10/08/2005

Find Great Mock Meat

Could it be true that soy can be made to taste really similar to a T-Bone steak ? I'm buying it if it's true! -- law

There is wizardry afoot in a large number of Washington area restaurants, where the skill for counterfeiting meat has become rather sophisticated. Even without a blindfold, it is often impossible to tell. Get up close and inspect the grain. Breathe deep its waft. Feel it yield to the fork, and to the tooth. Test for "bounce." Mutton isn't dressing up as lamb, soy is.

According to the National Restaurant Association, one in five diners now looks for a vegetarian meal when dining out. And judging by the number of spots offering mock meat, these vegetarians are hungry for something with a bit more bite than a lentil casserole, but just as healthy (high in protein, low in fat and cholesterol)...

Raised on the meatiest of British diets, I was the first to sneer at these alleged substitutes. I love my meats -- my roast beefs, my burgers, my porky sausages. Can't get enough of them. So, I proclaimed boldly, let me be the judge of these so-called meats. Hearing rumors of some particularly good versions, I hurried off to the following eateries to taste for myself.

Alexa Beattie

As we sit to chat in a handsome burgundy booth, he provides a little history of mock meat and its roots in ancient China. He talks about Buddhism and how faux meat is the result of a need to marry carnivorous tastes with vegetarian practice. While we're talking he reveals his kitchen's secret mock meat ingredient: a frozen vegetable and grain protein roll made by Worthington. Wrapped tight in red and white plastic, it looks a bit like a huge Bob Evans sausage. (Worthington's sister line of soy-based products is Morningstar Farms, which is more readily available in stores.)

"The taste is extremely close. People don't know," Ping says...

I was thinking I'd seen it all -- mock meats evolved to their fullest capacity -- when a friend asked if I'd had the "chicken legs" at Java Green. Powered only by wind and sun, this eco-friendly eatery feeds 600 people a day.... The food here is so bright it glitters, so exciting it blows the beans off nut loaf. Think fiery noodle soups with kimchi; green soups with roasted seaweed; bulgogi (Korean barbecued beef) with jobche noodles and lotus root; and gorgeous bento boxes filled with gimbob (Korean sushi), mandoo (dumplings) and, of course, those dainty little "chicken legs" molded into shape on popsicle sticks..

Oriental Star Restaurant. Did someone say mock shrimp? Yes, the girl behind the counter at this Chinese-Thai fusion restaurant. Oriental has one of the most extensive vegetarian menus because it offers a mock version of almost every dish. But the "shrimp" are particularly remarkable -- little cocked pinkies of dried soybean curd, the closest in comparison to real meat in look, taste and feel. Note the veiny bodies, the bounce-back. I struggled for a texture to compare these beauties with, and all I came up with was this: shrimp. (Oriental's "pork," by the way, is more hammy than ham.)...

Don't be fooled by the cow and chicken pictures, this portion of the menu is 100 percent vegan. There's a nice zip to the Szechwan beef and the visuals are key: sinewy, brownish-gray shavings with the kind of muscular channels one expects of meat. Tossed with a host of crisp vegetables, it was almost indistinguishable from the real thing -- and low fat to boot!..

Caramelization, it turns out, is one of the trade tricks for making animal-free products taste meaty. At least, it is for a self-described "stealth vegan" business in Wheaton. "I use tomatoes as caramelizing agents because meat caramelizes," says Carrie Megginson, kitchen manager of Gail's Vegetarian Catering (11307 Elkin St., Wheaton, 301-949-7602, http://www.gailsvegetarian.com/ ). "I try to make things do what meat does."

By "things," Megginson mostly means seitan , the Japanese word (pronounced say-tahn) for cooked wheat protein. While most restaurants that offer faux meat tend to be Asian, Gail's specializes in the European cuisine of the staff's training. The recipe she gave us is easy to make, and this pot roast benefits from a day of rest before eating. That way, the flavors develop, becoming more robust. Perfect for supper after a walk through autumn woods.

Gail's Seitan Pot Roast

*1 pound seitan

1 tablespoon unrefined corn oil

3 medium onions, peeled, halved and sliced thin

3 large carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2 -inch slices

3 medium potatoes, peeled and cut in 3/4 -inch cubes

6 cups vegetable stock

3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped

3-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated

*3 inches kombu (Japanese kelp in strips), roughly chopped or cut into smaller strips to be removed before serving

2 teaspoons dried thyme (or 2 tablespoons fresh)

2 bay leaves

2 cups frozen peas

2 tablespoons grain coffee (such as Postum or Inka), or regular strong coffee

Juice of 1 lemon

* 3 tablespoons kuzu (powdered starch and gelling agent)

1/2 cup water

* 2 tablespoons red or brown miso

Handful watercress, finely chopped, for garnish (optional)

* Available at Asian and natural food stores and some Whole Foods.

If seitan comes shredded, leave as is; if it comes as a lump, cut roughly into one-inch cubes and set aside.

In a large, wide stew pan, heat corn oil over medium heat. Add onions and saute until golden, about 15 minutes. Add carrots and potatoes and saute 5 minutes. Add vegetable stock, garlic, ginger, kombu, thyme and bay leaves, stir and cover. Simmer on very low heat until the carrots are almost tender, 30-45 minutes.

Add seitan and simmer for 5 minutes on medium-low heat. Add peas and simmer 3 minutes. Turn heat to very low.

Dilute grain coffee in lemon juice and add. Dilute kuzu in 1/4 cup water and add. Stir constantly, while it simmers and thickens, about 2 minutes. Dilute miso in 1/4 cup water and add. Stir and simmer another 2 minutes.

Turn off heat and allow to rest 10 minutes. If desired, remove bay leaves and kombu. Serve over rice or noodles, and top with watercress, if you like.

Makes 6 servings.

Find Great Mock Meat

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