Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Vegan cooking just about deserves to be called a "cuisine" in its own right

So the conclusion of this whole brouhaha with my wife about her going vegetarian and wanting our household to follow is that I am cooking all vegetarian at home, but still eating meat when I go out, and I'll probably still prepare meat at home on special occasions. I also went fully vegetarian for the month of January, but I'm back onto the meat now. Still, it was probably good to do it for a month, just to get me into the swing of things with cooking vegetarian.

I have to say, this has been incredibly worthwhile. I have worked with ingredients I had never even tasted before, prepared dishes I'd never done before, and it's pushed my culinary creativity quite a bit. Still, I would never be willing to give up preparing meat forever -- as I mused in one of my earlier posts on the subject, there is nothing in the world of vegetarianism that is anything like the experience of braising a tough fatty piece of meat full of connective tissue until it becomes a magically tender and delicious indulgence, and there are plenty of other examples like that of culinary adventures that are just irreplaceable. But being restricted for awhile has set me off on all sorts of different culinary adventures, and it's been exciting.

I came to the conclusion early on that the burgeoning world of vegan cooking (I don't think it really existed prior to the 20th century) is in many ways deserving of being called a "cuisine" in its own right.

What makes a cuisine? Well, certainly a multi-century history helps, but I'm not sure it is a requirement. Rather, I think a cuisine is defined by ingredients and techniques that are unique (or at least uniquely emphasized) apart from other cuisines, and by signature dishes or types of dishes. The use of lemongrass as an ingredient immediately calls to mind Thai and other Southeast Asian cuisines. Sauces based on the technique of emulsifying fat with eggs or other ingredients can only trace their lineage to traditional French cooking. And who else would call a dish "bangers and mash" except the British?

By these criteria, vegan food just about fits. It certainly fits the "unique ingredients" criterion. Tempeh might evoke memories of home for those who hail from Indonesia, but for most of us it calls to mind images of crunchy hippies at an organic co-op. And modern inventions like TVP and Quorn (a fascinating ingredient I intend to write a separate post about later) don't even exist in other cuisines.

The "unique techniques" criterion is more problematic, although the strong emphasis on substitution and imitation forces new twists on older techniques. For instance, my tempeh "Italian sausage" recipe below can not rightly be called a new technique, but employing the flavor profile of Italian sausage as a marinade/sauce rather than for seasoning meat is somewhat of a new twist, I think. Vegans eschewing of milk and dairy forces the development of alternatives for when those ingredients are used for their prolific chemical qualities, e.g. the use of flour as a binder in vegan burgers when a non-vegan recipe might use an egg.

I am not entirely qualified to talk about "signature dishes", as I am pretty new to vegetarian cuisine, and I'm doing a lot of figuring-it-out-for-myself as I go along. Certainly, veggies burgers have become an entire genre unto themselves, ranging from the mass-produced and passable to the truly inspired. It seems like Buffalo tempeh is a popular dish, and with good reason -- it tastes damn good. (Please don't call it "Vegetarian 'chicken wings'", though... it doesn't taste like Buffalo chicken, it tastes like Buffalo tempeh, and there's nothing wrong with that!) I'm sure there are many other signature vegetarian/vegan dishes that I am not aware of or not thinking of off the top of my head.

All of which brings me to an idea: "Vegan" fusion. Why not take the ingredients and techniques that define vegan cuisine, and mix them up with other cuisines without regard to the conventional restrictions of veganism or vegetarianism?

My current cooking practices already hint at this, in that I use vegan recipes but "unsubstitute" certain ingredients based on the looser dietary restrictions in our household (e.g. Buffalo tempeh is usually thought of as a vegan thing, but I use butter in the sauce and often either milk or eggs depending on how I am doing the breading). But I think it could be taken so much further. Can vegan cuisine's vast experience with imitation inform clever new twists on meat dishes? Could TVP be used in a non-vegetarian context to establish a certain unique flavor or texture? What kind of symphony of ingredients could be composed if one were free to make a "bacon veggie burger"?

Anyway, all reflecting out of the way, here's a couple of recipes I've come up with that really impress:

Tempeh Italian "Sausage"
  • 1-2 Tbsp fennel seed
  • 1-2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil (calibrate for healthy vs. tasty)
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1/2 package of tempeh, crumbled (not sliced) into bits about 1/4" in diameter
I'm still refining this one, so take the amounts and the technique with a heavy helping of salt (not literally please!). Place fennel seed in skillet over medium heat and toast, tossing fennel seed occasionally, until aromatic. Add extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and crushed red pepper, salt gently, and adjust heat so that garlic and fennel seed are just cooking but not burning. Cook for 5 minutes or so until flavors start to combine. Add liquid smoke, then tempeh, and combine well. Cook another 5 minutes or so and then remove all contents from skillet into a small bowl. Separate tempeh out from the other ingredients (some of the sauce will adhere to the tempeh -- this is a good thing!) and return to skillet. Increase heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until tempeh starts to brown and superficially resemble little bits of poultry sausage. Return tempeh to bowl with other ingredients, stir to combine, and let it marinate until you are ready to use it.

You can use this on pizza, in pasta, or wherever. Unfortunately, the seasonings -- especially the fennel seed -- don't penetrate the tempeh very well, so you need to put some of the sauce into your dish as well as the tempeh itself. Alternatively, it might be possible to crumble the tempeh very finely in a food processor, and then before returning it to the skillet for browning, use egg as a binder and form it into the desired shape. That way you could make patties or whatever, and the seasonings would be well-distributed throughout... but I haven't tried this yet, so caveat emptor.

One creative use I came up with for it is to put it in sushi, along with a little bit of diced sun-dried tomato and crumbled feta. Yes, tempeh Italian "sausage" sushi! For real! Everyone is always extremely skeptical, but then they try it and are amazed. I usually coat my sushi with toasted sesame seeds, but for the "sausage" sushi, I toast an extra teaspoon or so of fennel seed and then crush it well, and then I dust the outside of the roll with a little bit of that instead of sesame seeds.

Speaking of wacky vegetarian sushi:

Buffalo tempeh sushi
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • Frank's Red Hot to taste
  • Dash of rice wine vinegar
  • Cayenne pepper (optional)
  • Half a celery stalk, very thinly sliced into thin ~4" long sticks
  • 1/4 package of tempeh, sliced into ~1/4" wide ~4" long sticks
  • Blue cheese dressing
  • Sushi rice (whatever recipe you use) and nori
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 can or bottle of beer
  • Enough vegetable oil to fill a deep skillet or Dutch oven to at least 1" deep
Melt butter in microwave in small microwave-safe bowl. Whisk in Frank's Red Hot until it looks and tastes like Buffalo sauce. Add the tiniest dash of rice wine vinegar. If you want it extra spicy, add cayenne pepper to taste. Construct a maki roll filled with tempeh, celery stalks, and a drizzle of the Buffalo sauce and a drizzle of the blue cheese dressing (maybe ~1/2 Tbsp each). Cut roll in half. (Do not slice it yet!)

Place flour in a shallow bowl. Open can or bottle of beer, and add enough beer to the flour so that it forms a nice beer batter. Drink the rest of the beer. Do not omit the previous step! Heat vegetable oil in deep skillet or Dutch oven until it gets to frying temperature, about 375 degrees. If you don't have a candy thermometer, you can tell it's ready when flicking a drop of water in it is likely to get your arm burned by splashing hot oil (if you remembered to drink the rest of the beer like I told you, this seems like a great idea and is not too painful). Dip the roll halfs in the batter, shake off any excess, and then deep fry them until golden brown, turning once, doing the halfs one at a time if you are working in a small-ish skillet so that the oil temperature doesn't drop too much. Place remaining Buffalo sauce and roll halfs in container with sealable lid and shake until roll halfs are well-coated. Slice the roll halfs as you would ordinary maki sushi. Arrange the roll on serving platter and drizzle a tiny amount of blue cheese dressing over the top.

If you want to make this one vegan, there are plenty of recipes on the web for making Buffalo sauce without the butter (use oil for the main fat, but there are other tweaks that help get the consistency right), and you can omit the blue cheese altogether without completely destroying the dish. But it's much better with it.

And sorry to post two uber-unhealthy recipes both with Buffalo sauce, but this last one was so stunning in its verisimilitude of the real thing that I need to post it:

Vegetarian Buffalo "Chicken" Pizza
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • Frank's Red Hot to taste
  • Dash of rice wine vinegar
  • Cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 2 Quorn cutlets
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
  • Enough vegetable oil to fill a deep skillet or Dutch oven to at least 1/2" deep
  • Pizza crust (purchased, or made according to your favorite recipe)
  • Blue cheese dressing
  • 1/3 lb or so of mozzarella, shredded1
  • 1/4 cup chopped red onion
Preheat oven to 450 degrees or whatever temperature you use to cook your pizza crust. Prepare Buffalo sauce and then heat oil as per previous recipe (since you are not doing a beer batter for this one and so might be completely sober, using a thermometer is strongly recommended). Beat egg well. Place Panko bread crumbs in shallow bowl or on plate. Dip frozen Quorn cutlets in egg, then place in bread crumbs and turn to coat. Fry breaded cutlets until golden-brown, turning once, doing them one at a time if you are using a small-ish skillet. Reserve about 1 Tbsp or so of the Buffalo sauce, and place the rest of the sauce and the fried breaded cutlets in a sealable container and shake until well-coated. Slice cutlets into 1/2" chunks.

Cover crust with thin layer of blue cheese dressing. Scatter Quorn chunks over dressing, then cover with shredded mozzarella. Top with red onions. Place pizza on center rack (or better yet, on a preheated pizza stone if you have one) and cook until cheese is melted and crust is cooked through, about 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and drizzle reserved Buffalo sauce over the top. Cut into slices and serve.

1Please, please, please buy a block of mozzarella and shred it yourself. It's cheaper, it tastes way better, and it takes like thirty seconds. If you don't have a box grater, get one. Seriously. The only possible excuse for using pre-shredded cheese is if you are cooking for a boatload of people, so that the shredding actually does become time-consuming. Otherwise, please, shred it yourself!


  1. I love your cooking. You are a genius.

    Your Wife ;)

  2. James! Great post. I feel your frustration re: the vegetarian stuff. I too am an atheian vegetari-ist (er, umm…); vegetarian by necessity, as it were – said necessity being that my partner finds the idea of harming any living creature impossible to overcome. When we decided to cohabitate in ’03, I decided to voluntarily go meatless in the interest of her comfort and our solidarity, and have stuck to it now these past 7 (!) years. Of late, I’ve brought up the idea that perhaps I might go back to eating meat outside our home. You see, she is the idealist when it comes to this stuff. I, while wholeheartedly agreeing that in a general sense the meat industry can be a nasty business for all concerned, also understand that I am human and omnivorous, and that I was built to ingest a variety of things – be they plant, animal, or mineral. Plus, I just really miss my famous standing rib roast and turkey at Thanksgiving and real pepperoni and potato sausage, etc, etc. Ah well, we shall see where it all leads…

    Like you, I am a very enthusiastic cook. It’s just something I love to do. Things changed dramatically when I went meatless – and for the better, I think. As you’re finding, eating meatless really forces the creativity to the surface, and that’s both fun and interesting. The recipes you’ve posted sound great, and I might just have to try your tempeh Italian sausage. Incidentally, I’m making Julia Childs’ Supremes de Volaille aux Champignons on Saturday, substituting veg bouillon for the brown stock and port for the Madeira (because port goes nicer than Madeira with mushrooms and cream (sorry, Julia)).

    Though it’s hard to quantify 7 yrs. worth of veg cooking in this small post, I will leave you with a few items that have made eating and cooking meatless easier to bear:

    Knorr’s makes vegetable bouillon cubes. Keep a lot of it around…

    Try to avoid falling into the “cheese trap” – this is where you become a cheesatarian, rather than a vegetarian. This is a constant struggle for me.

    Locate all your favorite meaty recipes and figure out how you can adapt them to fit your current situation. Initially, I collected stacks of veg cookbooks in order to figure things out. They’re very dusty now. I use mostly my own concoctions, and adaptations of favorite meat dishes. A standing rib roast cannot be replicated, nor can a turkey. But, I make an incredible T-giving dinner using Quorn or seitan. I can pass that along if you’re interested.

    Frontier makes a gravy mix that actually tastes like chicken gravy. I love gravy.

    Meat subs:

    Quorn is your friend. Need something chickeny? Use Quorn. I’m sure 20 yrs down the road, studies will show that mycoprotein causes fungus to grow in the cerebellum, or some other unfortunate region. Until then, I’m eatin’ it!

    White Wave “Chicken” seitan in the water pack seems to be the best all-purpose seitan. Takes flavoring well, and you can use the packing water for flavoring. Think shredded chicken tacos or burritos with this stuff. Chicken parm, as well.

    Lightlife products are great. I use the Italian sausage sliced for pizza, the ground beef style (in a tube) for meatballs, and the sausage style (in a tube) for stuffed mushrooms. They make tasty lunchmeat type items, but avoid these if you’re trying to cut down on salt.

    Morningstar Farms crumbles – great for (again) tacos or burritos.

    Morningstar Farms chicken nuggets. Enough said.

    So anyway, good luck, have fun, and enjoy the challenge!

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