The Quest for Vegetarian Barbecue

By on 3 July, 2014 in Food, Kate and Stephen with 2 Comments

This summer, it’ll be 20 years since I gave up eating meat. It was a bit of an impulsive decision at the time, based on some things I had been reading about ethics (I took a philosophy major in college, something that basically qualified me to flip burgers, as my father often pointed out). I had also been reading about environmental sustainability and the global damage caused by the industrialized meat economy. The problem with this personal dietary revolution was that I didn’t know how to feed myself properly — I quickly realized that much of the stuff I knew how to cook was meat-centered, and my initial attempt to live on a diet of cheese and bread (grilled cheese, pizza, quesadillas) was simply not getting it done. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have some friends who advised me on a few key dishes that would help me to avoid a debilitating slide into malnutrition. Also I was lucky to live in a few cities that were very vegetarian-friendly.

The Challenge

Montgomery’s got some great options if you don’t eat meat, but one thing it’s missing is vegetarian barbecue. The very idea of vegetarian barbecue might seem insane to some of our readers. If you’re one of those people, I hear you. It seemed insane to me at first. For years, every time I saw it on the menu somewhere I would order it, hoping that the chef would be able to work some black magic in the kitchen to recreate the texture and taste of a barbecue sandwich – and I mean the kind with some bite to it, all saucy and spilling out the sides of a soft bun. But I kept striking out. So I used our home as a test kitchen for several months trying to create something that would approximate the real thing for our household. Here, in time for you to practice for peak barbecue (and tailgating) season, I present the results of my research. Even if you’re a happy meat eater, the process might still be of interest – it’s like a home chemistry experiment!

Hail Seitan!

The key, obviously, is the “meat.” And here, the processed non-meat commercially available alternatives are not going to cut it. I’ve tried everything from the sad, dry Morningstar “chicken” strips to the stuff made from fungus (though Quorn is surprisingly delicious for other recipes). Tofu’s all wrong texture-wise, and tempeh will never have the right flavor. You’ve got to go with seitan. Most of you will now have no idea what I’m talking about, so let me explain – seitan is a high-protein food that’s basically made from vital wheat gluten. Wheat gluten is the protein in wheat. If you’ve ever made bread, you can see the strands of gluten develop as you knead bread – it’s key to holding the bread together. Seitan is basically wheat gluten plus seasonings and some liquid. It’s pretty flexible taste and texture-wise, depending on how you cook and flavor it. It’s also, perhaps because the name makes people think of The Devil, pretty hard to come by here in Montgomery. They have some out at the fantastic Asian market that adjoins Mr. Chen’s (canned “mock duck,” etc.), but it’s generally not something in stock even at Earthfare or Healthwise. And while mock duck can be super good in stir fries, it’s just wrong for barbecue.

That means that if you’re in Montgomery, you’re going to need to make your own seitan. You can make your own wheat gluten by repeatedly rinsing flour still the starches go away, or if you’re lazy like me, you can just buy vital wheat gluten at the store. Publix carries the Bob’s Red Mill brand in the baking section; I order mine in big tubs from the Internet. You need to make sure you buy vital wheat gluten, not just stuff labeled “gluten,” because that’s often enriched flour, and it won’t work for making seitan. Over the years, I’ve experimented with a bunch of seitan recipes, but my absolute favorite is in the wonderful cookbook Viva Vegan, by Terry Hope Romero.

You start by combining vital wheat gluten and nutritional yeast flakes together with a bit of chickpea flour and some spices (here, paprika, cumin, salt, thyme) in a bowl. Up to a few years ago, I never thought I’d have something called “nutritional yeast flakes” in my pantry, but it turns out that they’re pretty useful in vegetarian cooking. If you’re vegan, they’re key to creating “chicken” or “cheese” flavors. They’re also a great source of B vitamins, something vegetarians need to be mindful to consume. You can buy them in bulk at Healthwise. Separately, mix together some vegetable stock (I prefer the concentrated “Not Chicken” that Publix stocks), some minced garlic and olive oil. Then combine and stir with a rubber spatula until it looks more like dough. You may begin to doubt seriously that this will be a food you want to consume. Hang in there.

Since what you’re making is a dough, you’ll knead it for a few minutes until you see the gluten strings form, then set it aside for ten minutes, then knead again for a minute or so.

Cooking It Up

The rest of the process happens in two stages. First, you cut the dough up into quarters and roll it out into little logs. These, admittedly, still do not look super-appetizing. Each log goes into a foil rectangle, and you’ll want to wrap them up and twist the edges, but not too tight, as the seitan expands a bit while it’s cooking. They need to be steamed. Because I am a huge and total fan of my wok (one of our best, most practical and cheapest wedding gifts), I use a bamboo steamer to get the job done. Seriously, a bamboo steamer is an amazing tool — I don’t understand why people buy complicated equipment to steam vegetables. Steaming takes about 30 minutes, then the seitan needs to cool down before you can cook it a second time.

I have tried this a dozen ways, and am convinced that the very best way to cook seitan is in a very hot wok – especially if you want to get a good barbecue-like sear. You’re looking to mimic the chewiness of meat while making it toothsome on the outside. If you don’t have a wok, a cast iron skillet would work just fine, and what self-respecting Southern household doesn’t have a cast iron skillet?

Another key to the process is how you slice the seitan. A dice is no good – it’ll give you a sloppy mess of a sandwich. Slices about a third of an inch wide are good, and I like to keep them under two inches long for ease of use in the wok. Get the wok super hot and add a neutral oil with a high smoke point like canola oil. Slide the pieces in and let them sear. Don’t flip them all around all the time, let them get good and brown before you turn. If you do a recipe’s worth, you’ll need to sear in two stages – don’t crowd your wok, or things will steam instead of searing. Once you’re done, put all the seitan back in and turn the heat off for a few minutes. You’re going to add the sauce, and you don’t want it jumping back out of the pan at you.

I have a preferred sauce. Since moving to the South I’ve become an instant Stubb’s convert. This Austin-based stuff is amazing (and no, I don’t want to have a debate over barbecue sauces here – everyone has their favorites.) It’s spicy and thick and tangy. Perfect. About a half a bottle will do here, give it a little heat and let the sauce caramelize a touch before serving. Piled on a bun, it’ll satisfy your barbecue itch just in time for the long weekend. It’s so good that we forgot to take a picture once it got on the bun!

The Recipe (adapted from Viva Vegan by Terry Hope Romero)

Liquid Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups broth, preferably “chicken” flavored
  • 4 minced or grated cloves of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Dry Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups vital wheat gluten flour
  • 1/4 cup chickpea flour
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1 tsp salt

Mix the dry and wet separately, then merge. Stir till combined and knead for 3-4 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes. Divide into quarters and roll into foil twists. Steam for 30 minutes and let cool before doing anything with the seitan.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, ten fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Joe Birdwell says:

    “Pulled Pork” Jackfruit is also pretty good.

  2. Heather says:

    I wish that I could just like Joe’s comment! The texture with Jackfruit is really good– nice shredded texture. El Rey has done Jackfruit carnitas in the past– they were great!

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