Thanksgiving turkey. Christmas ham. Hanukkah brisket. Every holiday seems to have meat as its gustatory centerpiece.
Those who want to feast without feeding on animals are often consigned to picking at side dishes, most of which contain chicken stock or butter unless they’ve been specially prepared. But local supermarkets offer plenty of meat-free protein roasts for holiday-meal planners looking for vegetarian options. To help them enjoy the festivities this season, we assembled a crack team of Seven Days staffers to taste some.
Staff designer, reverend, rock chick and aspiring vegan Diane Sullivan thought she could improve on the store-bought versions, so she offered her own tofu loaf for our appraisal. Besides Sullivan, tasters included staff writer Lauren Ober — a vegetarian who admits she often yearns for meat, even wild boar; circulation manager Steve Hadeka, who has returned to meat eating after a hiatus but remains vegetarian at home for his seitan-loving wife; and food writer Alice Levitt, meat lover bar none, who prepared each of the grocery-store roasts before hosting a tasting at the office.
Read on to see our thoughts on the festive faux flesh, then try Sullivan’s rockin’ recipe.
Alice Levitt: My kitchen smelled just like Chef Boyardee’s when I baked this two-pound log. However, the bumpy Field Roast tasted meatier than SpaghettiOs. I always wanted to eat my dogs’ Pup-Peroni, and now I feel like I have. I liked it just as much as I thought I would.
The only problem: Although the stuffing is supposedly made from butternut squash, apples and mushrooms, it was compositionally identical to the “meat.” The only difference I could determine was in appearance. It was all chewy and bouncy and sort of like an overcooked sausage, which I really enjoyed. My first choice if forced to have a meat-free Christmas.
Steve Hadeka: I have always been intrigued by the packaging of the Field Roast, having run across them in the “hippie cooler” at City Market. The textured, nicely browned exterior of this loaf was perhaps the most appetizing of the lot. However, a quick taste exposed this impostor as nothing more than a giant Tofu Pup. And when I say Tofu Pup, I mean just that, for all fake hot dogs are not created equal. (I like Lightlife’s Smart Dogs.) This had the meatiest, toothiest texture of the roasts, bordering on chewy. While all of our offerings came with some kind of gravy, this is the one that really needed it. This thing is like a pair of Isotoner gloves wrapped in Tiffany paper.
Diane Sullivan: I’ve had this before and loved it. But compared to my homemade tofu turkey, the saltiness of this version really kicked me in the teeth. Still yummy, but it strikes me as more of a meatloaf substitute, because there isn’t much delineation between the “stuffing” and the “meat.”
Lauren Ober: By far, this was the most meat-tasting of the bunch. It had the mouthfeel of a piece of pork and a smoky flavor, albeit from liquid smoke. While the savory ball wasn’t much to look at, it would make a nice complement to lovingly made sides.
AL: I usually like Quorn, so I was surprised at how utterly rank this thing was. The instructions on the package said to cook the loaf in its plastic wrap, with holes for venting. Despite this, mine oozed something that burned and set off my smoke alarm.
It looked like weird white bologna and tasted of sour chemicals instead of seasonings. When I chewed the “meat,” it stuck to my teeth and felt like getting a dental mold taken. I am not exaggerating when I say the best part of the Quorn-loaf experience was the sweet relief of its chlorine aftertaste.
SH: Who are the ad wizards who came up with this one? “Wait, I got it — let’s make a product that is basically a lab-grown fungus mixed with egg protein and market it to vegetarians. What’s more, we’ll give it a name that is homophonic with the most plentiful food item in the world.”
Furthermore, this smooth-textured, man-made tube is sheathed in plastic that is meant to go in the oven. With all the hoopla about heating up food in plastics that contain bad stuff like BPA, I can’t imagine why the folks at Quorn would choose this.
Unlike the others, this loaf had no stuffing. It was just a smooth, lily-white, rather bland, homogenous tube. Dressed up with the gravy, it wasn’t terrible; I just couldn’t get past the manufactured look of it. Of the lot, this had the least resemblance to food and the most to whatever astronauts eat.
DS: Even though I haven’t eaten a bird in ages, the texture of this one reminded me of fowl. But I still found it to be rather foul. Ha! Alice said it tasted like a swimming pool, but I think a swimming pool has much more flavor. It would take a lot of creativity to up the presentation level. I thought it looked like mozzarella.
LO: If there was ever a more vile imitation meat product, I’ve never eaten it. While the Quorn had the texture of a mealy chicken breast, that’s about as close as it got to approximating real food. It lacked any hint of flavor, and its blanched coloring made it look about as appetizing as a skin graft. I’ve liked Quorn products in the past (when I was new to vegetarianism and didn’t know what vegetables were), but I could only bring myself to swallow one bite of this chemical-tasting loaf.
AL: This is what tofu tasted like when I was a kid. I remember the veggie dogs that tasted more like wet dog than, um, dry cooked dog. After the ease of preparing the other loaves, I felt insulted that I was expected to make a baste and cook this for an hour and 20 minutes. Nonetheless, the effort required to roast the ball uncovered for the final 15 minutes did result in a nice, skin-like texture.
I have no words for that gravy. It’s one thing that it was tasteless, but the lumpy texture made it impossible to look at, let alone eat. Apparently the only thing worse than real giblets is fake ones.
SH: Of the store-bought products, this one had the best overall texture. The stuffing featured hearty pieces of wild rice. Nice flavor of veggie stock. The gravy had a little sweetness and reminded me of creamed corn in both appearance and flavor, which added further to the overall comfort-food vibe. I would be OK with serving this at a gathering.
DS: Always very yummy. I like that the stuffing is very much a separate entity. The gravy was icky, icky, icky. Can’t decide if it was more disturbing to the eyes or the taste buds.
LO: Call me a heretic, but I like a Tofurky roll almost as much as I liked the bird it’s meant to replace. There’s something about this well-basted log filled with perfectly cooked wild rice that warms my heart and my belly. I’ll happily eat it, as long as the bilious gravy remains in its container.
AL: There wasn’t much about this that reminded me of meat, and that’s part of why I was able to enjoy it as much as I did. The sage-filled tofu purée reminded me more of a good quiche than turkey. The peppery mushroom stuffing added a sophisticated character and satisfying texture. The chewy “skin” gave it a satisfyingly toothsome quality that would perfectly complement crisp veggies and soft mashed potatoes.
Diane’s gravy was nice and salty and, like the roast, full of herbs. Kind of like turkey gravy made without the drippings. If I had to eat this in the place of turkey, I would be kind of sad, but for a brunch with friends, I would love this meal.
SH: Diane’s gorgeous dish was head and shoulders above the others. She succeeded in what we should all strive for when preparing tofu: Turn it into an egg. The outside of this creation was so nicely browned, I had to ask if indeed it had been lovingly egg-brushed. Likewise, the texture of the tofu was similar to quiche. I can’t wait to try out this recipe on my vegetarian family members.
DS: I don’t think I can comment, ’cause I’m biased ... but, damn, it was good!
LO: First, I give Diane mad props for concocting this stuffing-filled wonder. And for crafting near-perfect veg gravy. I could eat that all day. As soon as it was cut open, the dish let loose a gust of sage aroma. It was the celery-studded stuffing, moist and fragrant. The tofu shell had a skin on it reminiscent of meat, without the moral conundrum. The best part of this dish was that it was homemade and proved you don’t need a flesh substitute from a box; you just need a conscientious, capable cook.