If You Quit Meat, What Fills the Spiritual Space of the Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast?
What is it about a boneless skinless chicken breast? These babies have been both the darlings and the scapegoats of food media for well over a decade. We love to hate them, but we also just… love ‘em. “When people tell you ‘Hey you gotta eat healthy,’ the first thing that comes to mind is chicken and vegetables,” says fitness and cooking guru and founder of Fit Men Cook, Kevin Curry.
Unless. Unless, of course, you eat a plant-based, vegetarian, or vegan diet. Here at Kitchn, we’ve been thinking: The chicken breast is so revered, it’s reached a near-spiritual status. It will always be there for meat eaters when they want to scale it back and enjoy a simple, satisfying meal. What’s the equivalent for veg-heads? Is there one? We decided to do a little sleuthing and deducing to hunt out the vegetarian version of “Spiritual Chicken” (henceforth referred to in this article as the SC). Here are the criteria.
It’s got to pack nutritional punch.
There’s a reason this meal has sticking power: When paired with a complex carb and whole food veggie, chicken breast dinners earn a gold star for their macronutrient makeup. “Making sure you’re getting an adequate amount of protein (animal or plant) can help ensure you’re feeling your best,” explains nutrition expert and e-book author Amanda Meixner Rocchio. One cup of cooked chicken breast contains around 40 grams of protein (or 25 grams per serving), and in a society increasingly fixated on protein counts, that’s an attractive profile. Plus, points out Yumna Jawad, the founder of cooking inspiration website and ‘gram Feel Good Foodie, it has less saturated fat than red meat, making it a smart choice for folks who are mindful of their sat fat intake.
But don’t fall into the steamed broccoli-and-unsauced-chicken trap. “If my protein source doesn’t include a good amount of healthy fat, I will also add some healthy fats in like olive oil, nuts, seeds etc,” explains Meixner Rocchio. Many plant-based proteins are naturally lean, so this is a perfect opportunity to use those fancy finishing oils, or to cut into that perfectly-ripe avocado. She also points out that chicken thighs are a great swap, as they contain all of the protein and that added fat our bodies need.
It has to be widely available, and easy to cook.
Chicken dinners didn’t earn superstar status just because of their nutritional profile. A huge part of their popularity is thanks to the fact that you can buy them just about anywhere. While specialty cuts like bone-in thighs are gaining traction, you’re still more likely to find a chicken breast at your supermarket’s butcher counter.
Not only are chicken breasts easily found in grocery stores, they are accessible on another level — they’re a snap to cook. Many home cooks learn the art of cooking dinner with a chicken recipe. (Here’s a hint: going boneless and skinless makes the cooking even faster and easier — but you will be sacrificing some flavor and juiciness).
It must be a blank canvas to many flavors and cooking methods.
Q: How many ways can you season and cook chicken breasts? A: How much time do you have? “My family is never bored with dinner,” says Jawad. Chicken is so versatile, but no matter how you prepare it, it’s a smart nutritious choice. So our vegetarian version of the SC must have similar qualities.
Mostly, it has to just feel good (spiritually speaking).
This is the trickiest box to check, but also the most important. Chicken breasts are so popular because, if you’re a meat eater, they sit right in both body and mind. They taste great and they require no rationalizing. In other words: I was hungry. I fed myself. It was satisfying. It was nutritionally virtuous. I can move on. What veggie equivalents meet that criteria?
One thing’s clear: The SC has got to have a little heft, but it also can’t weighs us down. We must not be hungry an hour after eating (so, bye raw kale salad), but it must also make us feel energized, rather than lethargic (looking at you, seven-cheese lasagna). What we want is a meal that’s got a virtuous density.
Winner, Winner, No-Chicken Dinner
It’s time to take everything we learned and put it into action. What’s the best “Spiritual Chicken” dinner for veggie guys and gals? After conferring among ourselves and with our panel of experts, here are our top two contenders. Both check all of our boxes: They’re satisfying and nutritionally sound. They’re easy to make. They don’t require a zillion pots and pans. And they just feel good. That’s what really matters — it’s not about the specifics of the meal, but rather, what you’re actually going to cook and eat.
Contender #1: Tofu on a sheet pan.
Why we love it: Tofu is a fantastic option when it comes to blank canvas proteins. It’s more widely available than other faux-meat proteins, and it’s pretty foolproof. If you want a specific place to start: This one-pan sheet pan dinner is quick, easy, and deeply satisfying. It’s got everything: Complex carbs, easily-digestible protein, and a crowd-pleasin’ vegetable. The teriyaki sauce brings it all together, and does double-duty when it comes to maintaining juiciness and adding flavor. Total ingredients: six, including salt. Total prep time: 10 minutes, max!
Get the recipe: Sheet Pan Tofu Teriyaki
Contender #2: Lentils, stewed.
Why we love it: The OG veg protein is legumes. Plant-based blogger and cookbook author Lily Diamond (Kale and Caramel) relies on them for filling, hearty meals: “Legumes are my Beyoncé when it comes to the vegetarian gold standard for savory nourishment — perfect in every way.” Canned beans are an easy option, but we’re also partial to lentils because they’re a speedy, nutritional darling (helloooo, fiber!).
This lentil and vegetable curry hits all the SC marks. It’s flavorful, but doesn’t sit in your belly like a to-go box of regret. The ingredient list is a little lengthy, but we guarantee you’ve already got most of it in your pantry. It’s great over rice, and just like our favorite SC dinners, it makes some pretty fantastic leftovers. It’s definitely not boring.
Get the recipe: Lentil and Vegetable Curry
There. Two virtuous dinners, made doubly so by the fact that they are meatless, all plants, no chickens harmed in the making. Go forth and live spiritually.
Which of these two dinners would you choose? Do you have your own plant-based version of the Spiritual Chicken dinner? Tell us in the comments!