Pretty Patties

For the longest time, I didn’t understand what the fuss was about patty melts. Weren’t they just cheeseburgers with a funky new name? Such ignorance could only come from someone that’s never experienced their glory.

Let’s get it straight: A patty melt IS a cheeseburger, but with distinct, important differences that set it apart from the other sandwiches.

Patty melts use toasted and thoroughly buttered bread, ideally rye, instead of a fluffy bun. This gives them a more satisfying bite, with a resounding crunch as you shatter that crisp outer layer that’s been lacquered to a shiny brown finish. More crucial is the addition of caramelized onions that add worlds of rich savory flavor, almost outshining the protein itself. This is the key to a perfect patty melt.

My slightly controversial take is on the build. Contrary to popular belief, I think it’s best with the cheese on the bottom slice of bread, beneath the patty, placing the caramelized onions on top. This ensures that it’s properly melted and helps glue the whole assembly together. The caramelized onions have the most bold flavor, so they go on top, to hit your tongue at the end of the bite, allowing the other flavors to shine first. It’s a beautiful harmony of tastes that accentuate each other throughout the eating experience. That’s what elevates simple ingredients into unforgettable meals.

Other tips:

  • Season each layer thoroughly. Salt and pepper the patty and the onions; make sure each component is worth eating on its own AND plays well with others.
  • Vegan butter works great for crisping up the bread, but for next level flavor, try spreading a thin layer of vegan mayo on top instead.
  • Make the patties THICC, with two c’s, to get that perfect sear on the outside and pink interior (if you’re using a meat-like substance such as Impossible or Beyond Meat). The same principal applies to more vegetable-based patties but without the beefy results.

What do you prefer: Cheeseburgers or patty melts? If you’re still in team cheeseburger, just give this approach a try. I bet I can win you over to the patty melt side.

Social Loafing

Mystery meat, no more. A descendant of Medieval meat patties from around 400 CE, the concept of meatloaf truly rose to mainstream popularity in the late 1800s, to remain an indispensable American entree for generations to come. As a thrifty way to stretch a humble protein and feed a family, it’s an accessible, affordable way for everyone to eat well. Of course, the original couldn’t be farther from a healthy choice. Build upon a foundation of cheap ground beef, bound together with beaten egg, and baked into a leaden brick, I stayed far away from meatloaf as a kid. In fact, I never even ate it until going vegan. Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest to make it better, rich enough to win over omnivores and picky eaters alike.

Even if you didn’t grow up loving meatloaf, my umami-bomb vegan version will become a fast favorite. To create a meatless replica, it takes a delicate balance of carefully layered flavors and textures. Made with a combination of authentically meaty alternative grounds and humble chickpeas, the formula allows the incredibly beefy flavor and texture to shine through, while making up the bulk with cheaper beans. Enhanced by deeply savory Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms, no one will miss the animal products, if anyone notices they’re absent at all.

Achieving the ideal texture is all about technique. Start by using a loaf pan to get a consistent rectangular shape and press the crumbles together gently, without smashing them down into a solid meat brick. Then, after pre-baking to set up, the whole thing is removed and transferred to a sheet pan, allowing the sides to brown and the whole thing to breathe. Otherwise, it simply steams, rather than roasts, creating an unpleasant mushy consistency all the way through. If you’ve ever suffered through a pasty lump of mystery meat, you know how badly it can all go wrong- But the solution is just that simple.

Beyond the obvious flavors that will hook you after the first bite, there are plenty of reasons to add this recipe into regular meal rotation. It’s great right away, hot out of the oven, but the leftovers are quite possibly even better. That’s because the umami quotient of Sugimoto shiitake multiplies over time. Make the most of this secret ingredient by preparing the loaf well in advance. Cover and refrigerate for a week or freeze the slices for up to 6 months. While you’re at it, you might as well double the quantities to stock up on meals for later.

When it comes to pairing side dishes to round out the dinner plate, you really can’t go wrong. Such an accommodating flavor profile plays nicely with just about any vegetable or starch, but here are some fool-proof ideas for rounding out your plate:

  • Mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes, baked potatoes, potato wedges; pretty much any kind of potato
  • Buttered noodles, plain pasta, or couscous
  • Corn on the cob or creamed corn
  • Steamed green beans, asparagus, broccoli, or peas
  • Leafy side salad

Love every loaf by tweaking the final finish so you’ll never get bored. Straight ketchup is the standard glaze, but I like a less sweet, punchier version made from tomato sauce, mustard, and date syrup. That’s not to say there are no other options. BBQ sauce is an especially great ready-made topper, adding a spicy, smoky flavor. If you really like it hot, try Buffalo sauce instead. Finally, to accentuate the shiitake, lean into that Asian inspiration with teriyaki, hoisin, or plum sauce.

Also consider making mini meatloaves in muffin cups for consistent single servings and crispier edges all around. In case you want to make a half batch, this is the solution to a flat, skimpy loaf that barely fills a traditional rectangular pan. Plus, if you’re catering to diverse tastes, you can glaze each one differently to appease all preferences.

It turns out you don’t even need to like meat to love meatloaf. Anything beef can do, plants can do better- Especially with Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms in the mix.

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Egghead

Did you know that eggs really do grow on trees? Not chicken eggs like most would associate with the word, but eggfruit, otherwise known as canistel, could be considered the original plant-based egg. Still relatively unknown beyond tropical climates, these unique teardrop-shaped drupes originated in Central America and have spread to the United States via Florida, Hawaii, and Southern California. Each one is about the size of a fist, glowing with a brilliant sunshine-yellow color inside and out. Cut through the thin skin to reveal a hard pit (or two; be careful with your teeth!) much like that of an avocado, surrounded by creamy, slightly crumbly flesh with a downright uncanny resemblance to hard boiled egg yolks.

Eggfruit do not, however, taste like eggs. The flavor is neutral, ranging from musky squash to candied sweet potato. Though naturally low in fat, their unctuous texture can become cloying after more than a few spoonfuls. If you’ve never had the egg of the land before, it’s certainly a strange experience. There’s nothing else quite like it in the animal or vegetable kingdom.

That said, the temptation to draw comparisons to conventional eggs is irresistible. Such gorgeous golden meat, rich in beta-carotene, is good for more than just boosting eyesight and immunity. Eggfruit are ideal for baking since they retain their dense, thick texture, working quite a bit like- you guessed it- eggs. That means pumpkin pies, cheesecakes, ice cream, and even eggnog are quite delicious with this genuine plant-based swap.

When I got my hands on eggfruit for the first time, I was but a young pup, eating my way through Hawaii. It’s sadly been out of reach since returning to the mainland, but as global distribution continues to improve, I remain hopeful that more people will be fortunate enough to try such unique produce for themselves, too. While my means for cooking out there were limited, it sure didn’t stop me from playing around in the kitchen. After a few strange experiments, I landed on an extraordinary doppelganger for lemon curd.

Smooth, spreadable or spoonable like custard, the rich mixture is an ideal introduction to eggfruit for the uninitiated. You can schmear it over toast, stuff it inside of cupcakes, cookies, or French toast, drizzle it over pound cake, or just eat it with a spoon.

Want to switch it up?

  • Just like traditional curd, you can use any other citrus you prefer, such as lime, grapefruit, orange, or a combination of your favorites.
  • Add up to 1/2 cup of seedless fruit puree, like strawberry, raspberry, or peach for more fun, seasonal twists.
  • If you don’t have a microwave, you can cook the curd over the stove in a medium saucepan. Just stir gently and continuously so it doesn’t stick or burn on the bottom.

If you can, stock up on eggfruit whenever you see them, since they’ll go fast once you taste just how versatile they are. You’ll typically find unripe eggfruit in the store that’s still hard and slightly green. Let it sit on the counter to ripen; it could take as long as 10 – 14 days, so be patient! Unripe eggfruit is incredibly astringent and bitter; not good eats. It should be soft but not mushy, yielding easily to a knife when it’s ready. Then, it can be stored whole for 1 – 2 months in the fridge, or mashed and frozen for 6 – 8 months.

Don’t get caught with egg on your face. Eggfruit is always in good taste.

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Hot Tots

So bad that they’re good; unwanted scraps that everyone can’t get enough of; terminally uncool to the point of being a new trend. Tater tots live in a world of conflicting extremes, forever at odds with themselves and the public at large. We have Ore-Ida to thank for the innovation in 1951, when new French fry cutting technology gave birth to immaculate shoestrings while leaving mountains of potato slivers and small pieces in its wake. That excess became the foundation of tots as we know them, formed and fried into something entirely new.

Any kid growing up in the 90s had more than their fair share of the crispy potato bites, piled up on cafeteria trays and smothered with ketchup, in lieu of any other vegetable-like matter. I remember my first encounter in first grade, when I got to the front of the line and found the paper boat of tots before me. These weren’t the thick potato wedges I wanted, and not even the smooth mashed potato puree that I tolerated. With great trepidation, I took a microscopic bite, chewed once, chewed twice… And spit it into the trash. For the rest of the day, I languished in the nurse’s office, convinced I was sick, and that those demonic tater tots had done me in.

Drama aside, I came to learn after many years that tots were not all bad. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. Consistent, reliable, affordable, and ageless, they’re an accommodating neutral base for toppings and dips of all types. Now that Millennials are “grown up” and seeking solace in their kitchens, tater tots are finally reaching their full potential. No longer reject spud shards but genuinely worthy starters and snacks, I, too, have come around to the ways of the tot.

That said, I don’t crave them. I wouldn’t go out of my way to try them, nor are they my first, second, or third choice on a menu. It needs to be something really special to catch my eye… Like the cauliflower tots served at Better Half Coffee & Cocktails here in Austin. These savory nuggets are square, fried to crispy perfection, and served alongside a silky purple beet ketchup. Sadly, they’re not vegan thanks to the generous application of eggs and cheese, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind after one visit. They certainly made a more lasting impression than the date I was on at the time.

I could sell these as a healthier, lower-carb option that’s naturally gluten-free and higher in protein, but this isn’t about getting the most nutritious snack. Let’s be honest: No one eats tater tots for the health benefits, so caulitots shouldn’t try to be anything other than delicious. That is where they truly excel. The outsides are browned to a satisfyingly crunchy finish, while the interiors remain moist, creamy, and slightly gooey thanks to the inclusion of vegan cheese shreds.

For a recipe worth more than nostalgic value, caulitots truly elevate the humble bar snack to a new level. Though you could serve them with regular old ketchup, BBQ sauce, plant-based honey mustard, or even ranch dressing, give the beet ketchup a try, at least once. It’s better than your average dip, and these upscale tots deserve the best, as do you.

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