We return again to the strange shores of vegan cuisine to take a look at Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. We’ve looked at a good number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to this meaty world we live in – from soy “ice cream” to chicken-free chicken nuggets.
In general, I find that vegetarian food really shines when it’s not getting hung up on trying to be the doppleganger of meat products, as with Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers, and just does it’s own thing. The worst sins of vegan cuisine seem to occur when somebody decides that, goddammit, yes, I need to make a turkey out of tofu. Vegetable dishes are good as vegetables, and meat dishes are good as meat – there’s no need for vegetables to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to be proved wrong in novel ways, hence the acquisition of these “meat”balls.
TJ’s comes straight out and calls their meatless meatballs, “a delicious meat-free substitute for any meal” right there on the package, without even a hint of modesty. I wouldn’t go that far, but the meatballs do delivery a surprisingly rich and full, if not exactly meaty, flavor. The meatlessballs, for lack of a better word, replicate the texture and mouthfeel of a standard party meatball pretty closely. The bite of the ball is moist and a little chewy – holding together well, and breaking up much as a bit of ground beef would. Coated with a heavy sauce, or mixed into a plate of pasta you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Taken by itself, however, the meatlessball tastes, and more importantly, smells very dissimilar.
A good job was done to season the meatlessballs in such a way that they are roughly approximate to a normal meatball, but there’s no hiding the sort of soybean-y aftertaste when eaten straight off the plate. There’s nothing here of the fatty, visceral taste of the meatball – instead there’s a thinner, somewhat vegetable blandness. This difference in taste is rather mild, however, which means it can be hidden very effectively under a good marinera or similar sauce. More problematic, for those seeking a true meat substitute, is the smell wich has nothing of the savory, fatty scent of a simmering meatball. Instead, it smells like what it is – a bunch of hot soy. It’s a strong enough scent that it might make you think twice about digging in.
When you pop this bag open, the first thing you should realize is that you
are getting a ton of these guys. These are cocktail meatballs, not the big honking ones you get in Trader Joe’s regular bag of frozen meatballs. The move feels like it may be a practical one, as even at their smaller size the meatless meatballs have a certain tendency to break up if played around with too much. On the plus side, they’re down right healthy compared to Trader Joe’s ordinary beef variety meatballs. Each six meatball serving has only 140 calories, 45 from fat, and 13 whopping grams of protein.
How do such meatless balls manage such a feat? Through the magic of textured soy protein, of course.
To level with you, I generally react to this sort of psuedo-meat like a horse being lead up to Frakenstein’s castle. There’s something strange and unnatural about it that makes me balk. Meat I get. It’s easy to get answers out of meat. “Hey, what’s this meatball made out of?” “A bunch of dead cow.” That’s a straight forward answer. The answers are harder with meatless meat products, because all of a sudden I’m being tricked, right from the start. Nothing is what it appears, but instead a complex masquerade of strange technical processes meant to fool me into thinking I’m eating meat. That’s vaguely sinister – and such weird yet innocuous phrases as “textured soy protein” only make me nervous.
Textured soy protein or “TSP” is, in fact, kind of weird and sinister stuff. It’s basically the styrofoam of the food world, used since the 1960’s by the Archer Dale Midland company to pad out meat with filler material. It’s what happens when you heat soy bean flour to high temperatures that it melts, then is extruded from a nozzle as “a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textured_vegetable_protein). Does that sound amazing? Not really, but they tell you not to ask about how sausage is made either.
That may sound like I’m being harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate. In terms of texture and even, to a fair degree, taste these “meat”balls really are good substitutes for real meatballs. But to say, as Trader Joe’s does, that they’re a substitute for “any recipe” isn’t one I’d stand behind. Taken as a small asset in a larger dish, in a sloppy meatball sandwich say, they work beautifully, as they would for any vegetarian just looking to get a little variety in their diet. However, in a dish where the meatballs are showcased instead of hidden behind other, stronger flavors they’re unlikely to please the table.
Would I Recommend It: Not to meat eaters, possibly to vegetarians.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, I’ll stick to TJ’s lean turkey variety.
Final Synopsis: Fake meatballs suitable for pasta but not soup.
I’ve got to hand it to Trader Joe’s Chickenless Crispy Tenders – they’re some of the best fake meat I’ve had to date. I’ve commented before on the common pitfalls of vegetarian cuisine attempting to ape meat instead of just doing its own thing. Usually this ends in a painfully tortured product name that attempts to acknowledge that it’s totally vegetarian but tastes just like meat, wink wink. (cf. Tofurkey). Generally this is an outrageous lie, or, more generously, extremely wishful thinking by a meat-starved demographic.
I’ve already expounded on my metaphysical sympathy for vegetarians. I can support the cause – I advocate the idea of abstaining from meat, and would do so myself if only my intensely bon vivant lifestyle would allow for it. Nevertheless, like the soy creamy ice cream substitute before it, I bought some crispy chickenless teneder because I needed a non-meat alternative for my (one) vegan friend. As fate would have it, I accidentally forgot to cook them in time for the meal, she ended up having nothing, and I was left with these chickenless tenders until tonight, when continued poor planning left me with nothing else in the house to eat.
Fortunately, Trader Joe’s Chickenless Tenders are not just edible, but downright tasty. They actually taste more or less like chicken tenders. How close? Close enough you could probably fool an unwary guest if you served them up without fanfare. There is still that tell-tale aftertaste of “soy-ness” that hangs around, but it’s pretty mild and is more or less totally cloaked by whatever dipping sauces or dressings you’re going to be ingesting the chicken tenders with. The only strange part is that the strips have been “breaded” in a variety of oats and flours that result in a crumbly, quasi breading that’s generally inferior to ordinary breading. The reason for this substitution, I cannot quite fathom.
TJ’s has managed to capture not just the taste, but also the texture of breaded chicken strips. The tenders are precisely that, coming out of the oven tender, moist, and just toothsome enough to give you a nice balance between chewy and yielding. They even pull apart more or less like real chicken, which is a difficult feat to accomplish when your medium is soy protein isolate.
How did TJ’s manage such a thing? I have no idea, but apparently it involves a large number of strange sounding, if allegedly natural, ingredients.
Water, soy protein isolate, and canola oil make up the first three ingredients, naturally enough. It might seem unusual that oil is ingredient #3, but remember that these are oven-baked “chicken” fingers we’re talking about. Like fish and or shrimp nuggets, when you take them out of the oven you’re going to be picking them up out of a little pool of their own oil.
After these three ingredients things get a little crazy. Pea protein pops up in a prominent position. Are peas known for their protein? Is it possible to tell someone, out loud, that your food has a lot of pea protein in it and not make it sound like an unspeakable form of bio-waste recycling? Not as far as I’m concerned.
After that we get into the ancient grain flours – including quinoa (natch), millet, and everyone’s favorite, amaranth. Rounding all that out is a good helping of Kamut®. “What the hell is Kamut®, and why is it trademarked?” is the very reasonable question you might be asking yourself right now. We’ll have to save that can of worms for another day, but the short answer is it’s a proprietary form of ancient wheat known as Khorasan wheat, originally from round about Afghanistan and nowadays lorded over by two Montana farmers. Also there’s beet root fiber in the tenders.
Somehow, in the end, all of this comes together to make strangely delicious vegan chicken tenders, with only thrice the fat of regular chicken tenders. For me it’s less important how it all works out, then the fact that it does. They might not replace regular, flesh and blood chicken in my life, but it’s good to know there’s a good back up option should it ever come to it.
Would I Recommend It: I would, if you’re a vegan/vegetarian.
Would I Buy It Again: This seems like a good fit for Meatless Monday.
Final Synopsis: Eerily good vegan chicken tenders.