The Meat of the Matter

Order a veggie burger at any restaurant and steel yourself for a surprise- Whether or not it’s a good one. What might arrive at your table could be anything from a verdant green mash of chickpeas and spinach, or a “bloody” meat-facsimile so authentic that some carnivores wouldn’t know the difference. The humble vegetarian staple has undergone a stunning evolution in a very short amount of time, thanks to the spread of veganism, but also increased health and environmental concerns. Not everyone wants to eat legume patties when they’re craving beef, which is what makes this latest round of plant-based innovations particularly encouraging. I’ve long said that you don’t need to be vegan to eat vegan, and these more accessible, familiar options make the concept considerably more feasible. I’ve already covered the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger here, but they’re far from the only players in this game.

Tofurky, proud meatless proponents for over 2 decades, has managed to maintain their space in this competitive market while winning over new fans. Their copious and diverse offerings are a testament to that, providing something for everyone. Now, that includes the staunch meat-eaters among us, thanks to their newly launched line of Do-It-Yourself grinds, approximating the look, texture, and of course, flavor of traditional ground beef and/or pork, depending on your seasoned kit of choice. Today, with grilling season right around the corner, I’m talking burgers.

Molding easily into patties, no additional binders are necessary for sound, solid construction. They hold together beautifully through the entire cooking process, never once threatening to crumble under pressure. Before long, a distinctly meaty aroma will fill the air, but the scent also has a also wheaty aspect, like good old glutenous seitan.

Cooking quickly, it takes only 3 – 5 minutes per side to achieve a nice sear; a satisfying transformation that creates a crisp crust and seals in a juicy, tender interior. Hearty, satisfying, but not fatty nor greasy, this is the midway point between old school and new tech. Beefy without the overwhelming sensation of sinew, it’s an ideal savory, neutral foundation to build upon. You can truly make it your own with herbs and spices, or keep it simple for the classic backyard BBQ experience. It’s not a perfect dupe for the animal it was made to imitate, but I believe it comes close enough to quell a craving, without turning away those repulsed by the reminder of the flesh inspiration.

Best of all, the DIY format allows you to depart from the typical patty path and forge your own culinary adventure. Crumble the grind and cook it with a healthy dose of spice, load it into a crunchy corn tortilla, and taco night will never be the same again. That’s just the tip of the meatless iceberg, as they (might?) say. Think meatloaf, bolognese sauce, stuffed pasta and casseroles galore. Pick out any recipe your stomach desires and simply substitute this plant-based protein in a 1-to-1 ratio for ground beef. Anything meat can do, Tofurky can do better.

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No Bones About It

Iconic as it is deeply flawed, the imagery of a dog gnawing away at a huge, meaty bone is one embedded in our cultural fabric, a remnant of misguided early training practices. Our tiny beasts are carnivores at heart, some argue, irresistibly drawn to the taste of meat, who love nothing more than savoring our scraps while getting a good dental workout at the same time. Without picking apart the umpteen faults in that shaky logic, the irrefutable truth is that bones are dangerous for dogs big and small, young and old. Brittle and easily snapped into pointed shards, those sharp pieces can result in choking, digestive blockages, cuts around the gums and throat, vomiting, and in the worst cases, yes, those symptoms can be compounded, and that innocent treat can become fatal.

Vegan or not, bones have no place on the menu for humans, so why should they suffice for our canine companions? Countless alternatives exist for safer, softer options, including those made from scraps of a different sort. Polishing off a few yards of leftover remnant yarn, this quick knit bone was a satisfying project for both human and animal participants.

A prodigious chewer with especially pointed little teeth, I thought for sure my monster baby would tear right through my handiwork in less time than it took to complete, but I’m happily surprised by its longevity thus far. Content to teethe rather than shred, Luka seems to savor this new toy with a sense of appreciation. It’s only a matter of time before the plush facsimile lies in ruin, no doubt, but that can easily be replaced; the pup himself most certainly cannot.

Short and Sweet

Good things come in small packages. Navigating the world as a vertically challenged person, this particular truism is one that I hold close to heart. Height, or lack thereof, should never be viewed as an obstacle, but rather celebrated for all the unique benefits it provides. Leg room is never an issue when flying, even on a cut-rate coach ticket, for example, and it’s effortless to slip in (or out) of a crowd. I’d like to think that a smaller size means that all the good things inside are merely condensed and intensified to fit, amplified into a more pure form. Although that can’t be said for all people, that’s certainly the case for strawberry shortcake.

Modern interpretations of this sweet biscuit sandwich stretch the definition, often towering higher than a modest layer cake, but at its core, the concept remains short and sweet. Today, I’m here to push the boundaries further, albeit in the opposite direction. Flattening out the assembly into one thin plank, this confectionery rendition measures less than a centimeter tall, dazzling with flavor rather than lofty aspirations.

Encased in darkly caramelized toffee, crispy quinoa stands in for cake or biscuits, adding just the right cereal note to support the star players. Strawberries, dried and sliced, are both beautiful and flavorful; removing the excess water creates a far sweeter treat than fresh fruit, while simultaneously extending their shelf life to suit any season. Whipped cream is out of the picture, handily replaced by a luscious drizzle of white chocolate instead.

Although shortness often carried negative associations, like being short-tempered or getting short shrift, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t celebrate the more compact things (and people) among us. There’s no need to drone on and turn this into a long post; let’s keep it short and sweet, starting with a morsel of strawberry shortcake toffee, shall we?

Strawberry Shortcake Toffee

1/2 Ounce Freeze-Dried Strawberries, Divided
1/3 Cup Crispy Quinoa Cereal or Crispy Rice Cereal
3/4 Cup Vegan Butter
1 Cup Demerara or Turbinado Sugar
1 Tablespoon 100% Grade B Maple Syrup
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

3 Ounces (1/2 Cup Chips or Finely Chopped Pieces) Vegan White Chocolate, Melted

Line an 8 x 8-inch baking pan with aluminum foil, lightly grease, and sprinkle half of the freeze-dried strawberries along with all of the crispy cereal over the bottom, as evenly as possible. Set aside.

Grind the remaining dried strawberries down to a fine powder in a coffee or spice grinder. Combine it with the vegan butter, sugar, maple syrup, and salt in a medium-sized saucepan and set over moderate heat. Stir just to moisten all of the sugar, and then keep your spatula out of the mixture until the very end. Instead, swirl the pan gently to mix the contents, which will help prevent premature crystal formation.

Allow the margarine to melt and sugar to dissolve before clipping a thermometer to the side of the pan. You’ll want to bring the sugar to a steady boil, until it turns a deep amber brown color and reaches 300 degrees, which is also known as the “hard crack stage” of candy making.

Turn off the heat, carefully stir in the vanilla as it may sputter angrily, and immediately pour the mixture into your prepared pan. Try to pour it evenly over the goodies within so as not to displace the goodies at the bottom.

Let cool completely before snapping into more manageable pieces. Drizzle with melted white chocolate, and let set once more before handling. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Printable Recipe

Shell Shocked

Whole coconuts are a luxurious culinary delight as much as they are potentially lethal weapons. Yes, you read that correctly. The humble brown-husked coconut, now fully immersed in popular culture and ubiquitous in even the most basic mainstream grocery stores, is ripe with potential… To maim or seriously injure the irreverent home cook. You’ve survived the harvest, cleared from the danger of falling coconuts that sometimes fall like bombs on the heads of unsuspecting beach-goers, but freed from the tree, that rock hard husk takes on an all new means of attack. If I were to add up all the cuts, gashes, bruises, and scrapes I’ve personally accumulated over the years of failed attempts to break into the delicious white flesh within, let’s just say it wouldn’t be a pretty picture.

In spite of it all, I keep on coming back for round after round of punishment. It was only after a sleepless night of internet searches that I thought to investigate a better way to get my coconut meat and eat it, too. Turns out, there is a trick to it. Just whack the damn thing. Seriously.

Put away the steel spikes, hammers, rubber mallets, machetes, and any other heavy artillery you thought was needed to break into those spherical fortresses. Just hit the coconut with the blunt side of a heavy knife a few times, all around the center, until it cracks cleanly into two perfect, equal halves. Catch the water in the bowl underneath and have yourself a victory toast.

With this radical new approach, I have all the coconut I can possibly eat. After drinking the water and using the meat to make coconut butter and coconut flour, I was left with the empty shells.

Nothing goes to waste around here, though, so they too became the focus of my restless mind. For the avid crafter and food photographer, what could be better than a brand new set of beautiful, organic bowls? The most difficult part of the project is sanding away the rough hairs on the outside. Once clean and fairly smooth, even out the edge just so that it’s not sharp, but allow some of the character of the coconut to remain. Strive for wabi-sabi aesthetics, not perfection.

You could stop right there and seal the deal with a food-safe enamel, or go over it first with a bold splash of colored paint. I went with a bit of glitz and glamor for this set, spraying the interior with gold before touching up the exterior with a high-contrast black matte. I know there will be many more where these came from, so the opportunities to unleash new color combinations will be endless!

Top Ramen

When fresh noodles meet hot broth, some sort of strange alchemy occurs. It’s easy to understand the allure of ramen, and yet mysteries still abound, lurking at the bottom of each steaming bowl, compelling slurp after slurp as if the secret might be hiding in that very last spoonful. How on earth can such simple, humble ingredients meld together into something so sublime? Where exactly do those immense, throat-gripping savory flavors come from? Which came first; the pasta or the soup?

I paid a visit to my friend and accomplished chef Philip Gelb in hopes of answering these questions and gaining some insight on the way of the noodle. The promise of ending up with a taste of fresh, handmade ramen may or may not have been the primary excuse for attending his often sold out class. Either way, I got much more than I signed up for, which is the essential wisdom behind this dish.

It turns out that like most foods, there is no magic going on behind the scenes. Rather, the foundation is built upon quality ingredients that are treated with respect, prepared with the utmost care to coax out their full potential. The richest, most umami-infused broth you’ve ever splashed across your palate contains a minimal number of components, but is slowly simmered for a number of hours, allowing the water to reduce while the latent flavors to naturally emerge and intensify.

Ramen masters jealously guard the formulas to their patented brews, but even the die-hard fanatics rarely make their own noodles. Without means of mass production, the temptation to cut corners by sourcing acceptable starchy options is understandable, and indeed Sun Noodle provides very good ramen noodles for approximately 90% of the trendiest shops around the US. No, that’s not an overstatement, but the honest truth. Few other manufacturers have mastered the art form quite like the Hawaii-based company, eliminating a huge amount of labor for innovative restaurateurs nationwide. No matter how good this high standard may be, still nothing compares to the delicacy of a fresh ramen noodle made by your own two hands- And perhaps a pasta roller if you can afford the luxury.

Chewy, soft, and bouncy in all the right ways, the ramen noodle gets its great acclaim from its inimitable texture. Though traditionally imparted by kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that serves to toughen wheat proteins and create the signature mouth-feel for these distinctive strands, a more accessible alternative can be found right inside your kitchen cabinet. Philip smartly induces the same sort of chemical reaction in standard baking soda by burning it in the oven. Aromatic in a less than pleasant way, he recommends doing this step in bulk so that you only need to suffer the fumes once. You may question your sanity as the stench rises in growing waves, but you must persevere through the pain! The rewards on the other side of this acrid wall are great. The difference between alkaline noodles and plain old spaghetti are like night and day.

Toppings are another discussion entirely, but my impression is that pretty much anything goes. Consider it the pizza of noodle soups; strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong” are prevalent among purists, but if it tastes good, there’s no reason not to indulge. For this demonstration, key additions include deeply savory shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, spicy pickled bean sprouts, and roasted cabbage. Crazy as it may sound, a whole head of cabbage is simply rubbed with olive oil and tossed in a slow oven for two hours, yielding an impossibly buttery and dare I say meaty morsel that very well could steal the show in a lesser bowl of soup.

The beauty of this combination, though, is the perfect balance of ingredients. Each addition is a strong player in its own right, capable of standing up to competing flavors without drowning each other out. While some continue to argue about whether it’s the noodles or the broth that makes the bowl, the real secret is that it’s neither. It’s the bigger picture of the dish altogether that makes ramen so great, and anyone focusing on just one piece of the puzzle is bound to be disappointed. Sure, it’s quite a bit more work than tossing a quick-cooking block of instant ramen on the stove, but every eater owes it to themselves to try the real deal at least once. You will never regret the time spent when you consider the true satisfaction gained by fabricating each and every facet by hand.

Homemade Ramen
By Chef Philip Gelb

Ramen Noodles:

1 Cup Semolina Flour
1 Cup White Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Burnt Baking Soda*
3/4 Cup Water

*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months.

Mix both flours, salt and burnt baking soda. Add water and stir well. Knead by hand for 20 minutes or until very smooth and pliable. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.  Bring dough to room temperature and knead again for 10 minutes. Wrap tightly and let rest 1 hour. Roll out noodles to desired thickness and cut into thin strands.

When ready to eat, drop noodles in rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or till desired texture. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

Kombu Stock:

Water
Dried Kombu
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Yellow Onion
Scallion
Fresh Ginger
Celery
Carrot

Place all ingredients in water to cover, add heat, bring to simmer, lower heat, cover, simmer for 2 hours. Drain all solid parts out.

Optionally, roast some or all the vegetables first for a darker, richer flavor.

Experiment by adding other vegetables such as cilantro, pumpkin, sweet potato, celery root, parsnip, lemongrass, and so forth as desired.

Soup:

12 Cups Kombu Stock (Above)
1 Cup Mirin
3/4 Cup Sake
1 1/2 Cups Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes to burn off some of the harsh notes of the alcohol. Balance with more shoyu or mirin if needed, to taste.

Makes 7 Servings

Topping Options

Roasted Cabbage:

1 Whole Head Green Cabbage
Olive Oil

Rub cabbage generously with olive oil and wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 350 for 2 hours. Let cool completely before slicing thinly.

Quick Pickled Sprouts

1 Pound Mung Bean or Soybean Sprouts
2 Quarts Boiling Water with 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda Added
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil (FOR SPICY SPROUTS add hot chili oil instead)

Plunge sprouts into boiling water. Immediately remove and rinse well under cold water. Place blanched sprouts in a bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and oil. Toss to coat.

Shiitake Mushrooms

6 – 8 Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
1 Cup Kombu Stock
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Bring water to boil with sugar and soy sauce. Add shiitake and cook over medium-low heat until the liquid evaporates.

Slice each mushroom into several sections. Use one mushroom per bowl of soup.

Tofu

1 Pound Firm Tofu, Drained
Oil for frying

Cut tofu into 1/4-inch wide strips and pat dry. Deep fry tofu till crisp.

Printable Recipe

Jellyfish Season

Up until recently, I was blissfully unaware that a creature may proliferate during a specific season, just as a fruit or vegetable may have a small window of sudden abundance. That was, until a family of these gelatinous creatures descended upon my kitchen without warning.

Gravitating towards the fridge, they seem happiest near a readily available source of food, and seem wholly uninterested in moving on to warmer shores. Far from threatening and actually quite cheerful, I see no harm in letting them float about in the comfort of a safe environment. Miles away from pesky beach goers and without a care in the world, it may permanently be jellyfish season in these parts from here on in.

It couldn’t be easier to whip up a whole swarm of these sting-free softies. Simply print and cut out the template, trace the shapes on your desired color of felt, and carefully trim the fabric. Glue small eyes and embroider a happy smile on the plain head (without the tentacles). Use a matching color of thread to whip stitch the head to the head with tentacles, pausing as you reach the end to very lightly stuff it with batting. Glue a magnet to the back, stick it on the fridge, and admire your handiwork.