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Thursday, February 16, 2017

Real Photographs and Chicken Substitute Dishes

 A question I often have at grocery delis: What is this dish?

This is a chicken dish that I made with tempeh. From a Betty Crocker International cookbook, the recipe is Caribbean, like Jambalaya except that it includes green olives. How was it? It was OK. Tempeh is made of soybeans but soybeans don't taste much like chicken.

I bought chicken at the Whole Foods Co-op for years, and still would buy their poultry products. One year as I became more vegetarian, I decided to try meat substitutes in dishes I liked.

Backtracking into the early 1990's, I saw on PBS television how some farmers were keeping chickens in warehouses and often caged. The next time I went to the supermarket, I looked at the chicken and eggs I had been buying and walked away.

For me, it was easier to adjust the meat in my diet than for many other people. As a child, I was goaded to eat meat. There were only a few meats I liked while I cleaned up the family wooden salad bowl after everyone had taken their share. I loved tomatoes, spinach, and cheddar cheese. My mother said she craved tomatoes when she was pregnant with me.

After college, I could eat what I wanted. I remember a Minneapolis cheese market and buying fish. Vegetarianism then was an eccentric choice. I had understood that I should eat meat at least three times a week but eventually, I ate it when I wanted. Sometimes that was after days or weeks however surprisingly, I savored meat when I ate it after a hiatus. If meat lost its freshness or I felt obligated to eat it, I used to throw it out the way I once fed it to the dog under the table.

My experience in the early 1990's proved to me that a photograph can change a person's diet. In my novel, Tug of the Wishbone, this becomes a plot element in a woman photographer’s story.

At the Co-op, I wondered about the tempeh dishes in the deli. I liked tofu but ate it as traditional oriental stir-fry and sometimes vegetarian stir-fry. The next picture is of shepherd's pie made with tempeh. This was pretty good, like a ground chicken or turkey although it lacked the meat flavor. I used LightLife Organic Garden Veggie Tempeh for this.

About the time I knew that tempeh couldn’t really replace chicken, a new “fake” chicken came into the Co-op grocery. I had to try it.  Yes, it was much better in the Caribbean recipe. The Tofurky Slow Roasted Chick'n (its ingredients are on its page) separates into bite-size pieces or shreds. It doesn’t really do for recipes that use pieces of chicken. I thought it worked for Chicken Tetrazzini although the flavor is zestier than chicken, belying its non-meat processing. One serving of this product contains 27 grams of protein. The average adult needs around 40 grams of protein a day.

I felt this chicken substitute was good as a lunch or casual supper choice. For me, it was very acceptable in a cock-a-leekie soup, and in chicken salad for sandwiches, then in a Chinese stir-fry with mushrooms, snow peas, and water chestnuts. It also tasted fine to me in chicken quesadillas - chicken and cheese fried in a tamale “sandwich.”

Cock-a-leekie soup with farro 
Quesadillas with guacamole

Here I made it into a pot pie. I’m picky about mashed potatoes in that I like them piping hot, so I look for recipes where the mashed potatoes are cooked in the oven. This recipe, from a Reader’s Digest cookbook, was surprisingly tasty. The chicken gravy has a little wine in it and some yogurt added to the thickened broth at the last. It uses zucchini rather than peas. Trying it with the chicken substitute, I thought this had the best chance of fooling an unwary person that they were eating chicken.

Another recipe I tried, where the chicken substitute was blended into strong flavors, was a chicken biriyani, made with red cabbage and apples. This is a variation on a basic Indian dish, and attracted me to attempt cooking Indian-style. I hardly noticed that the chicken was a non-meat substitute, perhaps because of the Indian spice base.

While writing Tug of the Wishbone, I researched poultry and today’s farming. For someone who grew up in an agricultural region when most animal products were free range and organic, it was important to have current information. I accepted the inflation of prices for those products.

So far, I don't think chicken substitutes would satisfy meat eaters. Vegetarian delis and new vegetarian recipes might work better so that there isn’t an expectation of meat texture and flavor. I might show what I did with beef and sausage substitute “meat.”

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