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Q&A -- Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

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Rochelle, thanks for a really interesting presentation.

Can you talk a little more about the different varieties of tofu? I was in a Korean market in New Jersey last week and was totally overwhelmed by and ill-prepared to deal with all the different choices.

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Thanks, Rochelle. I've always shied away from cooking beans because of the time involved. Now, though, I'm considering getting a pressure cooker -- do you have any experience cooking beans in one?

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There seem to be quite a few veggie products out there meant to simulate meat-- burgers, hot dogs, and, ominously, the "tofurkey".

My experience is, these are a bad idea and vegetarian food should be unabashedly vegetarian--meat eaters are not fooled and vegetarians might easily be offended.

Can you think of any circumstances where it is appropriate to create fake meat dishes with vegetables?

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Fat Guy, I'm sorry to say I'm ill-equipped to describe the differences between the startling array of tofus sold at Asian markets. I know that silken tofu is very wet and soft, and is easily pureed for use in sauces or smoothies. Silken tofu is available in firm or soft versions, and the firm freezes pretty well. Chinese-style tofus tend to be coarser in texture, and they have a better texture (if you like chewy tofu, which I do) both before and after freezing. And then there's the aseptically packaged sort of tofu, which in my experience is decent for pureeing or for eating raw with soy sauce and chili oil but which does not freeze very well. Most of the aseptically packaged tofu I've seen is Japanese.

I neglected to mention in my lesson that fresh tofu (the sort that's sold in the refrigerator case), if not frozen immediately, needs to have its water changed daily. After a couple of days in the same water, tofu tends to get a little funky. Also, when you squeeze it dry, if you dig in with your fingers it will fall apart whether you froze it or not. I usually flatten my hands and place them on opposite sides of the brick or slice of tofu and squeeze by pushing my hands together.

I am also sorry to report no experience with a pressure cooker. I almost bought one this summer but ended up deciding not to (they're much more expensive than I thought they would be!). Mark Bittman suggests that you can use a pressure cooker for unsoaked beans; combine 1 part dried, rinsed, picked-over beans with four parts water and cook for 15 to 30 minutes under high pressure. Add a little oil to prevent the skins from clogging the gauge. Deborah Madison suggests two techniques, both intended for bean soups where the texture of the finished bean is less important. One has you cook unsoaked beans with oil and aromats and then add soup vegetables when the beans are done, the other has you start the vegetables in oil and then add unsoaked beans and liquid and cook the whole soup in the pressure cooker.

If you try these techniques, let me know how they work for you.

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There seem to be quite a few veggie products out there meant to simulate meat-- burgers, hot dogs, and, ominously, the "tofurkey".

My experience is, these are a bad idea and vegetarian food should be unabashedly vegetarian--meat eaters are not fooled and vegetarians might easily be offended.

Can you think of any circumstances where it is appropriate to create fake meat dishes with vegetables?

Fresco, you've touched on something really important here. Vegetarians are vegetarians for dozens of reasons, and many of these reasons have nothing to do with a distaste for meat. The first few years I was a vegetarian I avoided all fake meat, believing that such foods sounded gross (franken-food-like?). I was unappealed by their aromas and textures, and I didn't really miss meat and fowl. Later I started to miss those other foods more, and I experimented with lots of fake meats. I've tried most of those on the market at this point.

There seem to be two approaches to flavoring these products: 1. Make it taste as much like real meat as possible and 2. Don't even pretend it's meaty. Boca burgers fall into the former category, while the original Gardenburger is squarely in the latter. These two approaches appeal to different types of vegetarians, namely those who miss meat and those who just want something to eat on a bun with mustard at their friend's cookout so they can feel like they fit in.

Vegetarians for religious reasons are probably the most likely targets of these foods. I live in an area populated with many Seventh-Day Adventists, not too far from a big Orthodox Jewish community, and there are plenty of Buddhist Indians in my burb as well. Therefore there are large selections of these foods at both the mainstream markets as well as the natural foods co-op where I belong, the Adventist Health and Book Store, and and Whole Foods Market in my area. Within 3 miles of my home I can buy pizza topped with vegetarian sausage, a tofu hot dog, gardenburgers galore, or a tofu club sandwich with vegetarian bacon. My brother, who is Orthodox Jewish and keeps Kosher, eats cheeseburgers with real beef and vegan "pepperjack cheese" with a soy milkshake sometimes.

I see plenty of non-religious vegetarians chowing down on these treats and raiding the Morningstar Farms green boxes at the supermarket, too. I have always been unabashed about my vegetarianism, but I ate them sometimes when I was a veg, and I enjoyed them for what they were. I still eat them sometimes. What difference does it make? I've always viewed vegetarianism as an issue where each individual gets to decide where they draw the line. I know vegetarians who don't ask if they used fish sauce in that "vegetarian" pad thai, vegetarians who eat gelatin, vegans who snitch pieces of egg-enriched cookie dough when they think nobody is looking. In light of these boundaries and their regular crossing, meat substitutes seem to me like less of a gray area.

By the way, I intentionally did not cover cooking with meat substitutes in my lesson. I don't like to approach vegetarian cuisine as a way of figuring out what you can swap out for meat. And fake meat is an electric issue both among vegetarians and among foodies (see Nina Planck's The Daily Gullet piece on soy foods as one example). I figured it was best to avoid it, and teach how to cook with less-altered vegetarian foods. But I'm glad you asked about it; it's an interesting subject, one with no clear answers.

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There seem to be quite a few veggie products out there meant to simulate meat-- burgers, hot dogs, and, ominously, the "tofurkey".

My experience is, these are a bad idea and vegetarian food should be unabashedly vegetarian--meat eaters are not fooled and vegetarians might easily be offended.

Can you think of any circumstances where it is appropriate to create fake meat dishes with vegetables?

Please explain why in your experience:

faux meats are a bad idea (specifically which faux meats, brands, which have you tried?)

"vegetarian food should be unabashedly vegetarian" (also what is unabashedly vegetarian?)

vegetarians might be easily offended (have you had many personal experiences?)

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As a member of NRA we constantly get feedback in the form of newsletters.

I remember one a few years ago and this was a survey that the National Restaurant Association did alongwith One of the big Vegetarian Societies. The results kind of stuck with me because one of the conclusions was that one out of five diners ( and this was accross America) would opt for a vegetarian meal if the restaurant would provide an interesting option. Not all vegetarian diners are vegetarian, thats what I found out working at an Indian restaurant. Another interseting finding from the above survey was that young folks ( mostly women) in their late school and early colledge years tend to embrace vegetarianism in some form or another.

Just some food for thought.

Would love to hear ( read) your views.

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I know that silken tofu is very wet and soft, and is easily pureed for use in sauces or smoothies. Silken tofu is available in firm or soft versions, and the firm freezes pretty well. Chinese-style tofus tend to be coarser in texture, and they have a better texture (if you like chewy tofu, which I do) both before and after freezing.

There is also firm PRESSED tofu, which has more the consistency of a meat product like chicken breast. It comes in blocks, and is usually cut up into julienne strips and stir fried with veggies and meat. Very frequently used in a lot of chinese and thai dishes.

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I dont think restaurants dread vegetarian options. What they dread are Extreme Unexpected Vegetarians, becauce they are not geared for them and it throws all timing out of sync. That said they( vegetarians) can be influencial in where a group dines, becauce, if everyones prefferences are to be accomodated, the group will pick an establishment offering vegie options.

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There seem to be quite a few veggie products out there meant to simulate meat-- burgers, hot dogs, and, ominously, the "tofurkey".

My experience is, these are a bad idea and vegetarian food should be unabashedly vegetarian--meat eaters are not fooled and vegetarians might easily be offended.

Can you think of any circumstances where it is appropriate to create fake meat dishes with vegetables?

Please explain why in your experience:

faux meats are a bad idea (specifically which faux meats, brands, which have you tried?)

"vegetarian food should be unabashedly vegetarian" (also what is unabashedly vegetarian?)

vegetarians might be easily offended (have you had many personal experiences?)

Wren,

Please see Malawry's excellent answer, above. But in addition, I've tried Yves veggie hot dogs--a hugely popular brand in Canada--and thought they tasted like burnt leather. That may be a minority opinion, because as I say, they are hugely popular. Or they may appeal to people who think hot dogs should taste like burnt leather. :biggrin:

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Malawry, thank you for taking the time to write such an excellent piece. I especially loved the pictures and the tomato-zucchini tart looks delicious! Stocking a Vegetarian Pantry section was particulary excellent. I hate the term Pesco-Vegetarian. I know it is widely used and unfortunately it leads people to believe vegetarianism includes the eating of fish.

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Please see Malawry's excellent answer, above. But in addition, I've tried Yves veggie hot dogs--a hugely popular brand in Canada--and thought they tasted like burnt leather. That may be a minority opinion, because as I say, they are hugely popular. Or they may appeal to people who think hot dogs should taste like burnt leather.  :biggrin:

I've never had the opportunity to taste burnt leather so I can't compare the two. :wink:

Malawry's answers were indeed excellent but they don't answer YOUR reasons for your previous statement. But really, no need to answer. :smile: I am not a fan of faux meats myself but don't have a problem with it either. I don't find anything contradictory or offensive about them or anyone who eats them.

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I don't like fake meat products - most frozen veggie burgers taste like dog food to me. Tofu is an inadequate substitute for meat, but good in its own right.

I think that is how it should be taken.

I like seitan, I've made it myself many ways, yummy and economical. In teeny packets, preseasoned from your grocery processed food case, it's a ripoff.


Edited by Katherine (log)

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Please see Malawry's excellent answer, above. But in addition, I've tried Yves veggie hot dogs--a hugely popular brand in Canada--and thought they tasted like burnt leather. That may be a minority opinion, because as I say, they are hugely popular. Or they may appeal to people who think hot dogs should taste like burnt leather.  :biggrin:

I've never had the opportunity to taste burnt leather so I can't compare the two. :wink:

Malawry's answers were indeed excellent but they don't answer YOUR reasons for your previous statement. But really, no need to answer. :smile: I am not a fan of faux meats myself but don't have a problem with it either. I don't find anything contradictory or offensive about them or anyone who eats them.

If you do want an answer, I think some people who are vegetarians because they oppose raising and killing animals for food might find it offensive to be served up a vegetarian mockery of what they oppose. But I could be wrong.

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This piece is great! The breakdown on soaking, cooking, and freezing beans is great. I think I will try this soon. I have always been dissapointed with canned beans but don't think far enough ahead to soak beans the night before.

I do have a question. I see textured vegetable protein in the bulk bins. Do you know what that stuff is and what it is used for?

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I do have a question. I see textured vegetable protein in the bulk bins. Do you know what that stuff is and what it is used for?

I found 5th Annual Practical Short Course on Texturized Vegetable Protein & Other Soyfoods

organized by the Food Protein Research & Development Center, Texas Engineering Experiment Station, The Texas A&M University System, In cooperation with American Soybean Association / WISHH. College Station, Texas

September 14-19, 2003.

More than you ever wanted to know about TVP.

Wow.

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I dont think restaurants dread vegetarian options.  What they dread are Extreme Unexpected Vegetarians, becauce they are not geared for them and it throws all timing out of sync. That said they( vegetarians) can be influencial in where a group dines, becauce, if everyones prefferences are to be accomodated, the group will pick an establishment offering vegie options.

We've discussed the phenomenon of the vegetarian factor influencing where a group of people eats in threads addressing the BK Veggie sandwich. My own experience in restaurant kitchens (which is quite limited) is that many chefs have a hard time coming up with something that suits their restaurant's style that will satisfy vegetarians. This is especially true in more suburban areas, again in my personal experience. Still, vegetarians are easy to cook for.

I watched the gyrations the kitchen went through while I worked on my externship when people with more extreme dietary restrictions showed up. They'd usually get plain steamed salmon with plain steamed vegetables, but then they weren't usually vegetarians on top of their other restrictions! I remember one of my coworkers consulting me while assembling a plain steamed vegetable platter for one vegetarian. I tried to advise him on how to make the meal look appetizing, arranging a rainbow of veggies in a big pretty bowl so they'd feel they got their money's worth out of such simple food. Frankly I wanted a big veggie bowl for myself by the time we were done!

I agree that lots of omnivores delight in vegetarian food. I'm one of them! :wink: Many of the omnivores I know are partnered with and/or related to vegetarians and eat vegetarian most of the time.

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I hate the term Pesco-Vegetarian.  I know it is widely used and unfortunately it leads people to believe vegetarianism includes the eating of fish.

Hi Wren, thanks for your comments and welcome to eGullet.

I used to agree with you about terminology. I felt that people who ate fish were eating animal flesh and shouldn't use the "vegetarian" term. I felt that it simply confused everybody else as to what consisted of a vegetarian. But now I see the utility of the term pesco-vegetarian. It's simpler than saying "I don't eat meat or fowl, but I do eat fish, dairy and egg foods." My partner is a pesco-vegetarian, and he sometimes uses the word "vegetarian" without the prefix to describe himself. It makes sense when so many fish preparations in restaurants use bacon, proscuitto, chicken stock and other meat or fowl foods. At least this way he won't be served those other foods, and he has no problem with eating vegetarian without fish if it simplifies things.

Besides, I'm a big believer in letting people label themselves. It doesn't really hurt anything, and if you go about questioning peoples' labels it's a slippery slope leading to all sorts of hairy issues. See my above examples of vegetarians who eat fish sauce, gelatin, etc. Does anybody really want to have their every motive questioned? I accept peoples' food labels at face value, and generally only question them in the context of figuring out what I can cook for them. It's the only safe bet.

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If you do want an answer, I think some people who are vegetarians because they oppose raising and killing animals for food might find it offensive to be served up a vegetarian mockery of what they oppose. But I could be wrong.

Some do. In my experience, this applies to newer, younger vegetarians more than other vegetarians. (I dunno, maybe I'm just saying that because I was this way when I was 18 and first became a vegetarian...) I haven't encountered anybody who feels this way in a long time. I have found plenty of vegetarians who eschew fake meat, but it's been more a matter of personal preference than a political objection.

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I like seitan, I've made it myself many ways, yummy and economical. In teeny packets, preseasoned from your grocery processed food case, it's a ripoff.

Katherine, I am glad you mentioned seitan. Seitan is a wheat-gluten protein alternative, and it has a delightfully chewy texture...not spongy-ish like frozen or fried tofu. It's used at many Asian vegetarian restaurants as a meat substitute. I have very little experience working with it, which is mostly why I didn't cover it in my lesson. What do you like to do with it? And what's your technique for making it?

Also, thanks for the TVP link. Wow is right!

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I forget; did you cover tempeh? I like that stuff too, although I converted back to the dark side after around 4 years of being a veg. Good texture. I really appreciate, Malawry, by the way, your information on drying out tofu. My stir-frys shall never be soupy again!

Oh, another by the way: I couldn't find an actual diary of your cooking school experience here. Did I miss a link? Heaven forbid! Please, please tell me I didn't miss a link!

On edit (another tangent): I'm going to the CCA in SF (like acronyms? I do.) in May 2004, with the intent to learn as much as possible for a career in cooking or food writing, or both. Maybe I could soak up (like dehydrated tofu) some of your valuable insight on the subject sometime.


Edited by bratt23 (log)

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This piece is great! The breakdown on soaking, cooking, and freezing beans is great. I think I will try this soon. I have always been dissapointed with canned beans but don't think far enough ahead to soak beans the night before.

I do have a question. I see textured vegetable protein in the bulk bins. Do you know what that stuff is and what it is used for?

TVP is a soy food, basically little granules of chewy soy protein. I've found little use for it, although some people like to add it to stews and to vegetarian chili. I've barely worked with it myself but I believe you prepare it by soaking it to reconstitute and then adding it to a dish for brief cooking before serving. When you reconstitute it you may wish to use a flavored liquid like vegetable stock, or maybe coconut milk or something depending on what you're adding it to.

TVP is one of the common ingredients in manufactured fake-meat products, btw. Looks like the conference Katherine linked to was designed for people who work on the technology end of turning TVP into something you might actually buy (if you buy fake meat that is!). When it's cooked it turns into little chewy granules, which are somewhat like ground beef in texture.

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I forget; did you cover tempeh?  I like that stuff too, although I converted back to the dark side after around 4 years of being a veg.  Good texture.  I really appreciate, Malawry, by the way, your information on drying out tofu.  My stir-frys shall never be soupy again!

Oh, another by the way: I couldn't find an actual diary of your cooking school experience here.  Did I miss a link?  Heaven forbid!  Please, please tell me I didn't miss a link!

Nope, I didn't cover tempeh. I guess I didn't want to overwhelm with information, but now I wonder if I didn't provide enough!

Tempeh is a fermented soy food and has a pleasingly chewy/chunky texture. It's great in sandwiches. I think it holds up well to strong flavors, and it keeps its shape if handled carefully when cooked. Tempeh never became a huge part of my own cooking repertoire because it's much more expensive than tofu, and I like tofu better. I think tempeh is one of the easier vegetarian proteins to get to like, though.

Click here to go to my culinary school diary. Don't worry, it's not going anywhere you can't get to it, it's just archived in "The Fridge," where old special features go when they are no longer active. Thanks for asking about it!

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Thanks, Malawry! Just printed the whole thing out. I think It'll be helpful to get an idea of what to expect beforehand; maybe practice some things (julienne, brunoise, tournee, for example) before I get there.

P.S.: Did you see my previous post addition re: food writing?

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