Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
Now that my second month-long foray into veganism is ending, I must say that this time around it's been an absolute breeze. Not once during the month have I thought to myself, "I wish I was eating X" or, "wouldn't this be better with a little extra cheese," or "I wonder if I could wrap this in bacon." It's really proved to me that the transitional phase—the phase in which you haven't yet figured out how to properly stock a vegan pantry, or that vegan pizza is not only possible but actually totally delicious (especially if you make them at home), or that Buffalo-Fried Cauliflower is the most delicious thing ever—is the hardest part. Once you've got those basics down, it's pretty much all smooth sailing.
But if there's one question that I get more often than any other, it's this one: Isn't vegan food kind of like eating a bunch of side dishes? Don't you like having something central for your plate to focus on?
It's a fair question, and from a certain perspective is quite true. The vegan food I've been making and eating has been heavy on stews, soups, sandwiches, and salads, not so much on things your average carnivore would consider a main course.
Personally, this doesn't bother me. I love stews and soups, particularly in the winter. But I'll acknowledge that there are times—like, say, when my hard-working genius wife got the two internships she was hoping for this summer—that call for a celebratory meal. Something that we can put on the fine china and open the good wine for.
There are a few criteria that such a dish must fulfill, whether it's vegan or not:
- The dish must have a centerpiece. There has to be one component that is the clear "meat" of the dish (and I mean that in the "essence or chief part of" sense of the word, not in the "dead animal flesh" sense).
- This dish must have several contrasting and complementary flavors. That is, there should be multiple ingredients that are all carefully chosen to either boost each others flavors, or contrast them, so that your palate is hit on many different levels. For a fancy plate of food, I try and make sure that I hit all of the basic flavors: sweet, savory, acidic, salty, hot, and bitter, to really blast your mouth on all cylinders.
- The dish must have several distinct textural elements. Soft on soft or creamy on creamy or crunchy on crunchy is no good. In order to stay interesting from start to finish, a dish must have a whole host of textures in balance. Creamy, moist, buttery, fresh, crunchy, crisp, tender—these are all good things. Just mix' em up.
- The dish must look pretty. Duh.
For the first requirement, you could go with something like, say, a Cauliflower Steak, or perhaps some Chickpea Cakes, or maybe some Grilled Marinated Hearts of Palm. Or you could go the slightly more decadent and fancy route and pasta-it up.
Back when I was a cook at a fancy-pants Italian restaurant, we used to serve a dish of cannelloni—that's a pasta rolled cigar-style around a filling—made with fresh pasta. It was awesome, but a bit of a pain in the butt to make. At home, I have a much easier, cheater technique that I first saw used in Cook's Illustrated magazine. Rather than starting with a sheet or fresh pasta, I use no-boil flat lasagna noodles that I've soaked in room temperature water until fully hydrated.
The pasta gets soft and fully malleable, allowing me to roll it around the filling, but remains uncooked, so that when I subsequently bake it, it doesn't overcook and turn to mush the way par-boiled pasta can.
In fact, using this method, you don't even need to cook the pasta in additional water or sauce—the hydrating phase and the cooking phase have been completely separated from each other. (For the record, this soak-then-cook method works well for other pasta shapes too. Check out Aki Kamozawa and Alex Talbot's Ideas In Food blog for more details).
Next question is the filling. Here's our chance to introduce a few contrasting flavors and textures. I always like my cannelloni to have some sort of creamy textural element inside. Oftentimes that's ricotta used to bind a green vegetable, but that's clearly off the table. Instead, I decided to start with a smooth sweet potato puree made by whipping cooked sweet potato together with a touch of maple syrup (I'd just gotten back from a trip to Vermont and maple was on the mind).
To that, I added an intensely savory element: pan-roasted wild mushrooms, cooked with a hint of shallots, garlic, and thyme in olive oil until browned to a near-crisp level. I used a mix of honshimeji, oyster, and dried morel mushrooms, which I had rehydrated in water.
Why the dried shrooms? Becuase they come with their own built-in flavorful stock. After roasting the shrooms, I used the soaking liquid from the dried morels to deglaze the pan (along with some white wine) to create the base for what would eventually become my sauce.
With the shrooms and potatoes cooked, I shoved 'em in my cannelloni, wrapped and ready to go. Now on to the sauce.
Sauce and Sides
The deglazed mushroom soaking liquid coupled with the wine was a good start. A dash of soy sauce added some more depth to it (though not enough to add a distinct soy favor). But it needed a bit of body. I briefly debated using some sort of starch thickener to make it into more of a gravy than a watery sauce, but it only managed to dilute and dull flavor. That's not what we want.
Instead, I decided to go with a more natural thickener in the form of beans. You can use dried beans cooked separately if you want to go all out, but personally I have no problem with canned beans when used in applications such as this where they will be cooked with many other flavorful ingredients. Not only does adding beans give the sauce body (beans have plenty of starch that naturally thickens liquids—make sure you don't rinse them after draining!), but it adds another creamy textural element to the dish, providing a great bed for the cannelloni once they're cooked. Extra-large butter beans worked nicely.
To accompany the beans, I decided to go with a bit of braised escarole. The hearty winter green adds a hit of bitterness to the dish—one of the flavors it was missing—and they retain a pleasant crunch to them, even after being cooked to tenderness.
With all those elements in place, the only thing left to do was put them all together and bake them. I baked them in a hot oven starting with a foil cover, then removed it half way through cooking, allowing the tops of the cannelloni to crisp and brown—like the ends of the pasta in a dish of baked ziti. Those browned, crunchy bits are the best part of the whole deal, if you ask me.
What was that about vegan food being a bunch of side dishes again?
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J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.