Veggie burgers, to the rescue

Whether at work during lunch, out to dinner with friends, or at home with the family, I get asked, “Why are you a vegetarian? Do you not like meat?” No, I love it. It’s delicious. But even when I can hold attention long enough to explain why I choose non-meat options, provide some scientific facts, work through my rationale, I always still reach this stand still: “But tofu is gross!” Well, so is raw chicken.

Like a lot of America’s lacking educational system, I experienced the shortcomings of public school: no comprehensive sex education, queerphobic and straight-washed history lessons, and a home-ec that taught womxn to learn to sew and cook the simplest of things. And so for me, learning to cook non-meat meals took time.

I was privileged to grow up with a mother who cooked dinners often. And while every meal had fairly balanced portions, understandably, it was tailored toward the tastes of my parents. Thus, I never thought I would like chard, beets, kale, seitan, tempeh, or quinoa because I was never exposed to it. I started by braving my way into food co-ops and farmers’ markets, and exploring produce beyond the pre-cut carrots at my local Price Chopper.

I took to the internet and sought out queer chefs — yes, beyond our beloved Antoni — for recipe advice. This sparked my turning to vegetarianism. And apparently there exists a long-linking bond between these two groups.

Some believe it’s due to human-rights issues and queer people possibly being more forgiving to the mistreatment of animals. Others recognize pioneers like Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Jane Goodall, and queer icons Angela Davis and Audre Lorde for speaking up about their vegan/veggie dietary choices.

I started with tofu, and I’m finally getting comfortable cooking it up — marinading it, frying it, baking it, pan-searing it, and generally enjoying it. I always assumed fresh vegetables are more expensive than frozen bags of peas two for a dollar. But now that I’m privileged to be out of the food desert that was Syracuse, New York, I save money and time at my local market on Sundays by stocking up on fresh and locally-grown greens for cheap.

To tackle the a vegetarian diet provide the right nutrition” argument: I’m not advising anyone to give up chicken breasts and switch to Oreos to stay vegan. (Don’t make me get into the palm oil discussion!) If you hate vegetables, going veggie probably won’t suffice. You can make it work, but c’mon.

I was lucky to run a mini-experiment: Getting drug-tested for my current job meant blood work before I was hired. As of last week, my recent physical requires annual blood work, and I got to compare these results as my body transitioned to an entirely meat-free diet. My protein, iron, calcium, vitamin B12, and zinc levels are all at healthy levels, and most of these actually increased slightly. Realizing that vitamins like B12 (found primarily in meat products), protein, and iron levels are easily at risk when you cut meat from your diet, I made conscious decisions to work-in foods like nutritional yeast to substitute B12 from bacteria cultures.

All in all, in the same way as a meat-based diet does, it all comes down to your recipe. So to pull this all together, I want to provide an alternate to the Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat patties on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Trust me: I still crave a medium-rare burger with the over-easy egg yolk and the works once a week, but the cost of these alternates are still driven by their (slowly increasing, but still lower) demand. I read up on some veggie burger recipes that exist, worked with my understanding of the products, and came up with a cheap, reasonably accessible, and — according to my straight, meat-eating coworker — tasty option to try out. 

Think of veganism, pescetarianism, and vegetarianism as a process. Diving right into any one of these categories is not only difficult, but unrealistic. Chances are you still have food in the fridge that breaks the expectations of the food plan. Slowly weaning myself off of animal products — by actively making the little choices like switching to seitan and tofu, and oil-based butter alternatives — all eased the process for me, and hopefully for you as well. Good luck! 🍒

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🍔[insert catchy recipe title name here] 🍔

1 cup beets (1 large beet)

½ cup chickpeas

1 ½ cups fresh mushrooms

½ cup firm tofu

¼ cups pepitas

½ cups dry steel cut oats

¼ cup onion

2 cloves garlic

1. Prepare patty ingredients. Finely shred the beets and squeeze out some of the liquid. I recommend collecting it to add back into the patty later on if its feeling too dry. You can also blend the beets to a fine paste, but I like the bit of texture fine shredding provides.

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2. Cook the rice — I used brown rice — as you normally would: covered and slowly until just sticky. The rice can also be blended after, or mashed as I did to lessen the obviousness of the rice grains itself.

3. Rehydrate the chickpeas. I choose chickpeas from my local co-op. They are so much more affordable when you can pay for dry chickpeas and throw them in a mason jar with water for a couple days than when you buy them in the can. Plus you’ll notice: I never salted the rice, and avoiding canned chickpeas cuts back on the sodium packed in those cans. (You can add salt later to taste.) Especially since this recipe is meatless, you’ll find it odd, but feel free to taste the patty as you go to get the right flavor. There’s no threat of salmonella from raw meat!

4. Cook down the mushrooms. I used cremini, aka baby portobello, available at most grocery stores. Some would cook down with butter, others could steam — I chose just to cook with the onion and garlic in a pan on the stove. I can’t stand the smell of the mushrooms so I did this last, so the smell would just be masked by the soon-to-be “cooked burger” smell.

But I can promise the taste is almost a wash, and they provide a more convincing color to counteract the bright red beets.

5. Blend the pepitas and oats. These can be substituted with pumpkin, sunflower, flax, or even chia. I like pepitas, because they don’t have a shell, are cheap, and often come unsalted as well. I created a powder out of the pepitas and the oats to absorb extra moisture, and to bring the mixture into something that sticks together easily.

6. Break down the tofu into small pieces. I used a blender, and blended the mushrooms, onion, garlic, tofu, chickpeas, and some of beets to make it smoother to blend. I mixed the patty mixture until it was just homogenous. 

7. Combine the blended tofu/mushrooms/onions/garlic/chickpeas with the rice, and the rest of the beets with the rice. Mix with a spatula until all evenly combined. Add in pepita/oat powder until the mixture comes together, adding more of the beet juice if you make it too dry. 

8. Season to your liking. I used onion powder, salt pepper, red pepper flakes, nutritional yeast, and paprika for smokiness

9. Cook. I used a hot cast-iron pan, seared one side of the patty, flipped, and tossed the whole skillet into a hot oven at 350° F to cook through. Mind you, nothing needs to be cooked: Just warmed to taste. The mixture did do better once seared and held together nicely. For those who enjoy a meat burger, the beets did provide an oddly satisfactory reddish look inside the burger and it really checked all the boxes!

10. Doctor the hell out of this thing. I really treated myself with some vegan cheese (that melted!), an over-easy egg for that runny-umami yumminess, lettuce, tomato, onion, and some homemade sauce goodness. 🍒

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