Rice, Rice, Baby

Young vegans today don’t even know how good they’ve got it. Back in my day, dairy-free milk was still a rarity, available only in niche health food stores. Even there, you choices were limited to only soy or rice. Oat? Almond? Cashew? Forget about it! Who knew there were so many potential sources of creamy liquid back then?

Shelf stockers at mainstream markets would either scratch their heads, dumbfounded by the request, or haplessly led you to the lactose-free cartons. For a compassionate eater living in the suburbs, without a driver’s license, that meant stocking up and paying obscene prices for the luxury of access, or getting a bit more creative.

Guess which path I chose?

When sold in watered down cartons, rice milk was usually my least favorite option, but at home, I found a crafty loophole to create a thicker, richer blend. Creating a dense rice milk concentrate, not entirely dissimilar from wallpaper paste, I could better control the viscosity, flavor, and sweetness, all while building up a stockpile to easily whip up another cup, quart, or gallon at a time if I so desired. It was cheap, effective, and highly satisfying to beat the system.

Over time, my own means of access improved along with a boom in widespread availability. Once an essential staple, that formula that served me so well fell to the back of the digital recipe box. Collective virtual dust, forgotten until an unfortunate computer crash forced me back onto an old laptop, it suddenly popped up like a long lost friend.

Today in 2021, I don’t need to make my own rice milk in bulk (thank the stars) but the concept spoke to me in a whole new way this time around. With a few little tweaks, a little polish, and some modern upgrades, I had a beautiful, brilliant instant horchata concentrate on my hands.

Perfect for sweltering summer heat when all you need is a tall, icy drink to keep your cool, horchata is the ultimate agua fresca. Creamy but not thick or rich, subtle notes of cinnamon and almond play in the background with in delicate, balanced harmony.

By skipping the time-consuming step of soaking whole grains of rice, prep time is slashed by an eighth or more, and it’s ready to reconstitute whenever a profound thirst strikes. Whether you’re serving a solo drinker or making a pitcher for a party, this stuff is like liquid gold for a quick fix.

We may not need bulk rice milk anymore, but you can never have too much horchata.

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Peas, Love, and Hummus

Hummus has been a historically divisive food, causing rifts between nations that have occasionally escalated into all-out wars. I’m not here to start a fight about who made it first or best, though. Today, I’d like to shine a light on how it can be just as powerfully unifying in the right hands. Pardon the pun, but it’s true; everyone just needs to give peas a chance.

Years ago when my dad took up residence overseas for his job, I thought for sure that this was the beginning of the end. What family could withstand such severe, prolonged separation? This was before the age of COVID quarantines of course, but still, it was hard to imagine how any relationship could survive the prolonged distance.

Before we had Zoom, we had Skype. Like clockwork, every weekend, I somehow convinced my omnivorous father to cook with me, creating a recipe simultaneously yet separately. I would make mine for lunch in Connecticut, while he would enjoy his for dinner in Germany. There were a few memorable gems that he still makes today, which is truly a feat for a man of few favorite foods and little interest in cooking. If I had to pick one single greatest hit, it would have to be hummus.

Both of us ate hummus by the gallon at the time, yet he had never so much as considered going straight to the source and starting from scratch. Now, years later, both of us are so thoroughly spoiled by homemade hummus that it’s become impossible to go back to store-bought. Just like that, one simple recipe brought us back together, in our isolated kitchens divided by thousands of miles and a number of time zones.

Recreating this basic bean dip together for the first time as an early Father’s Day celebration was probably more of a treat for me than him. Seeing how he took that essential formula and made it his own was even more gratifying than the rich, savory, and creamy taste.

Adding vegan chicken bouillon for an additional depth of flavor and all the salt it needs, he adds volumes of flavor with this concentrated umami bomb. From there, he adds a splash of liquid smoke to give the creamy mixture an uncanny baba ganoush character, without fussing with any roasted eggplant. A bare hint of spice creeps in on the back end, providing a subtle warmth that lingers after every bite. It’s a brilliant, harmonious combination that’s both simple on paper, yet stunningly complex on the palate.

To all the fathers and people who love them, Happy Father’s Day. I hope you’re all so lucky to have someone to make hummus with, virtually or in-person.

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Holy Shiitake

Umami, the fifth taste, is no longer a mysterious phenomenon, relegated to dusty textbooks in chemistry labs. Everyone who’s marveled over the incredible depth of flavor of contained in a single drop of soy sauce, or savored the juicy flesh of a ripe tomato knows, just how compelling this sensation is. Coined in Japan over a century ago, umami refers to the taste of glutamate, inosinate, or guanylate, chemically speaking. These components are found in a variety of plant-based foods, which are critical for creating satisfying meatless meals. The greatest wealth of umami, and my personal favorite secret ingredient, is the shiitake mushroom.

Fresh shiitake mushrooms boast approximately 70mg of naturally occurring glutamate per 100g, but drying them increases their umami more than tenfold. Concentrated into an even smaller area, 100g of dried shiitake contain about 1060mg of glutamate AND 150mg of guanylate. I’m not much for math, but it’s easy to understand why even a single small mushroom cap can amplify any recipe to new savory heights.

Of course, not all shiitake are created equal. Like their luxurious fungi brethren, truffles, imposters in the marketplace offer tempting deals, much to the detriment of quality. Small, woody, bland, and muddy, bad mushrooms are the bane of any eater’s existence. Don’t gamble with your cooking; seek out high-quality shiitake from those who know them best. SUGIMOTO sells only premium, forest-grown shiitake mushrooms straight from Kyushu, Japan. Harvested from the natural sweet sap oak log, a collective of over 600 independent growers use 1,000-year-old Japanese techniques to cultivate sustainable harvests, producing the best tasting and textured shiitake possible.

Gently dehydrated over the course of 24 hours, freshness is locked in without the use of preservatives or pesticides, all while developing their distinctive umami essence. Separated into two categories based on size, Koshin are more dainty and delicate, while Donko are thicker and more robust. Both yield an incredible intensity of flavor and aroma, suitable for all sorts of soups, stews, salads, snacks, and just about anything else you want to add a greater depth of flavor or meaty bite. For the best results, both varieties should be soaked in cold water overnight, and ideally 24 hours, contrary to many instructions for a quick dip into boiling water. This slow rehydration process allows for every cell to plump with moisture, making even the tougher stems soft enough to enjoy.

For those who shrink at the sight of fungus in general, shiitake powder will become your new best friend. Mushroom haters needn’t fear these spores; unlike dried porcini, shiitake can enhance the taste of your cooking without adding the funky, earthy mushroom flavor that turns many away. The coarse grind allows for even dispersion through the dish, while lasting longer on your tongue, enveloping your whole mouth in savory flavor.

Umami-rich foods are not only more delicious, but have clear health benefits as well. They’re literally mouth-watering, and that saliva helps with digestion. Recent studies have also shown that they’re more filling, thus helpful for curbing appetite and aiding in weight management. Additionally, shiitake mushrooms are surprisingly rich in Vitamin D, containing your full daily recommended allowance in just 1 gram, or in other words, about 1/10th of a cap. Move over, milk!

Plant-based proteins really shine when the power of umami is applied with a deft hand. You don’t need to be an accomplished chef to harness the culinary capacity of dried shiitake mushrooms, though. As summer approaches, it’s time to dust off those grills and fire up some juicy burgers. Leave the cows out at pasture for this party; mushrooms do all the heavy lifting in these massive, meaty patties.

Chickpeas and mushrooms join forces to create supple yet sturdy burgers that are sure to satisfy the heartiest of appetites. Crisp on the outside, the initial crunchy bite yields easily to a tender interior, bursting with an intense depth of savory flavor.

Melting sumptuously into those supple centers isn’t cheese, but a generous dollop of homemade garlicky aioli, infused with even more shiitake goodness. Further amplifying the bold flavor that can only come from top notch shiitake powder, this spread comes together in mere minutes. I’d recommend making it in advance and keeping it on hand for smearing on all sorts of sandwiches, using as a dip for French fries, or drizzled over salads for a creamy dressing. In fact, you might want to double that recipe right off the bat. It’s irresistibly tempting to pour it on thick.

Where’s the meat? Right here, between two buns! Vegan meat is the new beef, make no mistake. You don’t need to buy into expensive, fancy, or highly-processed alternatives to get the same satisfying experience. Homemade burgers utilizing simple pantry staples are elevated to new heights when umami comes into play. SUGIMOTO dried shiitake mushrooms, in both whole and powdered formats, guarantee an unrivaled taste sensation with every bite. No one will guess your secret ingredient, but everyone will know in an instant that these aren’t your average, humdrum veggie burgers.

No matter how you top them, this entree will secure your spot as the grill master at your next cookout. Relish summer and all the seasons with the richness of umami close at hand!

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The Great Shake Down

What makes a truly great milkshake?

Greedily drinking down my umpteenth test subject, I must ask myself this vital question. Why is this one superlative, crave-worthy at all times, while an equally priced, similarly composed competitor is more like a nuclear meltdown in a cup? With that, my quest to find the very best that Austin has to offer began in earnest.

Flavor, of course, is essential, though highly subjective. Judging objectively, it all comes down to texture, which encompasses a number of factors:

Viscosity– Thick enough to drink through a straw without great duress, just shy of being able to turn the cup upside-down without incident, but with more body and heft than a protein shake.

Smoothness– This is no place for gritty powders, but more importantly, errant chunks of unblended ingredients or coarse ice cubes should be considered a crime. There’s no excuse for that kind of neglectful prep work.

Temperature– If it’s not icy-cold, there’s something wrong. Though rich and indulgent, it should still be refreshing enough to take the edge off a sweltering summer day.

Ingredients– As with the components for any other recipe, quality counts. This is where I need to get a bit granular and disqualify anything that uses bananas as a base. Sorry kids, that’s a smoothie, not a milkshake.

First up, the reigning champ should surprise no one: Milky Way Shakes has it right in their name, after all. The only thing on the menu here are frosty blended beverages, with options for both the mild and wild of disposition. Taking inspiration from galactic sources, your kicked up classics are the Chocolate or Vanilla Eclipse, which both come adorned with a dark chocolate crescent moon, adorned with almonds and edible glitter. While I personally default to the Oreo Borealis which hits that sweet mint-chip spot thanks to homemade peppermint syrup, coarsely crushed sandwich cookies, and the critical garnish of star-shaped food-grade confetti, the seasonal specials are out of this world. In the frigid days of winter, it would be worth the chill to snag the North Star, a rich and creamy eggnog blend that’s topped with a genuine meringue snowperson. These nondairy masters go above and beyond the average options, while still churning out pitch-perfect nostalgic treats. You definitely don’t need to be vegan to appreciate the artistry and bold flavors happening in this tiny trailer.

On the same level of handcrafted indulgence, Sweet Ritual is a full vegan scoop shop preparing unique ice cream concoctions from scratch. The challenge for each visit is deciding whether you can forgo the decadent sundaes, cookie sandwiches, straight-up pints, or, of course, milkshakes. Unlike most parlors, opting to drink your calories is not a sad sacrifice here, where you get all the goodness of their bestsellers in semi-liquid form. Their signature coconut and soy soft serve can accommodate any flavor requests, though the Coffee Shake made with cold brew and crowned with a beguiling swirl of vanilla soft serve “whipped cream” is a top request, for obvious reasons. Nothing beats the bright, bold, and pure refreshing properties of the simple Mint Shake, though. No chips need apply to keep me coming back for more; thick and creamy, melting slowly even on a steamy sun-drenched afternoon, it satisfies my thirst and sweet tooth all in one luscious slurp.

Known for their coconut-based pints found in freezers nationwide, Nada Moo is rooted here in beautiful Austin where they can flex their creativity for us locals. Serving up more than the supermarket hard-packed products, your best bet is the DIY shake option, giving you full control over your particular mix-in masterpiece. The option of swirling your scoops with cereal milk is a standout offering that’s worth sipping at least once, but don’t let that dissuade you from going with a ribbon of chocolate or caramel sauce, applied to coat the inside of the cup like a luxurious lace blanket. For more hardcore cravings, though, you can never go wrong with the Death by Chocolate shake, which is every bit as dark and devilishly fudgy as it sounds.

Departing from the conventional custard creations, TLV blends an entirely unique base of 100% pure sesame tahini, date molasses, and almond milk into distinctly nutty, buttery shakes. It’s an unlikely foundation that proves unshakably strong in the face of any comparable rivals. Disqualifying the banana option for reasons outlined above, it’s delightful served up as is, or embellished to make a Chocolate or Cardamom-Turkish Coffee Tahini Shake. There’s truly no better accompaniment to a meal of crispy, freshly fried falafel or mushroom shawarma. Move over, French fries; the be-pita sandwich and tahini shake are the new power couple on the block.

Brand new on the scene, Project Pollo has finally launched their much-awaited oat milk shakes just this past weekend. Being that I rushed out first thing to get my fix, they deserve a bit of slack while still hammering out the fine details. While enjoyable, my inaugural Double Chocolate Shake did fall a bit short of expectations. More like vanilla soft serve with chocolate syrup, it was certainly thick, but not exactly drinkable, and quite pale compared to the advertised images. Also available in Strawberry Shortcake flavor which promises real strawberries and crumbled sugar cookies, I’ll check that one out next time, perhaps after a longer trial period. At least when you snag an order of loaded fries on the side, you won’t walk away disappointed.

When you find yourself at Next Level Burger, there are no two ways about it: You must order a “next level” milkshake, or be sorely disappointed by the “classic” flavors. The basics are one-note, bland, and too sweet, trying to compensate by adding more sugary syrup. Go big or go home with the Cookie Shake, however, and you’ll be rewarded with a cool contender blended with its namesake, topped with extra crumbles and chocolate syrup. The real trick is to ask for chocolate chips as well, for the best textural and most flavorful experience. Take your pick from a soy or coconut base, though I’ve tasted no discernible difference between the two. You can now get the same drinkable desserts through their ghost kitchen sister establishment, Next Level Clucker, too.

A trip to The Yard Milkshake Bar is not a journey to be taken lightly. By placing your order, you’re making a commitment to face down a frosty behemoth; there is no such thing as a small size, only big, bigger, and biggest, with “toppings” well exceeding the confines of the commemorative keepsake glass. The NOT MILK? is the sole vegan option, but even that will leave the most hedonistic glutton for punishment craving more. Chocolate soy milk blends with oat milk chocolate chunk ice cream, topped by either almond or coconut whip and crushed cookies. Vanilla icing acts as the edible spackling paste gluing more cookie pieces to the exterior, and thick rivulets of chocolate syrup stripe across the whole thing. Don’t forget the full-sized soft chocolate chip cookie that’s nearly hidden in that thicket of garnishes. If that sounds like a situation, you’re not wrong. Full embracing your milkshake and all the mess that comes with it is part of the experience. Fully prepared for this inevitability, each shop is equipped with an extra-large bucket sink to wash off your glass- and self- before slowly waddling home. It’s outrageous, it’s over the top, and it’s a must for anyone that wants a truly memorable milkshake.

To close out this roundup, I must offer an honorable mention to the Birthday Cake Smoothie at Nekter Juice Bar. Yes, we do have bananas here, but by some strange alchemy, you’d never know it from the taste. The flavor is that of unadulterated, unmistakable layer cake, frosting and all. Better yet, it’s tinted a festive blue hue thanks to the natural color granted by spirulina, and topped by pastel sprinkles. Don’t forget to request plant-based protein though, since whey is the default option.

Who makes the best milkshake on your block? Though you could easily hold that title yourself, what makes it such an illustrious treat is the luxury of having someone else make it for you. Everything tastes better when you don’t have to do the heavy lifting, or in this case, arduous blending, especially when you get genuine chefs and ice cream experts on call.

Breakfasts to Savor

A new day is dawning in the kitchen, jostling the soundest of sleepers awake. Far removed from the dusty boxes of cereal and granola bars, bold, bright aromas infused with spice and umami fill the air. Though the standard American diet leans heavily on sweets for the “most important meal of the day,” polls have shown that the majority of those chowing down before noon prefer a savory breakfast.

Skip the batter, forget the flour, and stick firm slabs of tofu straight into the waffle iron for a high-protein foundation to hold a deeply umami lashing of espresso-spiked gravy. Waffled Tofu with Red Eye Gravy provides a hearty, gluten-free vehicle for enjoying this thick, creamy sauce enriched with sautéed mushrooms without any regrets.

If dry cereal is more your speed, you’ll be bowled over by Curried Coconut Granola. Warmly spiced clusters of thick oats and coconut flakes are baked to golden-brown perfection with minimal added oil. They’re perfect for sprinkling over unsweetened yogurt, plain oatmeal, soups, salads, or simply eating out of hand.

Craving buttery pastries, flaky and crisp? Skip the sugary frosting and syrupy fruit filling with Cheesy Broccoli and Bac-un Toaster Tarts. White bean-based cheese sauce fills flaky pastry pockets along with smoky bites of tempeh bac-un and tender-crisp broccoli florets.

Some Americans consume eggs in the morning, but have you heard of the latest Indian street food sensation taking the world by storm? Bread Omelets wrap up a fusion of French toast, scrambled eggs, and an egg sandwich all in one neat package. My vegan version is made with chickpea flour seasoned with black salt for the same sensation, without the eggs or dairy.

South of the border, Chilaquiles have been an essential staple for using up stale tortilla chips but take on greater flavor when prepared fresh, from scratch. Homemade corn tortilla chips are baked and not fried in this take on breakfast nachos. Little prep or planning is needed to throw together fresh salsa, black beans, and diced avocado in a meal that can be scaled for one or one dozen.

Tall stacks of pancakes dripping with syrup may sound dreamy, but the sugar crash soon to follow isn’t quite as satisfying. For a substantial morning meal that will power you through the day, skip the sugary stuff. The breakfast revolution will not be sweetened.

Get all these recipes in the 2021 Issue 1 of Vegetarian Journal, and online at VRG.org!