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Veggie heaven

A tasty meatless burger is on the way; for now, this curry will sate

Veggie heaven
If food like this red lentil curry were my only source of protein, says Ari LeVaux, I’d probably be OK. (Photo: Ari Levaux)

It’s been a year since the Impossible Burger finally made its debut, after five years of buzz.

From the beginning, the Redwood City, Calif.-based Impossible Foods, which makes the plant-based burger, had vowed to do what many considered the impossible: create a faux patty that was indistinguishable from the real deal. A desirable veggie burger is a legit culinary holy grail.

The patty is built from a protein-heavy base of wheat, coconut and potato-based ingredients. Crucially, it also contains a plant ingredient that tastes almost exactly like animal blood.

This secret weapon is called leghemoglobin, and it tastes like hemoglobin, the thing in animal blood that carries oxygen to cells. Leghemoglobin is short for “legume-hemoglobin,” and is produced in special nodules on the roots of legume plants like peas and beans. Since we don’t usually eat the roots of legumes, the FDA is waiting on certain safety tests before declaring the Impossible Burger safe to consume. Impossible Foods says the results are in, and clear: no safety risk.

When I first heard about Impossible Burger and leghemoglobin, I went to a neighbor’s garden and, with permission, harvested some pea plants. I located some nodules on the roots; they were pink inside. As I washed them, I wondered if they tasted like blood. And they did. That big metallic flavor.

Impossible Burger isn’t yet available in stores, and the roll-out has been slow. About 50 restaurants, including Umami Burger and Momofuku, have been licensed to serve the meat substitute. My first taste came recently at the Clover Food Lab in Harvard Square, the first vendor in New England to sell it. The fake meat came in the form of a meatball sub.

The Impossible Burger balls were mixed with egg and parsley, and presumably bread crumbs and whatever else they put in meatballs, and baked in tomato sauce. They were good meatballs. Amazing meatballs. Tasty meatballs. But most importantly of all, they were without question meatballs, and meatballs don’t have to tap dance.

Alas, most of us don’t currently live within striking distance of an Impossible Burger outlet. Nor do most of you live within striking distance of tasty animals that can be legally harvested, without taking a negative toll on the environment. So for the moment, most aspiring herbivores remain stuck in the familiar spot between various flavors of mush, some of which can be quite tasty.

Today’s recipe is one such mush, an adulterated version of a red lentil curry from the book “Plenty More” by Yotam Ottolenghi. If food like this were my only source of protein, I’d probably be OK.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in 25 states. Ari can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @arilevaux

Red lentil curry

  • Start with the meditative process of preparing chile oil. On low heat, saute a small shallot, an inch of ginger and garlic, all sliced, and one star anise, a quartered tomato or tomato paste, and whatever kind of chile you’ve got. I used Thai red chile, jalapenos and these weird peppers from the market, and cooked in sesame oil.
  • Then start with a few tablespoons of oil but add another half-cup, and keep on lowest heat for at least a half-hour. Then strain. The original recipe called for rape seed oil, aka canola oil, and curry powder that I skipped.
  • Next, prepare something green. The recipe calls for blanched peas. I had Romanesco and kale belly buttons, so I sauteed them with soy sauce, butter and garlic, and served as finger foods to dip into the soup. The kale hearts really hung onto it.
  • For the soup, slice a medium or large onion end to end, as thinly as possible, and cook in oil until clear. Add two or so tablespoons of Thai red curry paste (minding the overall heat tolerances of your audience). Cook for a moment, then add several fat sticks of fresh lemongrass.
  • First, pound the lemongrass with a rolling pin, then peel off the tough outer leaves and add them whole. Mince the remains of crushed tender lemongrass hearts.
  • Stir-fry, and then add three kafir lime leaves and a cup of lentils. If you don’t have lime leaf and lemongrass that’s OK as long as you have good red chile paste, which should contain both of those.
  • Add three cups of water and cook on low with the lid on for about 15 minutes, until lentils are soft but water hasn’t completely steamed away.
  • Fish out the lime leaves and any obvious lemongrass parts, blend it all with a submersible blender, then add a cup of coconut milk and two tablespoons each of soy sauce and lime juice. Bring to a simmer briefly.
  • Garnish with your greens, and perhaps cilantro, and some of your chile oil, and serve with a swagger. It is, after all, a fact that they will wow at this dish.