Mastering Meatless

by Anne Marie Hampshire • Photography by Knoxy

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. —Michael Pollan

Long before Pollan wrote this pithy directive about what we should eat to maximize our health and sustain the environment, many folks were already choosing to eat a plant-based diet, or at least to reduce the amount of meat they consumed. And the reasons for making those choices are as multifarious and diverse as the eaters themselves—expense, sustainability, health, to name just a few. Yet, meat offers distinctive flavors and characteristics not found in other foods—rich, savory, primal, earthy notes, and a unique texture and mouthfeel—and the desire to mimic these qualities is evident in the multitude of popular meat-substitute products currently lining the refrigerated and frozen sections of our favorite grocery stores. 

Andrew Hecht, who manages the public classes and online program for the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts (and is himself a graduate), has been a vegan for well over a decade and says the bounty of meat-free products is relatively new. “It’s interesting to see the ways the products in the stores have changed,” he says.

“Back in the early 2000s, you could find tofu, you could find soy milk and you could find some of those fake meat products, but they were never super good. Over the years, all of that has definitely improved and expanded.” He acknowledges how important packaged foods were to him when he started his meatless journey, though their expense, highly processed nature and often excessive sodium levels destined the love affair to be torrid and short. “It’s great for transition—don’t get me wrong—but it’s not a sustainable thing for health.” 

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Over time, Hecht learned to employ a little meat mimicry, instead—in the form of clever and healthy food combinations that replicate some of the sensory experiences of eating meat. And it’s clear that you don’t have to sacrifice flavor. “Flavor differs from taste. It’s a little more expansive, in that it includes taste, but also factors like texture, temperature, spiciness, mouthfeel, the smell of it, if you have any memories associated with it.” All of these flavor qualities, he says, influence how we perceive food. Those who like the flavor of bacon or taco meat or burgers, for example, expect a certain texture, smokiness, heat and smell. “When we cook plant-based versions of these dishes,” he says, “we try to match up with those expectations.”

Veggie burgers are a perfect place to start practicing the art of that matchup. The ideal burger, for example, holds together and can be cooked to be brown and crispy on the outside. “Pureed or mashed beans are great for accomplishing this, as they can help act as a binder, especially when combined with the protein from flours,” Hecht says. And instead of using eggs as a binder, you can substitute ground flaxseed mixed with water. Bonus points if you use ingredients such as grated beets that further enhance the experience by making your burger look a little more like beef. Using smoke-dried tomatoes or chilies also lends a smoky quality to vegetarian broths or sauces that recalls the depth of flavor meat provides, but is, at the same time, its own unique deliciousness. For bacon lovers, a combination of smoky (think smoked paprika, liquid smoke or chipotle chilies), salty (tamari or soy sauce work well) and chewy/crispy qualities can be achieved with simple, plant-based ingredients and a short time in the oven.

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In a plant-based diet, there are myriad tricks of the trade to achieve the sensations of eating meat while still taking advantage of all the flavors and nutritional benefits of the plants from which the foods were made. Give these recipes a try.

For more information about the Natural Epicurean's visit naturalepicurean.com or call 512-476-2276.