traditional veggie burgers from the 1990s.  Ooooh the 1990s when ordering a plant based burger seemed subversive.

The result is mixed:

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The Don Lee Farms plant based burger was better than any regular non meat alternative patty, but I think it falls short of the Beyond Burger.  It’s a texture thing more than anything else and I kept getting hints of crunchy vegetables from the patty that I could not shake.  Granted, a hamburger is generally a vehicle for a lot of other flavors so when you load your burger down with an onion slide, grilled pineapple, American cheese, and Miracle Whip there is a lot going on for your taste buds to process.

Here’s the thing, we have entered into the “uncanny valley” with plant based burgers.  Each iteration is getting closer to the real thing, but a few components or our own perception is off just enough to throw the whole thing for a loop.  It was easier when you were eating a hockey puck of quinoa, water chestnuts, patchouli oil, and tempeh because you did not expect the ersatz burger to be a facsimile of actual meat.  However, when manufacturers are putting pictures on the package that make the plant based burgers look like raw meat, selling patties alongside actual meat in the butcher’s case, or advertising that the patties “bleed” the experience needs to be spot on.

Until I have had to opportunity to try the Impossible Foods burger, which is only available in restaurants that do not happen to be near me, I am going to reserve judgement on the entire category.  For now these next generation plant based burgers are pretty good at replacing the experience of an actual meat burger but there is just a little something off that is throwing the experience.

Have you tried the Don Lee Farms plant based burger?

What Does Meal Planning and Prep Look Like in My Household?

Kind of like this:

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Yes, those are three pans of lasagna cooling off on my deck before being decamped to the freezer in the basement.  Why on the deck?  Why not take advantage of nature’s icebox to save me some kilowatt hours in the freezer?  Plus, it might never actually be spring here in Iowa with low teens temperatures in April.

When we make lasagna in my house we make it in batches of four.  One to bake that day and three to freeze for later.  With just a little more work than making a single pan we have prepared dinners for three more nights.  It’s a multi-faceted effort to really focus on eating at home whenever possible and every shortcut helps.

The recipe is a variation of the one Barila provides on the back of the box of their no boil lasagna noodles. I am sure that somewhere a die-hard Barefoot Contessa fan is shrieking in horror that I would use no boil lasagna noodles and a box recipe, but I digress.  There are, of course, some changes that I make to “spice things up.”

The normal recipe calls for just a pound of Italian sausage.  I up that to a pound and a half, split between sweet and hot varieties.  I also add a diced onion to the sausage while browning and sometimes a shallot as well.  When batching four pans we just dice all of the vegetables ahead of time, brown the sausage for each pan in turn, and let it cool on a plate before assembly.  It does look kind of funny to have four plates of browned sausage sitting on your counter and no dinner to show for it.

The only other trick is to not believe other online recipes that claim you need to thaw the lasagna for twenty four hours before cooking.  Try at least forty eight hours.  At a minimum.  And I would still be checking to see if the center of the pan is still frozen.  I do not know if it is the foil pans or some other issue, but these pans of lasagna are still bricks after just twenty four hours.

 

Easy No Boil Lasagna (Option to Freeze for Later)

Ingredients:

  • 1 Box Barilla® Oven-Ready Lasagne
  • 2 jars marinara sauce
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 lbs lean ground beef or sausage, browned
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1 15 oz container ricotta cheese
  • 4 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded and divided
  • 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat oven to 375°F.
  2. In a large skillet, heat olive oil and brown meat until cooked through; season with salt and pepper. Once the sausage begins to release its fat, add diced onion and shallot.  Cook until softened.
  3. In a bowl, combine ricotta, 2 cups mozzarella, and Parmigiano cheese. Stir well.
  4. Spray a 13 x 9 inch baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Pour one cup of sauce on the bottom of the dish; spread evenly. Place 3 sheets of lasagne side by side (sheets will expand while baking to the ends of the dish).
  5. Pour 1 cup of sauce and 3/4 cup of cheese mixture on the first layer. Top with ¼ cup mozzarella and 1/3 cup of the cooked meat. Repeat for 3 more layers.
  6. For the final layer, top with 3 lasagne sheets, add remaining sauce and top with cheese mixture and mozzarella.
  7. Cover with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake additional 5 minutes to brown the cheese. Let rest 15 minutes before serving.
  8. If freezing, assemble in a foil pan as instructions above and freeze covered. Freeze cheese mixture for the top in a separate bag.
  9. When ready to prepare thaw in refrigerator for at least forty eight hours.
  10. Bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. Check with instant read meat thermometer to ensure doneness.  If the temperature is high enough, top with cheese and bake uncovered for 5-10 minutes.  Otherwise, bake for additional time until appropriate temperature is achieved.

The Uncanny Valley of Faux Meat

Americans love hamburgers.  Let me amend that because the world seems to love hamburgers.  I have seen people—not just tourists, mind you—chowing down on hamburgers on at least three continents.  However, the United States takes it to another level.  The saying may be “as American as apple pie” but you could easily substitute a hamburger and no one would bat an eyelash.

That love of hamburgers has a big environmental impact.  How big?  Consider that it is estimated that Americans eat approximately 50 billion hamburgers per year or enough to circle the Earth 32 times if laid next to each other. That is a lot of meat in disc form.

Assuming that each hamburger patty is 4 ounces—the literal quarter pounder—that equates to 12.5 billion pounds of hamburger.  Consider for a moment that one pound of beef represents an average of 1,800 gallons of water or close to 16 pounds of released carbon dioxide.  That is a lot of impact, which still does not take into account factors like antibiotic resistance from feedlot operations, land use considerations, or just general animal welfare.

The odds that Americans would be willing to give up their hamburgers is low, so why not just have them give up the beef patty?  Let’s be honest and consider that for a lot of people the patty is just a vehicle for the toppings and accoutrements.  Just replace those beef patties with veggie burgers…

Oh yeah, most veggie burgers are wet cardboard masquerading as a viable alternative to an American favorite.  No thanks.  That sad patty may have been acceptable for Carl the guy from accounting who does not eat meat that Susie invited to the work function for some reason, but for the rest of the red blooded Americans in the backyard this is a no go.

Enter the start-ups, dreamers, and just plain ambitious people who think that there is way to enjoy something that is much more burger like without the stench of sadness that is a traditional veggie burger.  I would love to tell you all about the much hyped Impossible Burger from Impossible Foods, but it has been impossible—sorry, I could not help myself—to find locally or in any of the places I have been on a trip recently.  The reviews have been trickling in online for a while and it seems to hold a lot of promise.  There is a location in Nebraska that I will pass by in four weeks that is supposed to have the item on the menu, so there is a chance.

Locally, I can find the other much hyped faux meat burger from Beyond Meat: the Beyond Burger.  The concept behind this burger is that it is a “plant-based burger that looks, cooks, and tastes like a fresh beef burger.”  Beyond Meat wants you to think of this as a direct analogue to regular ground beef patties so much that it had placed the patties in the meat cases of grocery stores rather than with the Tofurkey.

On a plate and ready for the grill these sure do look like a regular beef patty:

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Off the grill and on a bun with all the fixings…I am not so sure.  I think it comes down to expectations.  This is, hands down, the best non-meat burger I have ever eaten.  However, if I come at the evaluation purely from the viewpoint of an all-beef patty I am left underwhelmed.  That is why I feel that this new generation of faux meat patties is potentially stuck in an uncanny valley.  It’s better than any faux meat that has come before, but in coming so close to the real thing it falls considerably short in some way.

The Beyond Burger did grill like its animal protein cousin…kind of.  It sizzled appropriately when introduced to the hot grill plates and there were even a few flare ups as combustible juices flowed down onto the heat shields.  The patties developed an appealing crust and cooked in about the same amount of time as a dead cow patty.

Covered in some American cheese—the appropriate choice for melty nirvana—and the other typically American cornucopia of condiments—onion, ketchup, and mustard—resulted in a satisfying burger-esque experience.  It was not a half pound of fresh ground Pat La Frida beef, but I did not expect it to be either.  Upon further review I might change how I cooked the patties moving from an outdoor grill to a flattop.

The biggest downside of these patties?  The packaging:

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Hamburger buns come in packages of eight and I always make extra because leftover burgers are a lunch time staple in my house.  Four plastic trays, four cardboard wrappers, and some trash plastic film is a little much.  How about a sleeve of these bad boys available at Costco?

It appears that Beyond Meat is bullish on the future of its approach.  The company recently announced a major expansion of its research capabilities.  

In Defense of So-Called Unitaskers

Unitaskers are loathed by the kitchen cognoscenti, but I am here to come to the defense of unitaskers.  As someone who spends a lot of time cooking at home I have come to the realization that there are certain tasks best left to a specialized tool.  It is ironic that specialized tools for the kitchen receive so much scorn when specialized tools for many other endeavors are given little consideration as an affront to skill.

Here are two unitaskers that may have you scratching your head:

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On the left is a Kyocera ginger grater and on the right is a Le Creuset pie bird funnel.

Just get a knife to dice your ginger, says the guy who watches Top Chef and thinks he is suddenly a sous chef for Thomas Keller.  Suck it.  I cook with fresh ginger at least a couple of times a week and this little ceramic disc is godsend.

Instead of spending the time dicing, I simply peel about half of the ginger root and gently rub the peeled end along the abrasive middle section of the ceramic disc.  It takes maybe thirty seconds or a minute at most to get the ginger you need for almost any recipe.

The pie bird funnel is a something else entirely.  It does a single task that no other item can perform.  What does this cute little red bird do?  It redirects the steam from the inside of your pie, in my case usually it is an apple pie, and routes it through the mouth of the bird.  Amazingly you will not have any more bubbling messes around the edges of your pie and the shoulders of the bird support the top crust amazingly.

Yes, the pie bird funnel is an extreme unitasker.  However, like having the right tool for a certain job there is nothing that it can be compared to when doing its intended purpose.  You cannot remove an external bearing bottom bracket on a bicycle with a crescent wrench, you need the specific tool for that particular job.  If you want to make amazing apple pies at home with a full top crust then you will need to get a pie bird funnel.

Here is the thing, anything that helps us spend more time cooking meals at home with our families as opposed to spending time and money on going out is a good thing.  If there is a task that you hate in the kitchen that is an impediment to more home cooking then by all means find the unitasker that makes that task simpler.  I do not think it is wrong for people to use a garlic press to make a quick pasta sauce on a weeknight when the alternative is freaking take out.

NOTE: I receive no compensation whatsoever if you click on the link and buy one of these products.  I bought them with my own money and I am promoting them with no benefit to myself save knowing that people will use more ginger if they have a ginger grater.  Or bake more pies.  How could the world not be a better place if people were baking more pies?