Vegging out

There are few places in Sacramento that I love more than the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. I find irresistible the smallness of the store, the specialty items, the bulk bins and the really good whole-bean coffee. The organic produce, albeit more expensive, stays fresh longer. And it’s the only place that carries the Wildwood brand of vegan garlic aioli spread, which is absolutely gold on a sandwich. Everyone has a splurge. The Co-op is my splurge.

Now, I am not a vegetarian. I do admire vegetarians—in the same way I admire overachievers; there’s envy, but there’s pity, too, in terms of the sacrifices they make. But even I know that the Co-op is Vegetarian Territory. Despite its recent decision to sell “socially responsible” red meat for its more carnivorous shoppers, we meat-eaters had best watch our step. After all, where else in Sacramento can a vegetarian be king?

On any given day, the Co-op prepares a whole host of meals and sides that cater to the veggie crowd. From the coconut rice to the hummus or the red chard and tofu noodle salad, the Co-op’s deli case represents the world of food as a vegetarian might see it—full of choice, flavor and health. Meat is offered, but mostly, it’s just a couple of entrees with “Rocky,” the friendly, no-antibiotic, vegetarian-fed brand of chicken that hails from Petaluma, which the Co-op sells raw in its regular store area.

To reflect the international tastes of the sophisticated Sacramento vegetarian, the Co-op carries a different ethnic buffet every day in the summer: Italian on Mondays, Asian on Tuesdays, American on Wednesdays, Thai on Thursdays and “Latin” on Fridays. Weekends, the Co-op carries Indian and Caribbean.

In vegetarian terms, what does this mean? For starters, the normal: vegetarian lasagna (Italian) and enchilada casserole (Latin) are both obvious entrees. But one also can go hard-core with sweet-and-sour tempeh and seitan fajitas.

The trick to enjoying this diverse pre-prepared vegetarian food comes down to two things. Can you eat it cold? And is it wet enough to withstand a vigorous re-heating—a temperature of 165 degrees on the inside?

For the Asian buffet, you can go cold. The kung pao tofu and the Chinese broccoli and tofu were both refreshing and lively in their chilled states. Firm, springy tofu absorbed the flavors of the sauces well. The Chinese broccoli was crisp and substantial. The kung pao could have used some real vegetable variation, rather than just bits of red and green pepper, but was otherwise pleasing. There was, however, no remedy for the sweet-and-sour tempeh. The sweet-and-sour sauce was presented like an overly ketchupy Russian dressing. And the tempeh? Well, let’s just say that jamming a bunch of soybeans together in cake form can never be delicious. It just can’t.

The Asian foods were great cold, but the Latin entrees were clearly reheat candidates, with a higher bar for moisture. Of the three enchiladas tasted (the mole, the black bean and the veggie), the first two contained a dry whole-wheat tortilla with little moisture content. The black-bean enchilada came off as starchy on the inside, with too much barley-type rice, and the mole enchilada was weak on the mole, both in flavor and quantity. The veggie enchilada, in casserole form, was the clear winner in this category. Its corn-tortilla base and veggie mix of corn, green bell peppers and scallions held their flavors and consistency well with not just one, but two reheatings.

In the single-item-meal category, the twice-baked potato and the giant stuffed artichoke proved to be solid choices. Creamy, with a lot of salt, pepper and Asiago cheese, the twice-baked potato heated to a nice, fluffy consistency with no adverse, dry consequences. The giant stuffed artichoke did well both warm and cold. Its moist, bruschetta-like breadcrumb center was a little heavy-handed with the olive oil toward the choke, but both the stuffing and the artichoke were full of good flavor.

Clearly, the Co-op does a great job of tempting the mind and palate with innovative concoctions and strong flavors. What’s more, it turns a meat-centric world on its head, with prolific vegetarian choices and token meat entrees. Given that vegetarians are going to outlive the rest of us, it’s good that they have at least one place to celebrate and flaunt their vegetarianism.