The Goal: Vegan Comfort Food
The Source: Homemade Seitan
I’ll just get this out of the way and say it: I’m a vegan. I know that I do so at a cost to my reputation in most foodie circles. But don’t worry, I’m not going to preach, or put anyone down. Does my sense of kinship with the non-human fauna of the world drive an ethical commitment that makes me better than other people? Perhaps yes, but you won’t hear about that here. Not another peep!
Another common misconception about vegans is that we are all wispy and malnourished souls who claim to be healthier than other people due to our small waist circumferences. This meme is no doubt driven by the plethora of vegan “health food” cookbooks that have become prevalent, often featuring a rail-thin girl on the cover, smiling next to a pile of raw vegetables. I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a cookbook to tell me how to starve myself! I have actually gained a healthy amount of weight since becoming vegan, and I did this by scouring the internet and library bookshelves for the rare unicorn I call vegan comfort food. My constant goal is to find interesting and hearty meals that are rich in delicious fats and protein; food that I will crave and come back to for leftovers day after day.
One such dish that I keep returning to is a savory and succulent grain-based substance called seitan. It was developed centuries ago by vegetarian Buddhist monks in Japan and China. Seitan is often thought of as a meat substitute, but I find it most satisfying to think of it as an animal of its own (so to speak). One of the reasons I keep coming back to seitan is that it is so versatile. I’ll describe some of my favorite ways to use seitan at the end of this post, but no doubt there are countless uses that I have yet to discover.
There are many recipes for seitan out there, some include a lot of flavor, and some keep it pretty bland. The benefit to a bland recipe is that it makes the seitan more versatile, so you can add flavor later using whatever sauce or seasoning suits your fancy. For me, I like a seitan recipe with a lot of flavor. I figure the seitan takes so much time to make, that by the end I want to have a fully flavored substance that doesn’t require a lot of extra doctoring to make it taste good. For this recipe I turn to one of my favorite vegan chefs Isa Chandra Markowitz.
I have made Isa’s recipe several times before, but this time I had to deal with a curveball or two. I was getting ready to leave for a family vacation and I decided to grab the ingredients for seitan on my way out the door. The vacation was at an old remodeled boy scout camp with an enormous industrial kitchen built to serve hundreds. There were no mixing bowls, but there were about 20 giant stock pots and an odd assortment of measuring utensils. Additionally, in my haste to get out the door I didn’t end up with quite all the right ingredients. As I describe my cooking process, I’ll note where substitutions were made, and at the end, we’ll find out if it was successful.
To begin with, I prepared my simmering broth. I didn’t have quite enough vegetable stock, so I added a little extra water, some garlic powder, onion powder, and a little extra soy sauce. Next I mixed together the wet and dry ingredients respectively. At this point the only ingredient I was missing was fresh garlic, for which I made a guess and substituted two teaspoons of garlic powder. I’ll take this moment to make a quick note about the “weirdo” vegan ingredients you will see on the list. The first is vital wheat gluten, which is basically wheat flour that has been stripped down to the point where the wheat protein is essentially the only thing left. This is what makes this dish so amazingly high in protein, and gives it the characteristic dense texture. The second ingredient I’ll mention is nutritional yeast. The collective “they” should really consider renaming this item to something that sounds a little more appealing. But in any case, nutritional yeast is a mainstay of vegan eating because, in addition to it’s high protein and B vitamin content, it lends a distinctive umami flavor that is difficult to replicate outside of the animal world.
Next comes the most challenging part of this recipe: mixing the wet and dry ingredients together. You are supposed to mix them together with a spoon to form a ball, then knead for 3 minutes, then divide into three even pieces. However, the wheat gluten gives this dough an extremely stretchy texture that will gladly clump together into any shape other than a ball. Once the gluten strands bond together in a given way, you will have difficulty reshaping them in any other way. In the picture below you can see how I started with a nice sphere of dough, which was quickly reduced to a mangled mess of elastic pseudopods after the kneading process. I made the best of it, and divided it up as evenly as I could before dropping the dough balls into the now-simmering broth.
The next tricky part about making seitan is that you have to simmer it for 45 minutes, turning the pieces occasionally. If the mixture boils for any significant length of time, the pieces will puff up to nearly twice their original size, and result in a very spongy/gummy texture in the finished product. Thus, you must make sure that you have your equipment dialed in, your lid tipped “just so” to allow some steam to escape, and check on it often.
Once the mixture is done simmering the seitan is ready to eat, but personally I think it’s best after sitting in the refrigerator in a container of its own juices overnight. This particular recipe for seitan is hearty and delicious on its own as part of an entree, but I think it really shines best when used in other recipes. Below I’ll list some of the more successful ways that I have prepared seitan in the past, and I’ll include pictures of any meals that I prepare using the seitan from this batch throughout my week of vacation.
-Slice into strips, slather in teriyaki sauce and grill until the sauce is just singed on the edges, then serve with veggie pineapple stir fry and rice.
-As above, but substitute BBQ sauce and serve on the side with potato salad and grilled veggies.
-Add to a bowl of 4-bean vegan chili (with plenty of Tapatio)!
-Slice very thinly and serve on a cold sandwich with dijon mustard, red onions, tomato, and lots of vegan mayonnaise
-Marinated in your favorite sweet/savory sauce and dried out in a dehydrator to make “jerky”.
1 cup vital wheat gluten flour
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
1/2 cup cold vegetable broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, pressed or grated on a microplane grater
For the simmering broth:
4 cups vegetable broth
4 cups water
1/4 cup soy sauce
Fill a stock pot with the water, broth and soy sauce, cover and bring to a boil.
In the mean time, in a large bowl mix together gluten and yeast. In a smaller bowl mix together broth, soy sauce, lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. Pour the wet into the dry and combine with a wooden spoon until most of the moisture has absorbed and partially clumped up with the dry ingredients. Use your hands and knead for about 3 minutes, until it’s an elastic dough. Divide into 3 equal pieces with a knife and then knead those pieces in your hand just to stretch them out a bit. Let rest until the broth has come to a full boil.
Once boiling, lower the heat to a simmer. Add the gluten pieces and partially cover pot so that steam can escape. Let simmer for 45 minutes, turning occasionally. Turn the heat off and take the lid off, let sit for 15 minutes.
Remove from broth and place in a strainer until it is cool enough to handle. Slice and use as desired.