Arts interview

A dish beyond imagination: Clover Food Lab’s Meatball Sandwich

Take a bite into Clover’s environmentally-friendly and delicious meatball sandwich that‘s meat-free

8782 1518471634 xxx
Clover Food Lab's Impossible Meatball Sandwich is a plant-based dish with 'meatballs' designed to taste and feel like meat.
Courtesy of Clover Food Lab
8783 buying truck
Clover CEO Ayr Muir, with his daughter, stands smiling next to a Clover food truck.
Courtesy of Clover Food Lab

Clover Food Lab
Vegetarian Fast Casual, $
Various locations in Boston area including:
5 Cambridge Center Cambridge, MA
Monday–Saturday 7 a.m.–11p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.–8 p.m.

Melting Arctic sea ice, cute white bears dying, a world where grasslands are replaced with Atlantis… These are the tropes of global warming fed to us through the occasional sad Facebook video. As we sit in our air-conditioned rooms, perhaps munching out of a styrofoam takeout container, we might look out our windows and see the hopeful green of single tree, urbanly planned to sprout at conveniently aesthetic intervals. Leaves still exist, so that means that Earth is still functioning, right? I haven’t died of starvation yet, so… And on with the day.

But this month brought not another picture of a starving polar bear, but something more jarring: a warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have as little as 12 years to act on climate change. If we do not cut our global greenhouse emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels, our planet’s health could plummet to extreme floods, droughts, wildfires, and food shortages.

Ayr Muir had a premonition about the relationship between corporate practices and the environment back when he was a materials science student at MIT in 2001. “I read an article about food and the environment, and that was the first time I started thinking about those things being connected.” In fact, 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to animal agriculture. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, growing plants for livestock production consumes 25 percent of the world’s fresh water and occupies nearly half of the world’s land, a great threat to biodiversity. “I started wondering if we could figure out how to feed people food that was vegetables, even to those who wouldn’t normally eat vegetables otherwise,” said Muir. That’s when he thought of starting his own environmentally-focused restaurant business.

Today, Muir is the CEO of Clover Food Labs, a popular veggie-based fast casual restaurant chain in the Boston area. Unlike other fast food chains, Clover sells no products with meat and aims to motivate customers to eat vegetables instead. While most restaurants serve the same menu all year round, Clover shapes their menu off of what is available in local farms. Menu items are inspired from cuisines across the globe, ranging from Japanese sweet potato platters piled high with shiso salad and crispy fried tempura sesame seeds to South Indian-inspired spicy coconut lentil soup topped with olive oil and cilantro. While the unique flavors and textures of vegetables stand out in these dishes, one item stands out: the Impossible Meatball Sandwich.

Unlike the other items at Clover that celebrate plants in their natural form, the Impossible Meatball Sandwich turns the inconceivable to reality. The meatball is made using something called Impossible Meat, a vegan meat substitute. Yet unlike a veggie burger that crumbles upon the first bite or fake bacon that resembles the texture of a tablecloth, the Impossible meatball “tastes like beef. It’s really a crazy thing,” says Muir.

How is this magic possible? Scientists and culinary experts studied the molecular mechanisms that underlie the deliciousness of meat—flavor, of course, but also scent, texture, and the transformation when prepared with heat. While the meatball is mainly composed of wheat, coconut, and potato, the secret ingredient is something called “heme,” derived from soybeans. Heme is an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in every cell of every animal and plant, especially abundant in animal muscle, giving the vegan burger its meatiness. It’s also what causes the Impossible Meat to turn from red to brown when heated. Impossible Meat requires about 75 percent less water and 95 percent less land than conventional ground beef, as well as generating approximately 87 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions. Cue applause.

Clover folds the Impossible Meat with garlic, parsley, milk-soaked pita, egg, and then bakes the meatballs off in the oven for a crispy exterior. The meatballs are then drenched in a rich tomato sauce, sprinkled with Pecorino cheese, and served in a soft pita. The sandwich is more expensive than other items on their menu, costing about $13 dollars per sandwich, because of the cost of the Impossible Meat. “Even though we charge a lot of money for those sandwiches, we make less of a profit than we do on any others. Really cheap ground beef that you get in most fast food chains is 2 dollars-a-pound or so. Impossible meat is about 11 dollars-a-pound, which is double the cost of grass-fed beef,” says Muir. Yet both he and customers believe it’s worth the bucks. For Clover, it’s an opportunity to get meat-lovers to realize the existence of delicious, meat-free alternatives; the sandwich acts as a gateway “drug” into Clover’s other vegetable-centric dishes. According to Muir, “a lot of customers tell us it’s the best meatball that they’ve ever had.”

If you would like to offer recipe ideas or other suggestions to Clover, visit CloverHUB at 1075 Cambridge Street on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. to participate in their open menu development meeting.