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.