Growing up, we ate a lot of meat in my family. Italian rice balls filled with ground beef, slow-cooked pulled pork, Polish sausage in everything—you name the meat, we probably ate it. That's why it is so surprising that my entire family, save for my mom, is either a vegetarian or a vegan now. Obviously, this transition didn't happen right away, but in the years since I left for college, both of my brothers, my sister, and my dad have all come to embrace the meat-free lifestyle.
That means most of what my mom cooks these days is veg-focused, even though she still not-so-secretly craves the bacon of her former life. She's been trying to find ways to cook within my family's dietary restrictions, yet still somehow satisfy her desire for meat, and since I'm the go-to guinea pig when it comes to food things, she practically demanded that I try a recipe for meatless carrot "bacon" and report back if it was legit.
Even though I was skeptical, I decided to give the carrot bacon a shot. I also took the liberty of testing out two other meat substitutes—eggplant "meat"balls and cauliflower "wings"—to find out which vegetarian alternatives my meat-loving mama would most enjoy. Despite my skepticism, they were all pretty damn convincing. Here's what you need to know.
With the right spices and cooking method, carrot can basically become bacon.
As much as I love carrots, I never thought they had much potential as a meat substitute. I was wrong, as I often am, because carrot can totally taste and even look like bacon, provided you know what you're doing.
I roughly followed this recipe from One Green Planet. To start, you have to thinly slice the carrots lengthwise with a vegetable peeler. The recipe called for a mandoline—a horizontal slicing device that you can use to quickly slice vegetables for things like chips—but I found the vegetable peeler easier to use. After that, coat the strips in a mix of paprika, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and oil. If you can find liquid smoke at the store, I imagine this would be a great addition, too.
Though the recipe directs you to bake the carrot strips, I found that doing this doesn't give them that crispy, crunchy bacon texture you know and love. They looked authentic, but they were just too limp and soggy. Instead, I had better luck when I fried them in a saucepan with a tablespoon of oil. I let them cook over medium heat until they shriveled and browned, and then I let them rest on a paper towel-lined plate until they cooled and most of the oil had drained.
The results were astounding. At one point, I even said to myself, "That looks like freakin' bacon!" It was so good, I'll probably make it the next time I'm craving bacon and don't feel like going to the grocery store. Ultimately, of course, I was still eating carrot. But even though they probably wouldn't pass convincingly in every way as bacon, they scratched enough of the bacon itch that I consider them a success.
When cooked, eggplant's texture is unmistakably meaty.
There are a lot of vegetarian meatball alternatives out there, but eggplant is so naturally meaty when cooked, I figured they'd make the best faux meatballs. I used a recipe from Skinny Taste to make them and the results were fabulous. You start by sautéeing chopped eggplant until it's super tender. This recipe said to keep the skin on, but since I usually prefer eggplant without the skin, I made two batches to see if it would have an effect on its overall meatiness. After you've finished sautéeing the eggplant, give it a spin in the food processor until it's a thick, lumpy purée. Then, add all your other ingredients to it (eggs, breadcrumb, etc), mix it up, roll it into balls and bake until they're ready.
The meatballs were tender and delicious—they had a mouthfeel almost identical to actual meatballs. There was a slight eggplant flavor, but you wouldn't notice it at all if you served them in something like a red sauce. The batch I made with skin had a bit more texture than the batch without, but otherwise it didn't make much of a difference. You could do it either way and both would be enjoyable—it's up to your preference. While the carrot bacon was pretty legit, you could still kinda tell it was carrot. On the other hand, you could honestly fool someone with these eggplant meatballs.
Cauliflower buffalo wings aren't technically chicken, but they scratch the same itch.
When it comes to wings, you're as in it for the sauce as you are for the meat. That's why vegetarian substitutes like cauliflower wings work so well. You're less likely to notice a difference in texture because of that fiery buffalo. Even if you can't help but notice the texture, cauliflower is surprisingly flexible, and, when coated in breadcrumbs, it honestly tastes a lot like a boneless, skinless chicken wing.
Making these was incredibly simple. All I did was cut up cauliflower, coat them in an egg wash and breadcrumbs, let them bake for 30 minutes at 425 degrees F, and then coat them in a spicy, buttery buffalo sauce (I loosely followed this recipe from Chocolate Covered Katie). You could easily bake a batch of these to serve alongside real-deal wings at a party. And, if you're lucky, you might even be able to fool your meat-eaters, too.
I may not have been a believer before, but these three meaty alternatives have made me a convert, and I'm sure my carnivore mom will love them just as much as my vegetarian family.