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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Hard Seltzer, the Easy Way

It’s no exaggeration to say that every company out there making anything vaguely resembling a liquid is now making hard seltzer. The Saturday Night Live sketch is so hilarious because it’s true, and you know what? I would legitimately purchase a variety pack including Men’s Jackets or Belts and Ties as flavor options. In fact, I have casually dropped cans of “Yard Darts” and “Skinny Dipping” into my basket as if those were on par with commonplace Lemon-Lime.

This profusion of hard seltzers can be chalked up to a number of intersecting trends. Alcohol sales shot through the roof during the height of pandemic lock downs, but most people weren’t trying to get smashed before noon. Lower ABV drinks have seen a resurgence as a more moderate choice, less intoxicating and more refreshing, perfect for a wide variety of occasions. Flavored sparkling water was already on the rise as a healthier alternative to sugary soda, so this extension of the concept appealed to the population that wouldn’t be as likely to crack open a heavy, high-calorie dark beer.

For me, a standard 12-ounce can of hard seltzer is the perfect serving size. It’s reasonable to drink in one sitting so leftovers won’t go flat, and is just potent enough to provide a comfortable buzz. Most 12-packs include four different flavors to keep things interesting, without having to commit to just one taste. Even if you get stuck with Jiffy Lube hard seltzer, it’s never so bad that it’s completely undrinkable.

That said, we can still do better. Hard seltzer is made from fermented cane sugar or malted barley, which is converted to alcohol. This takes special yeast and enzymes, just like wine-making. However, for even better and more consistent results, who said we need to go through all that rigmarole from scratch?

Here’s what you need:

Sparkling water and vodka. That’s it! You can use plain water and straight vodka to completely control the flavors through added extracts, fruit juice, or purees, or use infused options for one or either to make it even simpler.

If you’re hosting a party, set up a DIY hard seltzer bar with a variety of options for guests to mix their own. This way, they can also control the intensity of the alcohol, better accommodating both non-drinkers and heavyweights.

Here’s the magic formula:

  • 14 Tablespoons (7 Ounces) Sparkling Water
  • 2 Tablespoons (1 Ounce) Vodka (35% ABV)

= 1 Cup / 8 Fluid Ounces with 4.5% ABV

That’s roughly equivalent to most hard seltzers on the market. You easily have the advantage over the competition though, because it’s infinitely scalable and much less expensive in the long run.

If you want to go au naturel, cut the sparkling water with half fruit juice or puree, like peach nectar, apple juice, or tropical punch, both for taste and sweetness. That’s usually enough for me, but if you have a real sweet tooth, a drop of liquid stevia will help take off the edge.

If you’re a hard seltzer aficionado, what’s your favorite flavor? For upscale indulgence, I do love a bracing cucumber-basil lemonade, but by the same token, I still wouldn’t turn down Desk if you offered it.

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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Lobster In a Pinch

As a Connecticut native, I have a lot to say about lobster rolls. While I can’t claim to have been a big fan, it was an absolute, irrefutable fact that one such sandwich could ONLY be made with melted butter and steamed claw meat stuffed into a split-top bun. Served anywhere further than a mile from the shore, it should be regarded with suspicion. Better yet, it should be enjoyed at the beach for best results, with sand between your toes, wind in your hair, and the ocean filling the silence while you eat wordlessly with your lover.

Outside of that dreamy romance, as I got older, I found that the real world has other ideas. It turns out that there’s also a so-called Maine lobster roll that’s instead tossed with mayonnaise for a creamier, cooler richness, though that too should be a spartan affair. If you add things like chopped celery, onion, pickles, or carrots, let’s be honest: You just made expensive, luxury seafood indistinguishable from tuna salad. Some people call this Rhode Island-style, but I just call it an abomination.

Given there are so few ingredients and no where to hide extras, how can one accurately recreate the experience of a fresh, plump lobster roll without any animal products? To that, I say, “hold my bun and watch.”

Thick Sugimoto Donko shiitake mushroom caps offer the ideal meaty yet supple texture once rehydrated. Though smaller than Koshin, they’re the perfect size for tucking into a sandwich and filling every square inch with nuanced, umami and tanmi flavor. Making this recipe suitably lavish, tender artichoke bottoms join the party to replicate that buttery yet mild bite of fresh seafood. It’s a bit of a splurge, as a proper lobster roll should be.

On that note, it’s interesting to look back on how far such a humble crustacean has come. While lobster has become a prized delicacy in America since the early 1900s, prior to that it was so despised and devalued that it was literally served to prisoners. The general public regarded it as “sea trash”, with such overwhelming numbers washing up along the east coast that much of the catch was used as fertilizer. I have confidence that once word gets about plant-based lobster, it might enjoy a similar rise to fame and fortune.

And why not? Infused with the oceanic flavor of kelp and seasoned simply, these fresh vegetables taste downright decadent. Once you have the main meat of the matter ready to go, you can turn it into a Connecticut dream or Maine game in a snap- or both, if you can’t decide. While you could also go off the rails down the Rhode Island route, just don’t tell me about it. I won’t yuck your yum, but I think there’s no reason to mess with perfection here.

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