I’m not a vegetarian, but I really like vegetarian food. (I actually was a vegetarian for a while before I met my wife.) My take on vegetarian food is that it’s best when it’s not trying to imitate meat-based dishes.
For example: tofu can be absolutely delicious when it’s treated right. The reason that people think they hate tofu is because people try to treat it as if it’s a piece of meat. It isn’t: it’s tofu. It doesn’t taste like meat, it doesn’t work like meat when you cook it. If you try to force it to be meat, it’s disgusting. But try an authentic Chinese tofu dish, like a well-prepare ma po tofu, and it’s a whole different experience.
Another example is veggie burgers. There are veggie burgers that try imitate beef burgers. There are some that try so hard that they literally make artificial blood so that they’ll drip juice like beef! The thing is, no matter how hard they try, they’ll never be as good a beef burger as a burger actually made out of beef. (Similarly, a burger made out of chicken can be great; but it’s not a hamburger!)
But if you make a veggie burger to be a veggie burger – that is, not to be a pale imitation of a beef burger, but a unique thing of its own? You can make something absolutely delicious. No, it’s not a hamburger. But it’s not supposed to be. It’s something different.
As a general rule in food: an ingredient is what it is. When you respect that, and work with it, you get a better result than when you try to force it to be something that it isn’t. Get good ingredients, prepare them well, understanding and respecting their qualities, and you’ll have good food, whether it’s vegetarian or not.
So, veggie burgers.
I like them. But I’m not a fan of prepared frozen foods. So for a long time, I’ve wanted to come up with a way of making them myself. A few months ago, I tried for the first time, building something out of brown rice and a ton of assorted mushrooms. It wasn’t entirely successful. It tasted delicious, but it didn’t hold together – it crumbled. I was barely able to cook it, and it ended up not working as a sandwich. I thought about what I could do to make it firmer, without compromising the flavor, because it really tasted good, and I came up with two things. One, adding a bunch of flour, because it would both soak up a lot of the liquid, and form gluten which would hold the burger together; and adding some cheddar cheese, which when it melts would also help bind it.
Today, I tried that, and it worked. My wife, who’s a veggie-burger fan, said it’s the best veggie burger she’s ever had.
The base of it is mushrooms – lots and lots of mushrooms, minced into small pieces, and then cooked down until they’re shrunken and caramelized. Then they’re mixed with some aromatics and some brown rice, bound together with flour and cheddar cheese, and finally seared in a hot pan.
This recipe makes 12 burgers. I figure if you’re going to go to the trouble of dicing and cooking down the mushrooms, you might as well do it for a big batch. Cook the ones you’re going to eat that night; wrap the rest in plastic wrap, and then freeze them for another day.
- 2 pounds portabello mushrooms.
- 1 pound oyster mushrooms.
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce.
- 1 large onion, finely minced.
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced.
- 1 carrot, diced.
- 1 stalk celery, diced.
- 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, diced.
- 1/2 cup white wine.
- olive oil.
- salt and pepper to taste.
- 2 cups cooked brown rice (cooked in chicken stock).
- 3/4 cup flour.
- 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese.
- Finely dice the mushrooms.
- Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a pan on high heat, and add the mushrooms. Season with salt and pepper, and saute them until they release their moisture, and most of it evaporates. You’ll know when they’ve cooked enough, because they’ll start to squeak as you stir them. Remove them from the pan, and set aside. (If your pan isn’t big enough, do this in two batches. They’ll shrink a lot as they cook, but you want them to cook evenly, and it’s a lot of mushrooms at the start.)
- Add another tablespoon of oil, reduce the heat to medium, and then add in the onion, garlic, carrot, celery, and jalapeno. Cook until they’re soft and starting to brown.
- Add the wine and the soy sauce, and add the mushrooms back in. Cook until almost all of the liquid has evaporated.
- Remove from heat, and set aside to cool to room temperature.
- Cook the brown rice in chicken stock, and when it’s done, set it aside to cool to room temperature.
- When everything has cooled, combine the mushroom mixture with the rice, add the cheddar cheese and flour, and mix together well. Set aside, and let it sit for at least an hour.
- Divide this mixture into 12 portions, and form them into patties.
- Sprinkle each patty with flour to lightly coat, and then pan-fry in olive oil until they’re browned and warmed all the way through.
- Put each cooked patty on a bun. I serve them with a paprika aioli, lettuce and tomato, and some homemade quick-pickles.