Almost any decent chef will adapt a menu to accommodate vegetarians and vegans. Better chefs put thought and effort into their meatless offerings, making these options more than just an afterthought. And for the best chefs, limitations only make them more creative.
The chefs featured at VeggieFest, which runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday May 12 and 13 at the New Orleans Healing Center, fall into the third category. The event will feature food from Sante Fe Tapas, Cafe Carmo and pop-up restaurants.
"A lot of vegetarian food is kind of redundant, and that's sad for vegans and vegetarians," says Mario Abdu, an executive chef at Sante Fe Tapas. When crafting his vegan items, he initially experimented with mock cheese and meats. "We tried using a lot of vegan products like fake chicken, and it was really sub-par. ... We try to make food that is chef-driven."
Abdu concocts vegan riffs on comfort food that appeal to all palates. He crafts "bacon" from smoked oyster mushrooms and Spanish meatballs from lentils and pine nuts. His standout dishes include spice-rubbed tempeh and a ragout of sweet corn, Brussels sprouts and cherry tomatoes. He incorporates vegan products — including tempeh and textured vegetable protein — in ways that serve the dish from a culinary standpoint.
In vegan bolognese, Abdu uses cook time as a flavoring and thickening tool, heavily caramelizing the tomato paste to deepen its flavor. Though he uses textured vegetable protein (essentially a meat replacement), the final result is a dish with the texture of beef but the nuances of multiple mushroom flavors ricocheting between bursts of garlic and herbs.
Compared to a traditional home-cooked bolognese, this vegan version has 200 fewer calories and one-third of the fat. As the recipe is mostly mushroom-based, minerals and vitamins are abundant.
Formerly a 350-pound rock critic, Russ Lane (www.-ikeepitoff.com) took up food writing after losing 200 pounds. He now consults and lectures about lifestyle and cooking, and is finishing his first book.
Recipe by Mario Abdu, Sante Fe Tapas
1/2 cup extra virgin Olive Oil
2 large white onions, diced
2 large carrots, diced
4-5 celery stalks, diced
1 large fennel bulb, diced
10-12 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
6 large port0bello mushrooms, diced, gills and stems removed
1 quart each of Shiitake, Oyster and Crimini Mushrooms, sliced and diced
2 14-oz. tubes "Gimme Lean" vegan ground beef or textured vegetable protein
1 small can tomato paste
2 cups red wine
2 large cans crushed tomatoes with juice (recommended brand: San Marzano)
4-5 Bay leaves
2 teaspoons red chili flakes
1 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup oregano leaves
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat and add onions, celery, carrots and fennel. Cook until onion is translucent but not browned. Add garlic and all mushrooms, cooking an additional 10-15 minutes. Add vegetable protein or Gimme Lean and saute for 5-10 minutes, breaking vegetable protein into small pieces with the back of a spoon. Add tomato paste, stir frequently and cook until dark and caramelized. Add red wine and using a wooden spoon, scrape up everything on the bottom of the pot. Reduce until almost all the wine has been absorbed. Add bay leaves, crushed tomatoes and chili flakes, stir to combine, and lower the heat. Simmer for 25-30 minutes. Add herbs during the last 15 minutes of cooking. Stir to combine. Before serving, remove bay leaves and flavor with salt and pepper to taste.
Per serving (sauce only): calories 302.6, total fat 8.7 g, (saturated fat 1.6 g, polyunsaturated fat 1.9 g, monounsaturated fat 5.2 g), sodium 538.2 mg, potassium 1,659.2 mg, total carbohydrate 39.7 g, dietary fiber 16.2 g, sugars 9.6 g, protein 19 g