Tuesday, July 22, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: Seitan (Make Your Own Meat)

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

(Ed note: As an avowed and enthusiastic carnivore, I’m pretty wary of meat substitutes. Yet, I like Seitan. Not only does it have tons more heft and flavor than tofu, but the headline “Hail Seitan” is wonderfully applicable. But enough of me. Back to Jaime. – Kris)

When people think of vegetarian meat substitutes/protein sources, they usually think tofu. Which is all well and good, except then they usually think slimy, smushy, bland, weird. Which is, when it’s not done right, how tofu usually is: flavorless jello, sometimes with a weird tofu tang. At its best it tastes like whatever it’s cooked in, but tofu itself is nothing for which anyone should abandon bacon.

Okay, even this eleven-year vegetarian doesn’t think there’s much worth abandoning bacon for. But the real secret of great meatless eating, I think, is seitan. Sure, you can marinate and pan-fry your tofu, and tempeh has more texture and its own interesting and complex flavor, but if you want something meaty, seitan (pronounced say-tan) is where it’s at. Sometimes called “wheat meat,” by crazy rhyming people, seitan is every vegan restaurant’s secret weapon. It’s delicious, textured much like meat, and cooks up brilliantly. You can fry it, sautee it, bake it, shred it, and depending on the recipe, it can be a stellar stand-in for chicken, beef, or other non-jello foods.

The caveat, of course, is that seitan is made from wheat protein, aka gluten, so gluten-intolerant celiac folks should stay far far away.

The other caveat, which really isn’t a caveat, as I’ll explain, is that seitan seems like a pain in the rear to make yourself, and is pricey (and slimy) in its little box at Whole Foods. If you’re really hardcore, you start with flour, which you rinse until all the starch is washed away, leaving just the protein. (If you’re not very hardcore, you buy vital gluten flour.) Then you have to season and knead the stuff, then simmer it in broth, and it’s just more work than it’s worth, and it’s wet and not very appetizing at all. For years I thought seitan was reserved for fancy dinners at Candle 79. (That’s the best vegetarian/vegan restaurant in New York City, and probably the world. FYI.)

But then I discovered – I kid you not, this is what it’s called – Seitan O’Greatness, from the fabled Post Punk Kitchen message boards. You start with gluten flour and then (and this is the genius) you bake it. No cutlets, no simmering, no storing in a tub of broth like, I dunno, a preserved brain. It’s dry-baked and delicious, and dang easy to make.

It’s also hella cheap. It’s such a concentrated protein that one batch, which at first seems pricey, makes eight delicious and inexpensive servings. It freezes well and is totally versatile.

What does seitan taste like? Well, the gluten flour itself is flavorless, but this recipe turns out something vaguely pepperoni-ish. And then there are the options – as long as you maintain the dry/wet ratio (replacing tomato paste w/ bbq sauce, but not w/ paprika, for example) you can vary the spices and even the liquids in the mix. You can make something hotter or milder, use asian flavors or bbq, sub in curry powder or Old Bay. Veggie-friendly stores even sell something like “chicken flavor,” a combination of spices that, well, you get the idea. The possibilities are pretty endless.

But here, untweaked and unvariationed, is the original recipe. (Okay, slightly tweaked, because the cinnamon made it weird. And notated.) Enjoy the greatness!

(A note on nutritional yeast, the second dry ingredient after the gluten flour itself. Nutritional yeast, or "nooch" as it’s nicknamed among silly vegans, is a frequent ingredient in vegan cookery. It shows up most often in fake cheeses and seitan recipes, as a flavorer and harbinger of tons of B vitamins. It’s got a great savory, almost cheesy flavor – I think it’s actually umami-heavy – and, after buying it for seitan-making, I’ve taking to sprinkling it on, um, everything. Especially eggs and cooked vegetables. It’s sort of like those green shakers of Parmesan, but more flavorful. And it’s full of protein and the aforementioned B vitamins. Strongly recommended and worth having around, even if you’re not a vegan. One $4 canister usually lasts me a good several months. And it makes eggs sooo good. Huh, I’m pretty hungry. Anyway.)

Seitan O’Greatness!
8 servings
Adapted from the Post Punk Kitchen message boards.

1.5 cups vital wheat gluten
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 tsp salt
2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cumin
1-2 tsp pepper (I forget this half the time.)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (You can use 1/8 tsp if you like it less spicy.)
1/8 tsp allspice (optional)
2 tsp garlic powder (I use a generous tsp of chopped garlic, which in that case goes with the wet ingredients.)

3/4 cup water
4 tbsp tomato paste
1 tbsp tamari (low-sodium doesn’t hurt.)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (or neutral oil, like canola or whatever)
2 tbsp vegetarian Worcestershire sauce

1) Preheat oven to 325°F.

2) In a large bowl, combine wheat gluten, nutritional yeast, salt, paprika, cumin, pepper, cayenne, allspice, and garlic powder.

3) In a medium bowl, whisk together water, tomato paste, tamari, olive oil, and Worcestershire sauce. Stir.

4) Pour wet ingredients into the dry ones. Mix really well, starting with a spoon (but then get in there with your hands). Knead for 1 or 2 minutes.

5) With your hands, make mixture into a log 6 to 8 inches long. "Wrap tightly in foil, twisting ends." (Wrap this good and tight – if it’s too loose you get meat-flavored bread, which is kinda gross. I also recommend putting foil or parchment paper underneath the log, because sometimes they pop open a bit, and then you get a seitany oven floor.) Bake 90 minutes. Remove from oven. Unwrap. Cool to room temperature. Store it the refrigerator, wrapped in foil or plastic wrap. Slice whenever you need some

And then what do you do with this? I cut the log into 8 pieces – that’s a serving for me – and wrap each individually. Sometimes they get cut into matchsticks for a stir-fry (it goes *great* with pineapple and bbq), sometimes little wedges for, um, a different stir-fry. Lately my favorite thing is matchsticks of seitan, blanched green beans, and wilted lambsquarter (you could use spinach, arugula, or any green) tossed in a little mayo (sorry Kris!) and a lot of Old Bay and black pepper. Heaven. You can use it as sandwich “meat,” too. If I’m in a bind for a snack, I’ll also just slice it and dip it in ketchup. Play with the flavors, play with the presentation, and know that no cows were harmed in the making of your meat-type thing. Only wheat. And the wheat had it coming, anyway.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
142 calories, 4g fat, $0.81
(Nutritional information provided by Post-Punk Kitchen.)

1.5 cups vital wheat gluten: approx $3.75
1/4 cup nutritional yeast: approx $1.40
1 tsp salt: $0.02
2 tsp paprika: $0.08
1/4 tsp cumin: $0.02
1-2 tsp pepper (I use 2 tsp): $0.05
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper: $0.02
1/8 tsp allspice: $0.01
2 tsp garlic powder: $0.08
3/4 cups water: free!
4 tbsp tomato paste: $0.18
1 tbsp tamari: $0.09
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil: $0.30
2 tbsp vegetarian Worcestershire sauce: $0.47
TOTAL: $6.47

That might be the cheapest 20g of protein (without a bucketload of carbs) you can get. 20g protein is 3 eggs - so, okay, about egg-priced. Still, that's good.


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