Saturday, March 1, 2014

Re-Inventing the Wheel to Taste Like Chicken

This is for my one reader, Eliza, because she always asks.
See what politeness can get you?

So when I first started writing this blog, though my patience for slogging through cooking blogs was thin, I'm pretty sure there weren't that many devoted to cooking vegan food.

Don't get me wrong, there were several out there, and they tended to be pretty high quality, but the recent explosion in vegan-related internet fodder is quite staggering, relative to only a few years ago. Way back when I started caring about vegetarian/vegan food, nearly 20 years ago (gasp!), there were even fewer vegan resources and only a handful of useful vegan cookbooks. And when I say 'useful', what I really mean is 'having any edible food in them whatsoever'.

I remember getting Eva Batt's cookbook because she had such a huge influence on the vegan world. Then I read the whole thing in one sitting. Luckily it was short. I put it down with a resounding 'meh' in my heart. I know I risk sounding insensitive and cuisine-ist, but vegan-izing British food from the 50s wasn't much of an improvement.

Alongside the British vegan movement was the American cult-hippie version that came a decade or so later which, honestly, wasn't much more thrilling. From from this angle, we had The Farm. A large cult-like enclave of vegetarian-mind-expanders who met in San Francisco to eventually re-locate to Tennessee to live... on a farm. With all the weirdness involved in that whole scene, at least a decent cookbook came out of it. When I say 'decent', what I mean is that it was something that I could work with. It taught you how to make your own soymilk, tofu, tempeh (though nothing in this universe, save an elephant rifle to my head will convince me to make tempeh), reasonable pie crust, cookies and the like.

But most important to this post was that The Farm also taught you how to make what they called 'Gluten'. Of course, it's much more hip to refer to it as 'seitan' nowadays, but back in the early 70s, the folks on the farm were making their own FROM SCRATCH.

Now FROM SCRATCH is a big thing in foodie circles, which is why I was so shocked to read all these newer vegan blogs that made no reference to making gluten/seitan the old-school way. Now that everyone and their youngest step-cousin has a vegan food blog, I would have thought that they'd all researched how to really make raw gluten/seitan from the ground up, and that they'd be slaving away for two hours kneading the starch out of a ball of wheat dough under running water just like us oldies had done before them. 

Don't get me wrong. I've made gluten from scratch and it's a pain in the ass. It is NOT worth the effort, if you can find vital wheat gluten at the market down the street, but I would have assumed that a group of people so obsessed with what they eat would at least know how to do it from scratch, even if they didn't do it that way themselves. I mean cooks who don't make their own bread every week still generally know HOW it's made, don't they? (Yes, now you're all in my delusional world where people even remotely think the way I do. Welcome. Watch for potholes.)

So a year or so ago, I was looking up gluten/seitan recipes a while back because I thought I'd give it a try again. It had been MANY years since my last attempt because that last attempt was just unpleasant. I don't typically like the chewy/rubbery nature of a lot of simmered seitan, which is how it comes out when you make it from scratch. I was amazed to find all manner of vegan blogs that were giving only minorly-tweaked versions of the same 2 or 3 recipes that they'd all found in a small handful of cookbooks published long after my last serious vegan cookbook purchase.

That's fine, but what really shocked and somewhat appalled me was the fact that in one of these blogs, which is very popular, mind you, and multiply referenced by other seitan-makers in the blogosphere, the author responded to a reader comment about using 'raw gluten' with "What's raw gluten?" And it was clear from the rest of his response that he had no idea that gluten was originally and is still often made from plain flour and water and a lot of human processing.

I actually stopped reading and said "What the hell?" aloud. No, really, I did. (See, there's a pothole.)

So it was then that I felt really old. It's as if there's an entire generation of vegan cooks out there who have lost an important piece of knowledge. It was as if I were witness to an information leak in our collective history and it made me sad.

Perhaps it was an over-emotional reaction, but it stands. My obsession with having to know how things work is not new. No matter how old I get, I am still amazed that most people don't care how things are made or where they come from or what goes into a process. It's almost as if I don't understand how their brains work so it freaks me out. See that? That's like art or something.

But what this whole internet-vegan-memory-loss episode did was drive me to try seitan again with a renewed fervor.  I've never been a big fake-meat fan. The vegan stuff you get in the frozen case at the grocery store is almost as processed as a Dorito in Velveeta, and to be completely honest, it's UNSPEAKABLY FOUL. There have only been a few veggie burgers that I like and there has never been a fake chicken that I've been able to choke down, though I've never gotten the imported stuff, which I hear is pretty good. So the idea of making it from scratch appealed to both my sense of control-freakishness and my desire to not spend $6 on a frozen package of stuff that isn't all that good.

So after messing with a bunch of recipes online that just didn't work, I've cobbled together what has become my go-to recipe. It is basic. It has only a few ingredients, but one ingredient is vital, and it is a bit processed and I DON'T CARE because it makes the seitan GOOD.

Better-than-Bouillon No-Chicken Base.

Seriously, I think I'm addicted to this stuff. I actually get a little anxious when I don't have any in the house. Once, when the one store in our city that normally didn't carry it had trouble keeping it in stock, I bought a case of it online.

It is my soup stock of choice. I add it to the cooking water for pilaf. I even mash it into firm tofu for tofu scrambles. It's a heavenly salt-lick of umami goodness.

And it really does make things taste chicken-esque.

So let's talk about chicken. I don't know how much there is to say about it, but it is so prevalent in our cooking culture. Do any meat-eaters not like chicken? It's the generic animal food in much of the country and it's hard to substitute tofu for it in everything because...well...tofu doesn't taste like chicken. Tofu doesn't have the texture of chicken, and nobody wants to eat tofu in all the recipes you want to veganize. So having a chicken substitute can be freeing when you really want to make something with a non-vegan history.

Ingredients

Gluten Mix
2 cups vital wheat gluten
2 tbsp. nutritional yeast
4 tsp. garlic powder
1 3/4 c. water mixed with 1 3/4 tsp Better than Bouillon No-Chicken base

Simmering Broth
8 c. water mixed with 2 1/2 tbsp better than bouillon paste
1/4 c. nutritional yeast
1 tbsp. rubbed sage (not powdered)
1 tbsp. dried thyme leaves (not powdered)

1. Mix the simmering broth ingredients in pot or large high-walled skillet and begin to heat on low.

2. MIx the dry ingredients of the gluten mix in a large bowl.

3. Add the prepared broth and mix until the gluten forms a wet ball. Work out any dry spots with a little extra water, if necessary. The gluten should be firm and springy. If it is sloshy or very squishy (sorry for all the technical terms) add a little more vital wheat gluten, but only a little at a time.

4. Knead the gluten for a few minutes. The more you knead it, the firmer the texture will be. This is why raw gluten made directly from flour is particularly firm, because the process of making the gluten from flower necessarily requires a lot of kneading.

5. Let the gluten rest for a minute or two.

6. Calculate how much money you just saved by making your own freaking meat analog with your own two hands.

7. Cut the gluten. You can cut it into random little shapes, or cutlets, or strips or whatever the hell you like. You can even wrap the whole thing in cheese cloth and tie the ends like a roast so that it makes a big...well...roast. Be aware that it will have to simmer a good long time, if it's one big chunk.

8. Put the bits into the simmering broth and cover it. Bring it up to a simmer and no more. Boiling is apparently very bad, if you believe what you read on the internet. Boiling is supposed to make it spongy. I don't know.

9. Let it simmer for 45 minutes, flipping the bits half-way through.

10. The bits will be 'done' when they are firm throughout. The edges may be a little spongy, but the middle should be firm like...well...chicken. Take the bits out of the broth when they're done and set them aside, saving the broth to make a lovely gravy (see below).

11. The best way to eat this is like chicken. You don't generally eat boiled chicken. At least I hope you don't. So I pan-fry it in a nice, green olive oil until it is nicely browned on all sides. Make sure to pat it dry or at least squeeze any excess liquid out before you put it in the pan. You can even de-glaze the pan to get a nice pan sauce, if you want to be fancy.

Like chicken, this is very versatile. You can put in casseroles, salads, sandwiches and so on.  I've made scallopini and  piccata, which work very well with this, if you make it into thin cutlets. As a large roast, it slices well for sandwiches, or 'steaks', if you pan-fry it after slicing.  I'm hoping to perfect my fried fake-chicken recipe because it has been many, many years since I've had fried chicken. You know, the kind where there's half an inch of crunchy, browned batter? That's right.

12. You can make a nice gravy from the simmering broth in a few ways:
A) Make a roux of flour and margarine (about 1-2 tbsps each depending on how much gravy you'd like) and heat in a small pot until the butter begins to smell 'nutty' (man, I'm obnoxious). Add about a cup of broth and let it come to a boil, stirring the whole time. Cook one minute. Thin with more broth for the consistency you want.
B) Make a sludge of chickpea flour (besan) and broth: probably 1/3 c chickpea flour and 1 c. of broth. Cook it in a pot, over medium heat until it thickens. Thin to desired consistency with more broth.
The broth is very salty. You probably won't have to season the gravy except for maybe black pepper.

So call it seitan. Call it fake chicken. We just call it gluten, if only to scare away the locals who think that one bite of it would kill an entire village in Marin. Enjoy!