At this season's cookouts, chances are that fewer grills are sizzling with burgers of the beef variety.
While the invitation to gather in the backyard for "hot dogs and hamburgers" has a familiar ring, alternative fare like tofu dogs and especially veggie burgers are now sharing the picnic platter.
These meatless burgers with names like Gardenburger, Harvest Burger, Sunshine Burger, and Boca Burger, are showing up in stores and on restaurant menus faster than a cow can say "moo."
Initial reactions, however, are not always enthusiastic.
"Yuck," is often one's first response. Then, after a bite, people say, "Well, I could eat this," and then, after another, "Hey, this is pretty good."
This is according to Paul Wenner, founder of Wholesome and Hearty Foods, in Portland, Ore., and a chef who has followed the nonmeat patty market for more than 20 years.
People have tended to write off veggie patties as some kind of subculture nonsense, hippie food, or vegetarian fakes, with the flavor somewhere between sawdust and dog kibble. Sort of a peatloaf.
But palates are changing. As consumers demand more vegetables, food companies - from small start-ups to Green Giant - are doing their darndest to give them something tastier.
As a result, meatless burger options have branched off onto two platters: meat imitations, and vegetable patties that don't even try to fake it.
No need to call the beef police, however. Given Americans' love for hamburgers, overall demand remains relatively small. "They're good filler," says Peter McNamara, a Boston-based food critic and guiltless red-meat lover. "I wouldn't serve them for dinner, but I keep the low-fat [soy burgers] in my freezer and sometimes microwave them for breakfast. They tend to be bland, so I slather them with salsa."
Almost all meatless burgers have improved in flavor, Mr. Wenner says, noting that the "bland" reputation of soy burgers in the 1970s caused him to create the GardenBurger, made out of mushrooms, rice, oats, and cheese. In 1993, his company's stock shot to No. 1. "We're looking at a multi-billion-dollar meatless market out there," Wenner says.
One popular soy-based offering is the Boca Burger. "They taste so much like meat it's scary," says one edgy vegetarian.
"Business has been phenomenal," says Max Schondor, owner of Boca Burgers, with sales going up 250 percent in the past year. It doesn't hurt that the White House orders them by the case, either.
Fast-food chains have already been serving meatless burgers overseas. McDonald's will open in India later this year with their veggie burger: chunks of vegetables in a mashed-potato base deep-fried and served on a bun with lettuce, tomato, and eggless-mayonnaise. Meanwhile Burger King's spicy bean burger has been well received in Britain. But neither company has plans to mass market meatless burgers in the US, according to spokesmen.
Wenner predicts, however, that "it's just a matter of time before meatless burgers will be on every fast-food menu."
For home cooks, Bharti Kirchner presents "Vegetarian Burgers: The Healthy, Delicious Way to Eat America's Favorite Food" (HarperPerennial). Ms. Kirchner, a Seattle-based author and cooking teacher, reminds us that vegetable burgers are not a new concept. "Every culture has some type of patty," she says. Usually, it's the way you dress it that defines it.
Triple Mushroom Burgers
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup diced onion
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 pound fresh mushrooms (a mixture of shiitake, chanterelle, portobello, and standard white variety, sliced 1/2-inch thick
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
1 cup cooked white rice
1/4 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely ground
1-1/2 to 2-cups bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat oil in a large skillet over moderate heat. Add onion and garlic and saut until the onion is transparent. Add peppers and mushrooms. Reduce heat. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Uncover occasionally to stir. Add hoisin sauce and mix well. With a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables and place them in a large bowl.
Place the mushroom mixture and the rice in a food processor. Pulse on and off several times until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Transfer to a large bowl, add pecans and 1-1/4 cups of the bread crumbs. Season with salt and pepper to taste and mix thoroughly. Form into patties 3 to 4 inches in diameter and 1/2-inch thick, mixing in extra bread crumbs if the patties don't hold their shape. They will be delicate, so handle them gently.
Grill or broil patties 5 to 7 minutes per side or until lightly browned. Serve with your favorite condiments.
Makes 6 to 8 patties.
-- Recipe adapted from 'Vegetarian Burgers,' by Bharti Kirchner (HarperPerennial).