Monday, October 6, 2008

Vegan MoFo: Vegan Pork Belly Review and BLT of AWESOMENESS.

BLT of AWESOMENESS (that it is vegan should be understood by all, since it is AWESOME)

First, I have to say, I was a little bit surprised by all of the positive responses I received after my meat analog post. I thought it would either be completely unnoticed since there were no pictures, or totally polarizing. I'm really glad so many people read it.

Over the weekend, I played with the first of the many analogs I picked up at MT Market, the vegan "smoky pork belly". I have to say, first of all, that while I used to love bacon, and I've often heard of it as "the gateway back to meat", I don't really miss it, and I don't like most of the bacon analogs I've tried. Most bacon analogs have a really intense liquid smoke flavor, or if the flavor is okay, the texture is too much like a cracker. I am NOT a fan of liquid smoke. When I want a flavor as smoky, salty and complex as bacon, I usually add alder wood smoked sea salt and a dash of olive oil or toasted sesame oil. If I want something that's similar to bacon in both flavor and texture, I like to use either pan-fried dulse, tempeh that's been simmered in a marinade of shoyu, alder wood smoked sea salt, water and occasionally garlic, smoked paprika, or black pepper, or, for the most fatty bacon texture, fresh shiitake mushrooms pan-fried in olive oil until slightly browned and seasoned with alder wood smoked sea salt and a dash of shoyu. As you can tell, in my house, we're big fans of alder wood smoked sea salt--JD uses it whenever he can, and always pleads for me to put it in the greens-blanching- water.

In the package, the vegan pork belly looked like a thick piece of black pepper cured, unsliced bacon. I toyed around with a few ideas, like using it as the pork in a batch of green chile, but in the end, I decided to try a bit of it simply pan-fried with some of the beautiful Asian greens I had, so that we could really taste the flavor, and get a feel for the texture. I cut about 1/4 cup of the vegan pork belly into 1/4" dice and as I diced I was a little impressed with the way the "meat" and "fat" had different textures, and I wondered if they would taste different, too. If I had been using actual bacon or pork belly, I would not have needed any salt or oil, but since the white part of the vegan pork belly wasn't really solid fat, I figured I'd need a bit of oil. I heated about a teaspoon of safflower oil in a cast iron pan, then added the diced vegan pork belly. I used safflower oil because I wanted a flavor-neutral oil, so that we could taste all the flavor nuances of the pork belly. After the pork belly started to brown, I added the thick, sliced stalks of the Chinese broccoli, but didn't add any salt, because I thought the vegan pork belly would have plenty of salt. At this point, I decided that a little garlic and some chili flakes would add a really nice flavor, so I added a pinch of crushed red chili flakes, and about 1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder (normally, I'd use fresh crushed garlic, but since my pan was already hot, and there was some liquid in the pan, I knew the garlic powder wouldn't burn). After about two minutes, I added the gorgeous, super-tiny heads of mystery greens, which I just washed and cut in half. I sautéed these for about one more minute, then added the leafy tops of the Chinese broccoli and sautéed for about two more minutes. Since the dish had a definite Asian bend, I thought some toasted sesame seeds would be a nice garnish.

Slightly blurry, here's my serving of greens.

Overall, the dish was really pretty, and the flavor was good, although it would have been hard to screw up those lovely greens. The vegan pork belly was kind of neat and fun, but in this dish, it didn't really offer anything new. JD like it enough, but didn't rush back for seconds, and as I told JD, it didn't really add anything that tempeh or even smoked or fried tofu couldn't. The large pieces of black pepper added a really good flavor, and the smoke flavor was mild enough to be enjoyable without tasting overpoweringly artificial, but it was almost too mild, in fact, I found myself wishing I had added a bit of smoked salt while cooking. The "meat" and "fat" part of the pork belly did have slightly different tastes and textures, which was novel, but after this dish, I wasn't impressed enough with this aspect to imagine going out of my way to buy it again.

At least, I couldn't imagine going out of my to buy it again until I had The BLT of AWESOMENESS. As I was putting away the remaining unused vegan pork belly, I thought I should really try slicing it and using it like bacon. I decided that a BLT would be the way to go, partially because I had most of the ingredients on hand. I often make Dulse, Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches with a slice of avocado, and I love these because they're quick, easy and delicious. I figured the vegan pork belly could be an interesting addition, but I no idea...

I started by heating a small amount of safflower oil in my cast iron pan, then adding the sliced vegan pork belly, and a little bit of smoked sea salt to improve the smokiness. While that was browning, I cut my ciabatta into a sandwich-size square, and sliced it in half. I spread FYH vegan mayonnaise on the top half, then topped that with two layers of thinly-sliced tomato--you could use one layer of thick-cut tomato for less mess, but come on, sloppy is more delicious! At about this point, the first side of vegan pork belly slices had browned, so I flipped then, and placed slices from half a small avocado on the bottom half of the ciabatta, sprinkled it with sea salt, and put a nice bed of baby red and green romaine leaves over the avocado. By now, the vegan pork belly was nicely browned, so I placed it over the lettuce, put the top half of ciabatta on, and sliced it.

Look, it's almost reaching out and inviting you to take a bite.

It was gorgeous. Thinly sliced layer upon layer, mayonnaise coating tomatoes and causing them to gently slide down the baby lettuce, while the vegan bacon glistens and the avocado all but hides under the lettuce. I almost didn't want to eat it. Almost. It was definitely one of the top five sandwiches I've ever had in my life. I think it'd probably even be the second best, only behind a tempeh reuben made with fresh, homemade sourdough rye.

A perfect sandwich.
While I was building my sandwich, JD noticed I was in the kitchen, and came to see what I was making. He decided he also wanted a sandwich with the vegan pork belly (even though he had lunch meat and smoked salmon in the fridge), so he sliced up and fried the remainder. Since he does not like avocado, lettuce, raw tomato, or mayo in any form (JD picky?? Nah!), he just had a vegan pork belly sandwich, so apparently it was more than tasty enough to satisfy even a omnivore, even when meat options are available. Because of its stellar participation in The BLT of AWESOMENESS, I have to say I would definitely buy vegan "smoky pork belly" again, but probably only for use in sandwiches.

Friday, October 3, 2008

VeganMoFo: Meat Analogs

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I found a great alternative to chicken, and received a comment, which I (possibly incorrectly) assumed was snarky, namely that "meat substitutes are great for the transitioning vegetarian, but a great veg cook shines with fresh veggies and leaves the fakes alone". I couldn't help but feel that this comment, while not directly pointed at me, was posted for my benefit, and it got me thinking.

I know there's a lot of debate about eating meat analogs, both in the vegetarian community and outside of it, like, "how real is too real?", "if you don't want to eat meat, why do you want to eat fake meat?", and "shouldn't we focus on eating whole foods as opposed to refined analogs?". I think these are all valid questions, and this post is my attempt to answer them.

First of all, I don't think many meat/egg/dairy analogs are really that close to the actual meat/dairy/egg, and no one is going to confuse a glass of soy milk with a glass of cow's milk, or a slice of FYH with a slice of mozzarella. That being said, I have had some foods that were just a bit too close to the real thing, which squicked me out a little, and usually made me worry about whether or not the item in question was actually vegan . While I've found meat and dairy analogs to be most useful as transitional or comfort foods, when I was a new vegetarian, I wasn't very fond of them, simply because they didn't really taste/feel/smell like the real thing. Now, in the 11 years that I've been a vegetarian, there have been vast strides in the meat and dairy analog market, and the longer it's been since I've eaten animal products, the more realistic plant-based analogs seem. I know some vegetarians who refuse to eat foods that are "too realistic", but I haven't really found that to be a problem with truly vegan foods.

As far as why a person who doesn't think animals should be eaten, would eat fake meat (or dairy, or eggs), well, there are tons of reasons people choose to be vegetarians. The three most common reasons are 1)ethical -- animals are intelligent, caring, feeling individuals that should be treated accordingly, 2)ecological -- raising livestock creates methane which contributes to global warming, and it's inefficient to grow grain to feed livestock, instead of using grain for human direct consumption, and 3) health -- vegan diets offer many health benefits, including being low in saturated fats, cholesterol-free, and helpful in lowering high blood pressure and high cholesterol. You may have noticed that none of these reasons have anything to do with animal products not being tasty... Certainly, some people may not enjoy certain animal products, but in my experience, most vegans are vegans for one of more of the above reasons, not because they necessarily think meat tastes bad.

When answering the question of focusing on whole foods or analogs, we have to first decide how analogs are defined. I've seen tofu, tempeh, and mushrooms called meat analogs. One could argue that grains and beans when formed into patties or burgers, or jackfruit, when stewed and seasoned for taco filling would be meat analogs. I define analogs as products made expressly to resemble some other specific item, and there is an understanding that an analog is generally inferior since 1) it's probably not a whole food and 2) it's likely been very refined. In my opinion, tofu and tempeh are protein sources, but not meat analogs, while seitan and tofurky are meat analogs. By this definition, yes, we our main sources of protein should be whole, minimally refined foods such as legumes, nuts, seeds, tempeh and tofu, with seitan and other analogs supplementing our diet.

That being said, I think there's room for the occasional meat analog in your diet. To me, they seem best for transitioning because of the convenience and familiarity that they offer (as far the "hey, I can cook a vegan hot dog pretty much same way I cook a kosher dog!" aspect), and as sporadic treats, for the comfort they offer. There's also something to be said for the inclusiveness they provide, especially for kids who take sacked lunchto school, or during holidays and family gatherings. For example, my parents used enjoy purchasing a Tofurky for me during the holidays, to ensure that I wasn't left out (although, honestly, I'm not a big fan of Tofurky roasts, and I'd rather just have an array of vegan side dishes for Thanksgiving).

In conclusion, analogs are probably not the most healthful food, but the emotional comfort they provide can be quite enriching, and they can be really fun and interesting in moderation. Join me later this month, for some deliscious examples of both whole protein sources and more refined meat analogs.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

MT Market

I had heard a lot about the fabled MT Market, but had not visited until today. MT Market is a huge Asian grocery store in north Austin, which has "the largest selection of vegetarian items in central Texas". They definitely had a ton of meat analogs. Dried, canned, refrigerated and frozen; ground, in tubes, in pastes, shaped like animals, shaped like patties, and in balls, they carried multiple varieties and even multiples of the same variety by different manufacturers. For instance, at least 12 kinds of tube meats; four tube chickens, three tube ducks, and five tube hams. It was kind of overwhelming, and I'll talk about meat analogs in depth tomorrow.

Other than the sheer variety of meat analogs, the thing that was really exciting to me was the big selection of fresh produce. They carried a wide variety of fresh greens, fruits, melons, and inexpensive mushrooms. I was particularly impressed with their fruits. They have durian, usually fresh and frozen, fresh jackfruit, fresh dragonfruit, fresh jujubes, fresh and frozen longans, and their green papayas and mangoes were some of the most beautiful I'd ever seen. Usually green papayas are pitted or bruised, with spots of uneven ripening, but these were smooth, unblemished and bright green. I only have about a week left in Austin, so I didn't want to buy too much produce, and I didn't look very closely at the dried goods, like the spices or sauces, but I probably have way too many of those anyway.

Since today has been a long day, and I'm super tired, I'll leave you with a couple pictures of my haul. Some of the things I'm most excited about: super tiny heads of greens, Chinese broccoli (which does not have any kind of florets), lotus root, sorghum grains, yuba, bamboo shoots, black rice flour noodles, corn flour noodles, oat flour noodles, black wheat flour noodles, vegan pork belly, and "vegetarian intestine" (!?).

Fresh Vietnamese rice noodles, sorghum grains, super tiny heads of greens, amazingly inexpensive fresh shiitakes, dried bean curd sheets (yuba), agar bars, baby bok choy, fresh red and green shiso leaves, Chinese broccoli, fresh lotus root and vegetarian log.

Fresh Vietnamese rice noodles, "vegetarian log", lemongrass and chili fried tofu, beancurd laverfish, vegan crab balls, vegan salmon, vegan smoky pork belly, fresh bamboo shoots, "vegetarian intestine" and vegan "king prawn".

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Almond Ricotta-Stuffed Shells and Vegan MoFo

You may have felt an inexplicable buzz of excitement, heard the unmistakable sound of food bloggers taking pictures, uploading and typing, or maybe you've just noticed vegan and vegetarian bloggers coming out in droves lately, and wondered why. Well, it's because today is the first day of Vegan MoFo, the magical time of the year when we all band together and update our blogs at least once every weekday for a whole month.

Last year my computer crashed a mere four posts in, but, given that my computer has already crashed once this year, that I'll be out of town and away from computer for about 2/5 of the month (more on that later), and that I have a back up plan, I'm ready for Vegan MoFo 2008. For an ever-expanding list of Vegan MoFo Bloggers, check out Isa's Blog. Hopefully, this will introduce new bloggers to a different audience, widen and reinforce the vegan support network, inspire people, and show how gorgeous, tasty and fun vegan food can be!

I also have an update about a new blog that I've joined, Lone Star Plate, which is a group blog comprised of vegans from all over Texas! I'm aiming to post a combination of new content and cross-posted content from Vegan Vanguard.

Now, onto the food!

Almond Ricotta-Stuffed Shells with Blanched Broccoli and Seitan Sausage

Summer in Austin can be unbearably hot, and on most days, the last thing you want to do is spend an hour in front of a hot stove, which is what made this one of our favorite easy summer meals. If you blanch your greens in the water before you cook the pasta, then you'll only end up using one pan, too, which makes clean up super easy! I came up with this simple dish when JD's mother was in town and I wanted something that was semi-familiar, like pasta and marinara, but also simple, elegant and tofu-free. I know that a lot of people use and love tofu ricotta, and while I think it's great in lasagna, I don't think it's quite right in dishes where it's the main ingredient, and I like to show people who haven't had much exposure to vegans that we really do eat more than just tofu and salad.
This recipe does require a long soak, which you can either start in the morning before you go to work, or in the evening, for the next day. If you start this a day ahead and you don't want the almonds to ferment, place the soaking almonds in the fridge. To make a fermented almond cheese, after soaking the almonds for 8 hours, drain the water and allow them to ferment for a more complex flavor and additional healing benefits.

Soaking nuts makes their protein and fat more digestible and accessible.

Almond Ricotta Stuffed Shells up close

Almond Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells
by Christina Terriquez

1 cup raw almonds
1--2 cloves fresh garlic
ume vinegar
sea salt
2 tablespoons fresh Italian parsley, minced

8-12 jumbo pasta shells, boiled until al dente and drained
2 cups of your favorite marinara, red sauce, or Mama Mia sauce

Either blanch and skin the almonds, or soak the almond until the skin inflates and skin the almonds. Soak skinned almonds for 8 hours.

Blend soaked almonds and garlic, in a blender or food processor, slowly adding water as needed to achieve a homogeneous, but slightly textured ricotta consistency. Season to taste with ume and sea salt, then add parsley.

Heat marinara.

Gently spoon almond ricotta into each shell. Pour a little marinara on each plate, then arrange shells over marinara, and finish with more marinara. Garnish with parsley, if desired. Serve with blanched or sautéed greens.

-Use fermented almond cheese, but dilute with a little water and season with garlic, ume and sea salt.

-Use basil and oregano in place of or in addition to Italian Parsley.

-Add freshly ground black pepper.

-Use with almond ricotta with manicotti instead of jumbo shells.

Almond Ricotta-Stuffed Manicotti with Red Kale