Weird Crap I Cook: Seitan

During my short time as a vegetarian, I searched a bunch of local supermarkets and Trader Joes for seitan, or “wheat meat”, and couldn’t find it.  I found a ton of tofu, the incredibly inferior vegetarian meat-replacement that is carried at most supermarkets, but no seitan.  Made no sense to me, so I reached out to the Oracle of Ovo-Lacto, Taylor, and asked her where she gets her seitan.  Taylor replied that while she has seen it at Whole Foods, its easier to just make it yourself.  Well then.

I did some internet research and read through a recipe Taylor sent me by a fellow named Mark Bittman.  I assumed that Mr. Bittman found time in his hectic schedule of Phish shows and devil sticks street performances to write a best selling vegetarian cookbook, so he seemed like a trustworthy source.  It all starts with Vital Gluten Flour (or VGF).

Don't be silly, of course this isn't the original packaging. Quit being silly

This stuff was a little tough to find.  I visited a few grocery stores and eventually headed to whole foods where they also didn’t have any packages available.  However, there was a container of it in the self-serve baking needs section and I was able to get a pound for around $5.  Which explains the informal packaging.

Looked and felt the same as regular flour

From what I understand about VGF, which is mostly from anecdotal research and halfway paying attention when a cooking show focuses on vegetarian food, it is basically wheat flour with the bran and starch removed.  All that is left is the protein-heavy gluten, which is what you need to make seitan.  Soooooo, I won’t be making this for any of my Celiac afflicted friends anytime soon.

The recipes I had seen called for equal parts VGF and liquid to make the dough.  I started off with a cup of VGF with a little garlic powder and salt.

Since it looked so much like regular flour, I was a little skeptical at this point

To that I added a cup of vegetable stock with a few shakes of soy sauce added in to give it a little more flavor.

Completely unnecessary foto. I am pretty sure you all know how to measure a cup using a measuring cup

Taylor described the first time you make seitan as being “rad”, and I have to agree.  You mix the liquid into the flour using your fingers and within seconds you have a rubbery ball of dough which I tipped out onto a cutting board to knead.

This was about 20 seconds after I added the liquid. Couldn't believe how easily it came together

Per the instructions from Mr. Bittman, which were probably typed while he was attending Bates College and wearing a patchwork backless shirt, the dough should be kneaded a few times and then allowed to rest for a half hour.  I did both.



While the dough rested, I got started on the boiling liquid that the dough would be cooking in.  I decided on water with a few cubes of vegetable bouillon and a little more soy sauce.  I felt very strongly that the more soy sauce flavor I could give the seitan, the closer it would taste to meat.

Once the dough had rested, I got started on stretching it out.  The dough needs to be stretched thin and separated into 3 or 4 “loaves” since it expands a lot during cooking.

Kristi kept asking me to stretch slowly so the pictures wouldn't be blurry. Didn't work

Once the dough was stretched and divided into three portions, I dropped the pieces into the simmering liquid.

Note the size of this pot

At this point I was instructed to turn the heat down and let the loaves simmer for an hour, turning occasionally.  When I first got up to turn the loaves twenty minutes later and took the lid off, the entire gigantic pot was filled with what looked like a dough airbag.  I think I even yelled out of fear.  Of the dough.  Luckily, the loaves quickly deflated and returned to normal size which led me to reduce the heat a little further and offset the lid a bit.

After another forty minutes I turned the heat off and let the loaves cool in the simmering liquid.  Upon removal, here’s how they looked:

Kinda looks like fried chicken from afar, but that doesn't hold up as you get closer

I know it doesn’t look that appetizing, but even in this state the flavor was decent and it had the hearty, chewy texture that is much closer to meat than mushy tofu.  It can be chopped up and used in any dish you would use meat for or even breaded and deep fried.  It also stores safely for about a week in the simmering liquid.

Looks like something I would excitedly buy at Hi Lo. RIP Hi Lo, I will miss the horrified expressions on my friends' faces when I came back with bags from your store

I quickly learned that when preparing the seitan for eating, it tastes best if you let it brown a little bit in a pan with salt and pepper.  Made a big difference, especially in the second seitan “cheesesteak” I attempted.

All of this sauteed for ten minutes in these exact positions. It put a nice carmelization on everything and gave the seitan the crunchy/chewy combination that I associate with grilled meat

Everything was chopped smaller for this round which worked way better for sandwich purposes.  The other big change was going with american cheese which I’ve always preferred on my cheesesteaks.  Not sure why I tried to get all fancy with the cheese on the first round.

I added a little of the gruyere to the toasted roll, just to give it a little bite

This made for a phenomenal sandwich and one I would happily make again.

The onions were awesome, lots of flavor and not too much texture

Seitan is very easy to make and also pretty versatile.  It works as a meat substitute in stir fries and sandwiches, has a similar amount of protein to meat, and no cholesterol.  Basically, its a lot better for you and you don’t even stress about throwing some cheese on ‘der since you’re not starting with a fat packed piece of meat.

That being said, I don’t see a full-on change in behavior coming anytime soon.  I love anything classified as meat and there are a lot of animals and parts of animals I still haven’t sampled.  Which remains a mission in life.  To eat everything.  Seitan was a nice change of pace on the blog and in my diet and I look forward to making it again, but I won’t be living on it.

Looking for some inspiration on our visit to the gulf coast this weekend.  I’m hoping to visit a meat market in the everglades and see what crazy stuff they have there.

P.S. It turns out Mark Bittman isn’t a bootleg swapping hippie, just an award winning journalist and food columnist who used to work for the New Yorker.  So I take back those hippie digs on him, but please feel free to use the massive generalizations I implied about vegetarians on any vegetarians in your life.

Pete’s Week: Vegetarian

A few weeks ago I decided to give vegetarianism (is that a word?) a shot for a week.  At my old job, I had a friend who gave up fried food and sweets every year for lent.  I used to give her a lot of crap about how she essentially just chose to go on a diet every year for lent but she claimed that it never resulted in weight loss.  This was along those same lines; I was feeling disgusting after the holidays and wanted to see if removing meat from my diet would have a good effect on my gut.  It didn’t, but at least now I know that.

Anyway, the goal was to be a vegetarian for a week followed by a week of being a vegan.  I only made it a couple days into the vegan diet since I was poorly prepared and didn’t do enough research in advance.  For the vegetarian week, I still ate products that included dairy and eggs, which I think is referred to as a “lacto-ovo vegetarian” but not by anybody I would want to hang out with.  For the vegan days, all animal products were off limits.

Before I start with the meals I ate, a big thank you to Taylor who was a huge help in the process.  Taylor’s been a vegetarian for a long time and she patiently responded to the 20+ texts I sent her with questions including, “so, explain what animal vegetables come from?” and “I can’t eat chicken?!?!? Seriously?!?!?”.

For the most part, the first week consisted of pretty boring breakfasts and lunches like eggs, yogurt, salads, and protein shakes.  Snacks included a lot of hummus, carrots, pretzels, and this:

I think I ate a whole package of these while driving home from Trader Joes

I love seaweed in nori form.  I first had it at Clark Sheppard’s house when I was very young since his mom had spent some time in Japan.  I love the crunchy and chewy texture and how salty they are.  Really tough to fill up on, since there’s basically nothing to them.

For dinner, I tried to be a little bit more creative and will share some of those food items.  In order to get protein in my dinners, I had to find a way to make tofu enjoyable.  Generally, I don’t like tofu because of the mushy texture so I gave baking it a shot.

I tried very hard to convince myself that it would be just like scrapple. Didn't work

I briefly marinated these in hot sauce, soy sauce, garlic and pepper before baking for a half hour.  The baking gave the pieces a crispy skin and a chewy texture.  Once I cut them up they added some protein and meaty flavor to the hummus and vegetable wraps I was planning to eat for dinner.

You can see a little of the chopped tofu and hummus poking out at the left end of the wrap. Also, they are wraps, not tacos

The mushroom, onion, and red bell pepper were cooked with cumin, lime, salt and pepper.  I had a little Mediterranean, a little Asian, and little TexMex flavor all on one wrap.  I enjoyed it, not sure anyone else would.

The next day I visited one of the most popular food carts near the UPenn campus in Philadelphia: Magic Carpet Foods.

The lines get absurdly long. I had already waited in this one for ten minutes or so before I realized I should take a picture

Everything that Magic Carpet serves is vegetarian and they are pretty creative.  There are the standards like falaffel, hummus, baba gannouj, etc., but what they do with seitan is really incredible.  Seitan is referred to as “wheat meat” and will be the subject of a future blog post, mainly because it can closely approximate the texture and flavors of meat when cooked right.

Magic Carpet uses seitan in a variety of dishes, but their best one by far is the “magic meatballs”.  Basically, its all the ingredients of a normal meatball with the meat replaced by ground seitan, then simmered in marinara sauce.  My go-to is their combo salad with baba and magic meatballs, which is basically just a pile of salad mix with those items thrown on top and a lid smushed on.

I know it may not look that good, but you should know it endured a thirty minute walk home sideways because I was holding it wrong

Seriously delicious food made and served by a few hippies.  Worth waiting in line for if you are ever in town.

Speaking of seitan, one meal I attempted at home was a seitan “cheesesteak”.  The “wheat meat” was sliced up and thrown in a hot pan with onions and mushrooms to get it a little browned on the outside.  Completely unrelated note: I didn’t expect to need so many quotation marks in a post about vegetarian stuff.

I ended up making this an additional time, and it came out even better. Glad to notice that this picture makes me hungry

Once it had cooked for a bit I piled it up on a roll and put some grated gruyere and swiss on top before melting in the toaster oven.

Kristi got the wrong rolls. There, I said it. I asked her to get cheesesteak rolls and she came back with these round ones. Lets pretend its to visually differentiate between a vegetarian cheesesteak and a normal one

The first batch came out decently, with the seitan pieces a little too large, and the cheese not having the richness I was hoping for.  Round 2, which I consumed for football Sunday lunch, was a dece approximation of a cheesesteak and not a bad substitute for a guy with the NFL Playoffs-non-meat-eating blues.

With the start of a new week came a shot at being a vegan.  I was incredibly unprepared.  Cheerios and iced coffee with soy milk was a great start to the day, but most of the vegetarian places by campus weren’t vegan-safe and a green salad really isn’t filling.  By the time I made it to dinner the first two nights, I was starving.

First night was seitan and vegetable stir fry served over brown rice.  The key was cooking the brown rice with some vegetable stock and chopped red onions to reduce the overall blandness of the rice.

Yep, thats an individual serving size of brown minute-rice. I'm not ashamed. OK, I am a little ashamed.

The seitan, mushroom, and orange pepper stir fry was seasoned with cumin and cayenne.

Decent textures and spiciness in this one

Overall a very fulfilling meal, but I think I had to eat a lot of it to fill up.

The next day in class, while eating raw almonds and pretending that they tasted good and made me less hungry, I realized that risotto could be easily made without dairy and egg.  The great thing is that the creaminess from the rice starch would replace the need for cheese.  I hoped.

Into a pot went chopped brown mushrooms, red onion, and garlic to sautee in olive oil before adding the arborio rice, toasting it for a bit, and starting with the veggie stock.

I knew I was in for 40 minutes of stirring, but I really don't mind that part of the risotto process

A few cups of stock later and I had this delicious place of food.

I love risotto and wish I made it more, but I think the buttons of my pants are happy that I don't

I didn’t miss the dairy at all in this one, the only meal I could say that about during my brief time as a vegan.

Annnnnnd after a long day the following day, I met Kristi at the dive behind our apartment for some buffalo wings.  I think I could do a week as a vegan and will likely take another shot at it soon, but I didn’t do nearly enough research on vegan safe brands and lunch ideas.

The biggest bummer for me was that I thought both challenges would force me to be more creative but, instead, it made me less creative.  With vegetarian I overly leaned on dairy and egg products to make the meals more satisfying and with vegan, I basically just ate pasta and rice.  The biggest bummer for you should be this lame post that I thought would be more interesting but likely isn’t.

Future Pete’s Week ideas include gluten free and probiotic.  I don’t think I will be trying raw foods anytime soon, but maybe.   A meat-free version of Weird Crap I Cook is up next week.