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Hotdogs, hamburgers and meatball subs: curing carnivorous cravings with plant-based alternatives

Photography By Polina Tankilevitch, Olga Miltsova
Published 11.01.22

In the line for the kebab shop at 2am. You’re staring at a giant slab of rotating meat wondering if you miss the taste of doner chicken enough to betray your vegetarian lifestyle. Sure, you love falafels, but sometimes you just crave meat.

For the devout meat-free eaters of this workplace, living a plant-based lifestyle is pretty easy. We’re comfortable with our dietary decisions and are happy to stick to our moral guns when we step into the kitchen.

But we’re not entirely impervious to the omnivore allure. Most of us weren’t raised as vegetarians or vegans and have happy memories of hot dogs, hamburgers and whatever is on top of frozen Hawaiian pizzas.

When these intense cravings arise, the best thing to do is seek out alternatives. There are clever culinary wizards in the world who have made it their mission to experiment with flavours and foods in order to come up with plant-based options that rival meat dishes.

Rather than throw a bunch of recipes at you, we asked some of the team to think of a meat dish they love or miss, and remake it as a plant-based alternative. From Subway’s infamous meatball sub to a classic cheeseburger, these are our five favourite meat dishes reimagined.

Wendy: Subway’s meatball sub 

  

I like to consider myself a pretty “food-oriented” person. I love to cook, explore restaurants and try new things. But no matter how sophisticated one feels, there’s no escaping our base selves, right?  

Personally, this is never more obvious to me than when reflecting on the meaty meals I miss. I’ve been a vegetarian (and occasional vegan) for over 12 years. For the most part I don’t give a passing thought to my carnivorous past. But there are a few dishes that float through my mind, inspiring passing epicurean nostalgia.   

You’d think these would be sentimental favourites or high-culinary fantasies. Sure, I occasionally consider my grandma’s Sunday roast or a perfectly seared steak, but it’s not what I get lost in thought over. It’s usually random, honestly kind of gross, takeaway food that I associate with high school food court sessions. And there’s one that takes up more mental space than any other: Subway’s meatball subs. 

The strangest part of this decade-long craving is I don’t really remember feeling especially loyal to that particular sub when I did eat meat. But there’s something about the feeling of the meatballs squishing between layers of that chemically enhanced bread, adorned with synthetic cheese, that’s bonded to my synapses.   

So when we were asked to recreate a dish we miss (or feel we’ve missed out on) there was only one option for me.   

Now, my old self still needed to contend with my new self, so I decided to update the memory a bit. Instead of tracking down that infamous loaf I went with a simple, lightly toasted baguette. The rubbery cheese was also swapped out for a nice aged pecorino.   

For the main event I got lucky. Rather than adapting an existing meatball recipe, I found a great plant-based option from the iconic Melissa Clark. Although, I decided to bake them because I’m a bit lazy and figured simmering in the tomato sauce later would return any moisture the oven removed.   

On the point of the sauce. For me there is, and always will be, only one option: Marcella Hazan’s iconic slow-cooked, butter-adorned classic.   

I finished the whole meat-free spectacle off with a few basil leaves.   

Was it a doppelganger of that sloppy favourite of my youth? No. Did it scratch that historic itch? Absolutely. I couldn’t be happier to have the meatball sub back in my life – even if we have both grown up a little.   

Hana Okada

Hana: Bao buns  

 

Remember that Pixar short film Bao that made everyone cry before Incredibles 2? When the – spoiler alert – anthropomorphised steamed bun-son gets eaten by his human mum? I think about that scene every time I get this excellent $2.80 baozi from a shop down the road from the office. It’s full of mushroom and vermicelli bits (I wonder what filling the ill-fated child had?) and it’s piping hot, taken straight from the hot steamer (how did the mum eat him in one bite?). After a week of baozi and thinking about the movie, I wondered if I could make them myself.  

I eat mostly vegetarian at home and usually have a handful of go-to dishes that are on high rotation during the work week. This night, it was going to be different. It was going to be bao-tiful. Sorry.  

Baozi, a Chinese filled bun, comes in a few different iterations depending on what region you’re in. The one I usually buy is a yacai bao, most commonly associated with Sichuan province. Traditionally it’s filled with preserved vegetables, and sometimes minced meat. Making it myself was the perfect opportunity to do a fridge clean, using veggies that were a little too wilted to be eaten raw and the container of plant-based meat that had been hanging around waiting to be used.  

My favourite thing about the buns I buy is that they’re what I imagine eating a delicious pillow would be like. Squishy and soft, yet structurally sound. So the dough was going to be the most important part. I didn’t have all day – it was a Wednesday – so I looked for a recipe with the least amount of leavening and proofing time. I landed on the recipe from The Woks of Life, where I get a lot of my Chinese recipes.  

The recipe suggests fillings like bok choy, tofu and mushrooms, but my version included two-week-old spring onion, crunchy cabbage core (not the genre) and some almost squishy carrots.  

Making the dough was straightforward, and not dissimilar to most yeast-leavened recipes. Mix ingredients, add water, wait and knead. Then, I chopped and lightly sautéed the vegetables and cooked the (fake) mince. Finally, it was time to put it all together and pop it in the steamer.  

You know what? It was all pretty easy for a decent result. Sure it was a lot of mixing, a little bit of waiting and endless chopping, but nothing out of the ordinary. As you’ll see in this video, the pleating was the hardest part, so the buns didn’t come out as pretty as I’d have hoped. Because I used veggies that weren’t very high in water content, the plant-based mince added a bit of juiciness to the whole thing.  

My verdict: if you have a little bit of time, patience and veggies that need using up, this is the project for you. Will I be going back to my $2.80 bao? Yes. But I’d definitely make this again when I have plenty of flour and some more neglected veg in the fridge. One more to add to the weekly rotation.  

 

Katelin: Krabby Patty  

  

I’ll preface this with a warning that I’m not the best of cooks (and at dinner parties always have a tale to tell about disasters in the kitchen). But I have mastered a few dishes, including a couple of vegetarian meals.  

While I’m not a fully fledged vego like some of my fellow RIISE team members, I am actively trying to cut down my meat consumption in the name of the environment. As the team started chatting about the meaty meals they missed, I began to wonder what I might feel sentimental over if and when I finally take the step to be fully plant based.  

My thoughts flitted between home-cooked roasts and beef lasagna, before landing on burgers. I don’t cook burgers that often, but I do love the option when I’m out or after multiple drinks with my girlfriends. If I ever gave up meat entirely, I’m sure a hamburger would be sorely missed. So that’s what I decided to make for this task.  

To make things interesting, I challenged myself to make a Krabby Patty from my favourite childhood TV show: SpongeBob SquarePants. The Krabby Patty is the Krusty Krab’s signature food item and (though fictional) it is a meatless burger.

To assemble a burger worthy of Mr Krabs’s applause, I used a simple recipe from Woolworths. Clearly a novice in this area, I chose a pea-based recipe for the patty (which, I was later told by more experienced vegetarians, might not be the best option if you aren’t already a fan of such alternatives). On top of that, I don’t think I added enough spices and seasoning to the mix, so I found it lacked those meatier flavours. We live and we learn, right?  

After cooking the patties on a medium heat, the final task was to assemble everything – Krabby Patty style. Following my favourite YouTuber Binging with Babish’s careful instructions (no, I couldn’t memorise the exact order from the show), I stacked lettuce, cheese (I bought a vegan alternative), onions, tomatoes, ketchup, mustard and pickles between the buns. And while a little unconventional, the Krabby Patty wasn’t entirely out of sorts.  

Of course, as Babish suggests, the Krusty Krab restaurant may not have that order entirely down pat and you may want to rearrange as suits.  

While the burger fulfilled my visual pop culture culinary dreams, I would only give it a 6/10 for actual taste. But my goal of finding a meat-free burger alternative that’s as good as my current beef go-to isn’t over yet. Next on my list is Courtney’s cheeseburger recipe (see below). I’m told it will not disappoint.  

Polina Tankilevitc

Courtney: Takeout-style cheeseburger  

 

I had a bit of an advantage when I gave up meat: I already loved eating vegetarian food and I had exposed myself to so much information about the meat industry that it was something I really wanted to do. I made the decision and essentially haven’t looked back.  

In saying that, I am human, and there have been times over the years when I’ve craved certain meals. My grandma’s fritters and rissoles, a roast at Christmas, the beef cheek dish from Atari and, perhaps most of all, a cheeseburger after (or during) a big night.  

The heart and stomach have a particular way of pining for grease-infused food when you’re in a slightly altered state. These are times where a lentil patty doesn’t always cut it. But I’ve found a better way to appease those cravings, one that doesn’t require diverting your Uber through a drive-thru in the early hours of the morning.  

The recipe I use for a vegetarian cheeseburger is hardly groundbreaking culinary stuff. But when I found out Katelin was disappointed with her plant-based burger attempt, I realised it couldn’t hurt to share. There’s nothing worse than trying to get a non-vegetarian excited about meat-free options, only for them to think a meal was underwhelming. So before she threw in the towel on plant-based burgers altogether, I asked her to try this recipe. 

I copied this from a friend who really missed cheeseburgers after she went vegetarian. Just like hers, this recipe is best executed with a little help from Beyond Meat or Linda McCartney Foods. I personally rate the vegetarian mozzarella 1/4lb burgers or just the plain version if you’re looking for a vegan option. Otherwise, whatever store-bought or homemade alternative you like the taste of.  

The rest of the ingredients are pretty simple: brioche buns (which, FYI, contain dairy), onions, pickles, cheese (dairy or vegan), burger sauce and tomato relish. One of the first things to do is cook the onions with sugar and oil so they have plenty of time to soften and caramelise. Pop the patties in a frypan or the oven. Once they’re cooked through on both sides, you can place your cheese on top to melt. Add sauce and relish to the brioche buns, pickles and patties and you’re done. 

Every few months my housemates and I hold a cheeseburger Sunday where this version has become a popular request. Hand on heart, it is as good as any classic meat cheeseburger but doesn’t feel nearly as guilty to eat.  


Liz: Vegan ragu 

  

I am on the flexitarian end of vegetarianism. Progress over perfection is the name of the game. So while I have not cut meat completely out of my life, I eat very minimal amounts. Doing so has become increasingly easier with the discovery of recipes such as Ottolenghi’s ultimate tray-bake ragu. 

In my humble opinion, there is nothing quite like a hearty pappardelle ragu with a glass of red wine. Maybe a sprinkle of parmesan. If it was practical to eat pasta for breakfast, lunch and dinner I would. 

Here Ottolenghi has succeeded in creating a recipe that is not only as good as a meat ragu: I dare say it is better.  

I have little patience for complicated recipes. This one is marvellously simple, involving popping all veggies in a food processor, mixing in all the flavouring and whacking it in the oven.  

My only recommendation is to not prepare this if you are peckish and are looking for a quick bite, as it requires two 40-minute stints in the oven.  

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