Wordless Wednesday: The Meat of the Matter

Root Marrow

Rack of Glam

MVP Meat

Braised Meatballs

Jack’s Seitan Ribs

Breakfast Sausage

Ribbony Seitan Bacon

Recipe testing for Fake Meat by Isa Chandra Moskowitz

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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Coming Up Roses

Time after time, across the years for decades, if not centuries, surveys have shown that recipients always prefer sweets over flowers on Mother’s Day. No contest here; whether we’re talking about a classic box of chocolate or a more elaborate dessert, appetites tend to win over aesthetics.

What if there was a way to get the best of both worlds? Give your mother and all the maternal figures in your life an edible bouquet this year, even if you’ve been sleeping on the event. These quick treats will have you seeing the situation through rose-tinted glasses. Simply wrap up apple slices infused in blushing beet syrup with flaky puff pasty for a beautiful treat that will blossom in the oven.

Versatile enough to present as a breakfast in bed, surprise midday snack, or nightcap to end the day on a high note. Just a little bit of effort goes a long way, in both baking and family relations.

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The Whole Enchilada

Enchiladas, like so many brilliant culinary innovations, date back to the ancient Mayans. Corn was plentiful, which gave rise to the fundamental, unassailable corn tortilla. Of course, they were called tlaxcalli at the time, later changed by Spanish conquistadors who couldn’t pronounce the word and forever changed the course of history. While tacos might seem like the most obvious use, a strong argument could be made that enchiladas were the first tortilla-based delicacy written into the annals of history. Originally, the dish consisted of nothing more than empty corn tortillas, rolled for a compact bite, and dipped in chili sauce. Before they were ever fried or filled, people have found these edible vessels worthy within their own rights.

Thus, I present to you an entirely controversial proposal: Try taking the tortilla out of the enchilada.

I promise, that’s not a hypothetical request or an impossible riddle. It occurred to me early on in the pandemic, when grocery deliveries were more akin to a new episode of Chopped, bringing with it a new mystery basket each week. Pasta has always been essential, but the exact form it would take was a bit of a wild card. Not a problem if you’re swapping ziti for penne, but giant manicotti tubes instead of pastina? Something was lost in translation on that exchange. Having never made manicotti before, those jumbo cylinders sat in the pantry for quite some time.

While I may be old, I certainly wasn’t around when the Mayans were creating this ground-breaking food, so my association with enchiladas is more strongly linked to the sauce and filling. One day, craving something with Mexican flair but lacking the traditional nixtamalized base, I came across that Italian staple just waiting for a purpose, and had this wild idea. Why smother them in plain red sauce when we could spice things up a bit?

Thus, Enchilada Manicotti were born. Perfect for a fiesta, family dinner, or cozy night in, the chewy pasta casing is stuffed with high-protein soyrizo and drowned in piquant enchilada sauce. Arguably easier than the contemporary take on this dish, you don’t need to worry about finicky tortillas cracking or unrolling in the oven. After a bit of assembly, you can take the rest of the night off, since it pretty much cooks itself.

Try a few different twists to make this formula your own:

  • Tender cubes of buttery gold potatoes add more heft to the filling, but this could be a great opportunity to sneak in other veggies, like riced cauliflower, diced zucchini, corn kernels, diced bell peppers, or a combination of your favorites.
  • Add shredded vegan cheese to the filling and/or topping, if you want to increase the richness and crave-worthy goo-factor.
  • Go all-out and make everything from scratch, including your own soyrizo, enchilada sauce, and sour cream for a real show-stopper of an entree that will impress all your friends and relatives.
  • Swap the red enchilada sauce for mole or chile verde sauce when you want a flavorful change of pace.

What can you serve with Enchilada Manicotti?

Both enchiladas and manicotti are ideal complete meals in and of themselves, needing no additional flourishes to completely satisfy. However, there are still plenty of complementary accompaniments you can consider to round out your plate:

  • Green salad or cabbage slaw
  • Yellow rice or cilantro rice
  • Black beans, pinto beans, or refried beans
  • Pico de gallo or your favorite salsa
  • Sliced avocado or guacamole
  • Tortilla chips

Is it Ital-ican, or maybe Mex-alian? Honestly, neither really capture the free spirit and full flavor of this dish. I’m perfectly satisfied to call it “delicious” and leave it at that. No matter what, you’ll want to leave room for a second helping.

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One Reuben to Rule Them All

Who the heck is Reuben, and how did he ever think to invent such a meaty masterpiece? Of course, like any good origin story, this one is full of controversy, hotly contested to this day. The two leading theories attribute the deli staple to restaurants in Omaha and New York, right around the same time in the early 1900s. Each one came about by making thrifty use of leftovers to satisfy a deep, gnawing hunger. Perhaps there’s a kernel of truth in both of these claims, but the world will never know for sure.

Urban legends and lore aside, there’s no questioning the fact that it’s a timeless classic that transcends all tastes. While often associated with Jewish delicatessens, the archetypal sandwich couldn’t be farther from kosher certification, as it flagrantly combines meat and dairy in one mouthful. Today, we have the technology to right this wrong. Abundant vegan alternatives make this classic easily accessible to everyone. In fact, I discovered no less than five wholly unique, completely plant-based Reuben renditions right here in Austin, TX. Each one takes a different approach to accomplish the same goal, demonstrating culinary creativity without making concessions for flavor.

I wouldn’t hesitate to order any and all of these sandwiches in a heartbeat. Each one fulfills a different craving, from reasonably wholesome to downright decadent.

Counter Culture puts a healthier spin on this otherwise gut-busting sandwich, employing whole foods that remain true to their earthy roots. Soft marbled rye flecked with caraway seeds cradles thick planks of marinated locally made tempeh, slathered with super gooey cheese sauce and a notably tomato-forward dressing. Crunchy red onion adds welcome textural contrast, cutting the subtly bitter edge of the fermented beans nicely. The sauerkraut is so soft that it seems to melt into the filling, blended with a few cucumber pickles for an extra fresh flavor.

Wheatsville is natural foods co-op, not a sit-down restaurant, but their made-to-order deli sandwiches put many proper eateries to shame. Although best known for their tofu po’boys, the vegan Reuben sandwich deserves just as much praise. Composed of bright pink corned seitan, sliced dairy-free Gouda cheese, thousand island dressing, and old fashioned sauerkraut, it’s a straightforward homage to tradition. I’ve seen confused patrons take their sandwiches back to the counter, uncertain if they actually ordered the vegan version or not. It’s a perfectly balanced savory composition that’s delicious and hits all the right notes.

Bouldin Creek Cafe is another beloved establishment that couldn’t care less about passing trends, big name brands, or hyper-realistic mock meats. They do things their own way, from scratch, which means their Ruby Reuben is unapologetically made with bright red beets. In this sporadic lunch special, golden grilled rye bread stuffed with tender shredded beets and kale-cabbage kraut, while melted Follow Your Heart cheese slices act as the edible glue, sealing the deal. The subtly smoky Russian dressing creates an even greater depth of flavor, creating a prize-worthy Reuben like no other.

Rebel Cheese really puts their protein front and center, getting right down to the meat of the matter. Their “Gentle Reuben” stacks up with a tidy pile of thinly sliced meatless corned beef as the star of the show. For a shop best known for their homemade cheeses, I do wish it had more of a goo-factor, but that does make it a bit less messy to eat. The layer of sauerkraut is certainly not skimpy, lending a pleasantly salty, tangy character to every bite.

Brunch Bird lays claim to the one Reuben that could rule them all. I’ve seen grown men cry as they sink their teeth into this monstrous meal. The meatless corned beef is unassailable, thinly sliced and super smoky, piled up in tender shreds underneath a tangy blankets of sauerkraut, thousand island dressing, and melted cheese. It’s hard to hold if you don’t want to wear it, but worth the struggle. This is the sandwich that could win over staunch meat eaters without a fight.

Whether you go old school or nouveau, there’s no denying the appeal of a properly stacked Reuben. The interplay between umami, salty, sour, and subtly sweet flavors is what made it a top-seller for over a hundred years. In the next century, perhaps the Reuben revolution will make meat obsolete, once and for all. Which version are you picking up first?