Here's a part of vegetarian history that you newer generations were thankfully spared, the faux meat obsession. In the beginning, this stuff was only available in specialty health food stores, daring Chinese restaurants, and on the West Coast. My Dad would pack his suitcase with "cold cuts" and mystery proteins every time he returned from the Pacific. Being dumb kids, and Dad worshippers besides, we willingly ate anything and everything that came out of his magical luggage. Our Mom was more suspicious.
While my Father piled mile high vegetarian Dagwoods with foul smelling sheets of tofu film, my Mother looked toward pasta. We called her famous (infamous?) dish "vegetable mush". It was an ever changing concoction of vegetables, tomatoes, and white beans cooked in a pan until mushy, then plopped over pasta. In hindsight, Mom totally wins in both the common sense and decent flavor categories, but there are only so many plates of vegetable mush that one can eat before getting a little desperate for something more interesting. My Dad's faux food and tofu dishes weren't necessarily good, but they were different!
Modern day faux-meats, far fancier than the stone age tofu films of my youth. Photo by BunchofPants
In what sounded like a brilliant idea at the time, my Dad brought home 20 pounds of faux turkey cold cuts with the intention of building a roast turkey for our holiday meal. We watched with sheer fascination and hero-worship as our Father molded the stuff into a roast-like shape, rubbed it with salt, pepper, herbs, and spices, and slid it into the oven, (with a little vegetable stock for basting). We thought he was a genius. That is, until the "roast" began to cook. As the mound of mystery food heated up, the "flavor" drained from the solid matter and pooled into the bottom of the roasting pan. It evaporated in the heat of the oven, and the house was fumegated with the bizarre stench of artificial flavor. Never was there a scent so unnapealing.
Years later Tofurkey went on the market, so I guess he was on to something. Photo by MStephens7
Most people would have given up on it at this point, but not my Dad. He tried to make soup out of it! The idea was to try and get the flavor back into the "meat" by stewing it together in a big pot. By this point his loyal fans had abandoned him. I think my sister, Heather, might have been the only one willing to taste the second turkey experiment, probably more out of kindness than curiosity. Needless to say, the soup was not very good.
Years later, Boca Burgers and Morningstar brand Chick Patties came out, renewing my family's fascination with faux meats. After a good ten years of being vegetarian, we thought they tasted mighty fine. While I still enjoy Gardenburgers and homemade veggie burgers, I no longer indulge in mystery proteins. It occurred to me some time ago that faux meats were the epitome of processed food. A quick look at the ingredient list on a pack of Grillers will leave you scratching your head.
These days, vegetarian cooking tends to focus on plants, and thank goodness. Plants taste good! Though I do eat meat now and then, the majority of my diet remains ovo-lacto vegetarian, and I'm thankful for the movement toward whole food cooking, more for vegetarian cooking than for anything else. It has delivered us from the dark ages of meat worship.
Rather than obsessing over the lack of meat in a dish, modern vegetarian cooking encourages us to focus on the presence of the vegetables. Plants can taste quite good, and they deserve to play the leading role in a recipe. Too often are veggies treated as low rate understudies when they should be the star of the show!
For example, Austin is home to countless varieties of vegan tacos. You can find them stuffed with setian, tofu, and tempeh, all respectable proteins, to be sure. But my favorite vegan taco, called the Papadulce, is a savory combination of sweet potato, poblano peppers, and crunchy pumpkin seeds. To me, it's genius, and a perfect example of modern vegetarian cooking at its best.
All hail Taco Deli's Papadulce Taco. Photo by Scisssorina
In this little taco you'll find vegetables, proteins, and healthy fats. More to the point, you'll find every element needed to create a satisfying flavor profile, which is the key to creating really delicious vegetarian dishes. The sweet potatoes provide a sugary flavor, while the pepitas add salt and fat. The poblanos provide heat and acidity. A dash of salsa will lend astringency, while the balance of sweetness and saltiness throughout the recipe achieves umami, the most important flavor of all.
Finally, the dish has to contain interesting textures and beautiful colors. In Chinese cooking, a great emphasis is made on how fun the dish is to eat. That couldn't be more important when it comes to vegetarian cooking. Noone wants to bite into a big gray pile of mush.
These basic principles of flavor and texture are what make the difference between a vegetarian dish that is satisfying and enjoyable, and one that feels "meatless". A bad habit of vegetarian home cooking is to try and fill that meatless void with protein. While you do need some protein, no amount of bean, tofu, or faux meat will make up for missing flavors. Vegetarian proteins don't often match the flavor profiles of meats, so they can't be swapped without adjusting other flavors in your dish.
Which leads me again to the giveaway accompanying this series. These principles of vegetarian cooking were discussed during Michael Natkin's recent visit to Austin and the Naural Epicurean Academy. Michael talked about how important flavor profiles are to vegetarian dishes, and had some brilliant suggestions for vegetarian sources of umami. We'll get into those a little more in next week's post. For now, the giveaway!
To enter to win a free copy of Michael's vegetarian cookbook, Herbivoracious, courtesy of Harvard Common Press and Michael's blog, Herbivoracious.com, use the fancy widget below. The winner will be alerted via email when the contest ends. Good luck!
Disclaimer: This post contains a sponsored Amazon link to Herbivoracious that helps support Mary Makes Dinner. Purchases resulting in clicks result in my earning a teeny tiny comission. This isn't a plug, just a necessary clarification via the latest FCC blogging guidelines.