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Garden-variety burgers

Can America's love affair with the all-beef patty be shaken? Can bulgur in burger win our hearts and taste buds?

Well, if you throw in some brown rice, mushrooms and the clout of the Jolly Green Giant, the answer sure looks like yes. Veggie burgers have gone mainstream.

Indeed, the Giant, and his parent company, Pillsbury, have branched out in a new direction that goes beyond cauliflower, broccoli, peas and corn to introduce all-vegetable Harvest Burger patties that contain little fat and no cholesterol. At the same time many other manufacturers are also moving, from health food stores to restaurants.

And why not? Veggies burgers look just as good on a bun with mustard and relish and they're as American as convenience foods and cholesterol counts.

Now you'll find meatless burgers in mainstream grocery cases (in the frozen food section), on fernbar menus at TGI Friday's and Hard Rock Cafes and even on backyard grills for the Fourth of July.

Although many Florida supermarkets now carry only two or three brands, a check of health food stores shows more than a dozen brands available.

Vegetarians who hungered for a surrogate burger once had to buy a box mix or mix a vegetarian dough from scratch; they can now indulge in a burger with near instant convenience. Most of the current generation of burgers are frozen in preshaped patties and sold for approximately $3 for a pack of four 2-ounce to 3-ounce burgers.

They can be cooked in an oiled skillet or atop a hot grill in 5 to 10 minutes (or microwaved in less). Most make at least a tasty sandwich _ and sometimes a reasonable facsimile of a hamburger, at best more like a good vending machine burger than a backyard classic. Served with usual burger condiments like ketchup, lettuce, tomato and onion, even some skeptics admit they're satisfactory substitutes for beef burgers.

The ingredients of each brand vary widely, from mushrooms, oats, barley, beans, nuts, seeds, potatoes, beet juice and cottage cheese to all kinds of soy products, including tofu and tempeh, as well as soy-free recipes. To counteract fears of blandness, many companies punch up their vegetarian burger with a touch of curry _ or All-American barbecue or Cajun flavorings.

Most provide some vegetable protein, extra fiber and complex carbohydrates, but consumers should check labels to compare the calories, fat levels and other ingredients.

Whatever their ingredients, most vegetarian burgers can be divided into two categories. Many, like Green Giant's Harvest Burger and the Florida-made Boca Burger, simulate beef burgers in consistency and taste, complete with a pebbly exterior. Others, like the Garden Burger, look more like a cooked rice cake and have a crunchier texture of whole oats and grain that aims to be a good vegetarian sandwich, not an imitation beef burger.

The burgers are popular among vegetarians. That's to be expected, but manufacturers are going after a bigger market. Standard American carnivores, part-time vegetarians and anyone seeking to reduce fat or cholesterol intake is fair game for these new marketing efforts. Even President Clinton, known for his love of fat-laden beef burgers, has chowed down on Boca Burgers made from soy protein.

According to a study conducted for Vegetarian Times magazine, more than 12-million adult vegetarians or part-time vegetarians live in the United States today. That's twice the number in 1985.

Aging baby boomers, who will be changing their food choices to monitor their fat and cholesterol intake, are expected to double the figure in the next five years.

Health concerns are the biggest reasons for veggie burger converts among meat-eaters. Green Giant's Harvest Burgers contain 4 grams of fat. A similar-size portion of extra-lean ground beef contains 15 grams of fat, while a serving of regular ground beef contains 24 grams of fat.

Environmental concerns and animal rights issues are other reasons people are giving veggie burgers a try. Consuming vegetable rather than meat patties also avoids problems with bacteria like salmonella and E. coli.

Although such contemporary worries make many people skittish or guilty about meat, few Americans can give up their love of the burger.

"When we were researching the wisdom of using Green Giant to market the veggie burgers, which are made by Archer Daniels Midland (the world's largest soy processor), we learned two things about Americans. They really do love their burgers. It's an issue like Mom and apple pie. But many truly are looking for more and more ways to cut back on fat and cholesterol. Put those things together and something like Green Giant's Harvest Burgers makes sense," said Don Ludeman of Green Giant.

"When I've shown people the ingredients in our Garden Burgers and they realize all are familiar, they'll take a bite. Then they'll say, "That's pretty good. After another bite, they'll say "that REALLY is pretty good,'

" said Paul Wenner, a West Coast entrepreneur who parlayed his Garden Burgers into a multimillion dollar business and has captured almost all of the restaurant market.

"We're the token vegetarian offering on many a restaurant's menu," joked Wenner, who said he created veggie burgers because people needed a good-tasting meatless option beyond the typical avocado and sprout sandwich.

He added, "People often will try one in a restaurant before they'll spend the money to buy a box of the frozen veggie patties in the grocery store." They're easily cooked, requiring 8 minutes or less, even though they're kept frozen until cooking time. The biggest danger is overcooking the burgers until they resemble hockey pucks. Pan frying them, using non-stick cooking spray, adds to the browning. If cooking them on the grill, marinate and baste them with salsa, Worcestershire sauce or ketchup to keep them moist and add a little more flavor.

"Flavor's still the key," warned Natalie Viers, marketing manager of Worthington Foods, the manufacturer of the meat substitutes in the Morning Star Farms' line. "A veggie burger can be low- or no-fat and have zero cholesterol but people aren't going to eat it more than once unless it tastes good."

If you'd prefer to make your own from scratch, here's a recipe for lentil-rice burgers.

_ Material from Diane Stoneback of the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call and Chris Sherman, food editor of the Times, used in this report.

Lentil-Rice Burgers

{ cup cooked white rice, cooled

{ cup cooked lentils

1 small sweet potato, peeled, cooked and minced

6 to 8 spinach leaves, rinsed, blanched and finely shredded

{ cup chopped fresh mushrooms

1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

{ to } cup dry bread crumbs

1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

Combine rice, lentils, sweet potato, spinach and mushrooms in a large bowl. Add soy sauce, salt and pepper. Add bread crumbs and cilantro and mix well. Refrigerate for 15 to 30 minutes.

Form mixture into six to eight patties. Oil a vegetable grill generously _ these patties tend to stick. Grill for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until medium brown. Makes six to eight patties.

Variation: Instead of burgers, form mixture into small balls. Grill until browned. Serve as a snack with a dipping sauce or add to pasta with your favorite sauce.

Source: Vegetarian Times