The Problem with Vegan Loaf

I have the same problem with vegan meatloaf (I call it “meefloaf”) every time I make it. No matter what recipe for lentil loaf or nut loaf or veggie loaf I make it always (Always, ALWAYS) ends up mushy. As in I-could-serve-it-with-a-spoon mushy. It’s nothing like the firm, sliceable loaves my mother made. Granted, she made them out of dead animal, but that’s neither here nor there. The issue is, I want meefloaf that slices! I want sammich fillings and chewy, forkable mouthfulls of savory goodness.  It’s not that any of the loaves I’ve ever made have had a bad flavor, or were poorly seasoned, I’ve just always been disappointed by their texture.

White platter with green beans, ketchup glazed meefloaf, and roasted potatoes.

Last Night’s Dinner. Meefloaf, roasted potatoes, and steam fried green beans with garlic and lemon peel.

Thinking I’d hit on a possible solution, last night I tried making a meefloaf out of LightLife ground fake beef and ground fake sausage.  But knowing that those products –while delicious– tend to be a tad bit dense and heavy on their own, I decided to cut it with about four slices of dried whole wheat bread that had been soaked in some hot water to rehydrate them.  I added onion, garlic, finely diced carrot, soy sauce, some peanut butter, an egg replacer, and various herbs and spices. I baked this creation at 400 degrees for an hour and a half with a ketchup glaze for the last 20 minutes.  While it was a tasty loaf… it was still wet, still mushy.

WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?!!?

Really, I think the mistake here was the rehydrated bread. I think it’s why my meefloaf is so doughy. Has anyone had success with a vegan loaf? Tell me your secrets!

Back to basics . . . and childhood.

My parents used to make what they would call a “hamburger hotdish” for dinner a lot of the time while I was growing up.  It was a dish similar to hamburger helper that was made on the stove top in a big ass skillet.  It was pretty simple, ground beef, onions, celery, macaroni and canned tomatoes from my dad’s garden.  We’d eat that with peanut butter and jelly on white bread with big glasses of milk.  It was a pretty standard meal at our house.  I never really used to think about why we’d eat that so often.  I’d just scarf down the hotdish so I could have more peanut butter and jelly.  But now I realize why it was on the stove at least once a week.

It’s cheap.

Dirt.  Frickin’.  Cheap.

Because of several money issues in the last month or so, I’ve been forced to cut my food budget roughly in half.  Which means no more exotic, organic foods from the co op, no more specialty mail-order vegan products for a while either.  I’m back to supermarket veganism . . . well, Target veganism to be more precise.  Problem is . . . I don’t really know how to cook that way.

I’m used to having interesting vegetables, artisan breads, imported pasta, and organic canned goods.  Granted, the generic cheap stuff is still vegan (more or less), I worry about chemicals used during farming and in the processing of the food.  Cest la vie, I guess.  I do still buy and voluntarily eat Oreos from time to time, so I should probably stop bitching.

Anyway.  I didn’t even know where to start with making cheap food.  So I went back to the classic meal I’d seen my parents make hundreds of times: Hamburger Hotdish.

I’ve been toying with “skillet meals” for a while now.  Mostly because I had some weird craving for hamburger helper.  As a freshman at college, during my vegetarian years, I started eating hamburger helper on a regular basis and just subbing out the ground beef for some veggie crumbles.  It was a comfort food.  Warm and salty and squishy.  At first my aim was just to recreate that feeling with my food while keeping everything vegan.  Then I realized what sort of potential skillet meals had.  You can make just about any dish in a vegan skillet version.  Vegan Beef-a-roni, vegan cheesburger helper, vegan chicken ala king, even vegan tuna casserole.  I started making them all the time because they were easy, complete meals, that only used one pan.  It was as if I’d discovered the secret to college cooking.

But now, I see that not only are they fast, easy, tasty, and leave you with less cleaning . . . they’re cheap, as long as you use the right ingredients.  In my original days of coming up with these meals, I’d use expensive, frozen, meat analogues:  Morningstar chik’n strips or boca crumbles or whatever was on sale at the co op.  But as a better, cheaper source of protein, now I’m using tofu.

I recently discovered that in a nonstick skillet, you can treat crumbled tofu sort of like ground beef for these sorts of things.  Just heat the skillet to medium high heat, add about 2 tablespoons of canola oil, crumble in the tofu, let it saute for a minute or two, and then drizzle it all with a healthy amount of soy sauce.  Then you just have to let it fry until it’s starting to brown.  TA DA!  The perfect protein base for skillet meals.  And coming in at about $2 a pound, it’s economical and vegan.

So the next hurdle was making my parents’ hamburger hotdish concept healthy.  I mean, macaroni and meat with some tomato sauce isn’t exactly what I would call good-for-you.  The meat became tofu.  The noodles became whole-grain pasta.  The sauce got some herbs added to it so it wasn’t so damn boring.  And the whole thing got an injection of vegetables for the sake of nutrition.

At the end of it all, I did all the math.  I got three BIG servings out of the recipe for less than $4.  Dinner tonight, and lunch and dinner tomorrow.  SUCCESS!  Just for my serving tonight, I made some toasty crumbles for the top and sprinkled on a little bit of nutritional yeast for flavor.

here's a cruddy picture of it I took with my webcam

A Basic Skillet Meal

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/2 Pound of firm or extra firm tofu
  • 3 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon basil
  • 1 15-ounce can of tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 cans of water
  • 1/2 of a 13.5 ounce box of whole grain pene pasta (a generous 2 cups)
  • 1/2 of a 16-ounce bag of frozen, cut green beans
  • salt and pepper to taste

What to do:

Heat a large (12-inch), nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  While that’s heating, wrap the tofu in some paper towels and gently squeeze out some of the water.  Don’t worry about getting it too dry, most of the excess will cook off.  Once hot, put the oil in the skillet and crumble in the tofu.  Fry this for 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then gather all the tofu into the middle of the pan and drizzle the soy sauce over it evenly.  I just pour it out of the bottle, so 3 tablespoons is an estimate.  Don’t stir for 2 minutes, just let it sizzle.  The soy sauce is reducing a bit in the pan and that’s what you want.

Now stir the tofu occasionally for the next 5 minutes, or until it starts to get golden brown on the parts that aren’t covered in soy sauce.  Add the onion and garlic to the pan and saute, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes.  Just until the onion looks cooked, but the tofu isn’t too browned.  Add the oregano and basil and stir.

Add the tomato sauce.  And then add 1 and 1/2 cans full of water, making sure to get all that good tomato sauce into the pan by swishing it out with the water.  Bring the pan to a boil.  Once boiling, add the pasta.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes (or as long as the pasta calls for), stirring occasionally.  After the 10 minutes is up, check to see if the pasta is cooked.  If it’s a little firm yet, that’s okay.  Add the green beans and bring the pan back to a simmer.  You may need to add a little extra water to loosen things up a bit.  But if it looks like there’s a nice sauce in the pan, you don’t have to.  Simmer the whole concoction for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the green beans are hot.

Put it into a bowl (or on a plate, if you prefer) and eat it on up!

This is a basic outline for skillet meals, using this format, you can make a bunch of different variations.  Judging by my bank account, I’ll probably have the opportunity to post some more in the coming weeks.

Ugly Food

I was feeling lazy last night.  All I wanted to do was put warm food in my mouth and watch a movie.  Problem was I didn’t have anything I could just warm up and eat . . . which meant I had to cook.

I groaned at the thought.  I’d been grocery shopping all day and had tons of interesting food laying around my house but no energy to put ingredients together into a meal.  Eventually, I dragged myself into the kitchen and decided to make the laziest food I know how to:  Hobo Packets.

I don’t know if the term “hobo packets” is politically correct.  I don’t really care.  I can tell you that they taste pretty good though.  There are lots of variations on them.  The method is mostly referred to as “packet cooking” in general.  But hobo packets, in my mind, are specific type of packet cooking involving variations on a set of ingredients:

  • cheap, readily available protein (usually hamburger)
  • onions
  • roasting vegetables (usually carrots)
  • potatoes
  • sauce

I’ve encountered several recipes for hobo packets.  Most of them cite the reasoning for the name “hobo packets” is that they are made of cheap food, can be cooked on just about any heat source, and you don’t need a plate to eat them off of, you just eat them right out of the foil!  So, they’re designed by/for those people who don’t have proper kitchens to cook in . . . hobos, really.

Because of this, these make awesome camp food.  You don’t have to cook them in the oven  as instructed here.  You can just bury them in the hot coals of a campfire for an hour or so.  Like I said, just about any heat source will work.  And you can make the packets themselves in your kitchen before you leave, store them in a cooler and then just cook them up at dinnertime.

The concept was pretty easy to veganize, since the only non-vegan ingredient in them was meat and there are TONS of meat substitutes available on the market.

Just as a note, I don’t know that I would recommend subbing tofu in this dish for the faux meat.  This is a wet cooking method.  And I find that tofu has a more pleasing texture when it is fried or baked.  Maybe thawed frozen tofu would work?  But I haven’t tried it.

As I said, I was being lazy last night.  So I made ugly food and when I took photos of it, I made no effort to make them look good.  I didn’t frame well, I used a flash, it was kind of like I was trying to take bad pictures.  Today, I photoshopped them . . . to make them look like lomography!  (It’s one of my favorite techniques and the tutorial I base my technique on can be found here.)  Be sure to click on the pictures in this post, they get bigger and they’re prettier that way.

So, without further adieu, it’s time for a lomographic adventure through . . .

UGLY FOOD!Hobo Packets!

I make my hobo packets with two components, the food component and the sauce component.  When all the vegetables cook in the packet, they leak out flavor all over the place and add to the flavor of the sauce that ends up in the bottom of the packet.  I layer my ingredients in a specific way . . . kind of.  They fall all over the place anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.

Food Stuffs:food things

  • Vegan Meaty substitute, either a patty made of 1/4 tube of light life hamburger substitute or 1/2 a bag of Morningstar Farms chik’n strips (or try other things . . . whatever you have laying around, really)
  • 1/2 a medium onion, thickly sliced
  • a handful of baby carrots or 1 large carrot cut into large chunks
  • 3 large mushrooms, quartered, or 6 smaller ones halved
  • 1 medium sized potato, roughly cubed into about 3/4 to 1 inch pieces

Sauce Thingssauce things

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • Annie’s BBQ sauce (oh so good!)
  • tamari, soy sauce, braggs, or shoyu
  • hot sauce (optional)
  • salt and pepper

Here’s what you do . . .

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Get yourself a big ol’ piece of aluminum foil, about 18 inches long or so.  I put it right on top of a cookie sheet, even if it’s bigger than the pan, just so I don’t have to move over there later.  Then, schmere about a tablespoon of olive oil in the middle, making a puddle big enough to put your fake meat on, about 5 inches in diameter.

carrots nextNow, put your meat on top of the puddle.  Lay your slices of onion on top.  Then put the carrots on top of the onions.  At this point, you’ll probably want to start pinching the sides of the foil together so you’ve got yourself a little bowl shape.  After about the third layer, ingredients start falling all over the place, and if they do that, the packet gets really difficult to seal at the last step.  I also throw some salt and pepper on at this point, just to season up the aromatic vegetables.  The salt also helps them expel some water when they’re cooking.

also potato cubesNow put the mushrooms on top of the carrots and the potato cubes on top of those.  Ta da!  All of you food components are in the packet.  Now it’s time for the saucing.

Start by putting another sprinkling of salt and pepper on top.  You need to make sure everything is very well seasoned, otherwise your packet will be bland.  No one wants a bland packet . . . that sounds dirty . . . moving on . . .

Really, you can use any sort of sauces you want on top.  The one’s I’ve listed in the ingredients section are what I’ve found make the best sauce for this dish.  Feel free to experiment.

all kinds of sauceDrizzle everything with a good dose of olive oil, a tablespoon or two.  Next shake on some soy sauce.  Just a teaspoon or so.  Then, pour on 2 to 3 tablespoons of the barbecue sauce.  Lastly, add some hot sauce if you’d like to give it a kick.  It’s okay that all of this ends up on the potatoes.  It all slides down through the vegetables, picking up flavor on the way, and simmers through your protein of choice.  Because the packet is sealed, it circulates all the flavors are locked in and sort of percolate through your food.

seal it upNext, you need to seal the packet really, really well.  Crimp the edges of the foil all the way around the food two or three times to prevent all the delicious from escaping.  If your packet is already on a cookie sheet like I advised, great!  If not, put it on one.  Then stick it in your preheated oven.  This bakes for 1 hour.

Yeah, it takes a while, but it’s worth it.  Go start a DVD while you wait.  If you’re really hungry, make yourself a side salad like I did.I made a salad while I waited

When your hobo packet comes out of the oven, let it sit and cool for at least five minutes.  Ten would be better.  Then put it on a plate and carefully open it up.  There’s a lot of steam in there, and you don’t want it burning you in the face.  Make a little bowl out of your aluminum foil and and eat!

The quantities I gave you up above make a lot of food.  So, if you’re not really hungry, use less.  I was FULL after I ate the whole packet last night.  Granted, I did have a salad beforehand.

Oh, the sauce is really the secret to this meal.  The sauce ingredients seep through all the vegetables and pick up all kinds of deliciousness.  There’s a good puddle of awesomesauce at the bottom these packets once they’re baked.  Usually, after I’m done eating, I sit there licking the sauce up with my fingers.  Classy, I know, but it’s soooooo gooooood!

In the end, this recipe did the job of satisfying my craving for warm, simple food while I curled up in a blanket on my sofa, watched Rushmore, and drank a whiskey sour.

A little bit of cabernet sauvignon makes everything delicious.

It’s a weeknight and I’m heading home from work.  I’m on the bus when Jacob calls me and wants to go out . . . but I want to eat first, so I tell him to come to show up at my house when he’s ready and I’ll find something quick to eat.

Quick . . . quick . . . what’s delicious, nutritious, and quick?

Whole wheat pasta?  Always.  But what should I put on top of it?  I don’t have any jars of sauce, so I’ll have to get creative.  Lucky for me, I’m good at that.

I walked into my kitchen with my cat circling my ankles.  He wanted attention, I wanted to eat more than he wanted attention, I think.

I opened the cupboard and took stock of what was up there.  A can of diced tomatoes, a can of chickpeas, some tomato paste, onions, garlic; there was wine on the bar, half a red pepper in the fridge that needed to be used up and all the requisite spices in the spice cabinet.  Suddenly, dinner seemed like a plan.

Quick Chickpea Pasta Sauce

Quick Chickpea and Tomato Pasta

•2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
•1 Onion, ChoppedVeggie Chopping Board
•3 Cloves Garlic, Finely chopped
•1/2 Red Bell Pepper, Chopped
•1 15 Ounce Can Diced Tomatoes with Liquid
•1/3 cup Cabernet Sauvignon or other Dry Red Wine (I’m partial to a good Cab.)
•1 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
•1 Teaspoon Dried Basil
•1-2 Tablespoons Tomato Paste (you can get away without it)
•A Pinch of Sugar
•1 15 Ounce Can Chickpeas, drained and rinsed
•Whole wheat pasta cooked and still hot, whatever shape you like
•Salt and Pepper to taste
Get your water boiling for your pasta, first of all.  When that’s boiling, throw it in and it ought to be done by the time you’re finished cooking the sauce.
Now then . . . In a large skillet (I used a 1o inch), saute the onions and garlic over medium heat.  Add some salt and pepper to season and help the onions expel some water.  Once the onions and garlic are fully sauteed and starting to brown just a little, add in your red pepper.  Peppers in the panCook until the red pepper is softened.  Add tomatoes, wine, oregano, and basil.  OreganoStir it all up and bring it to a boil.   Add in the tomato paste, add more if you want your sauce a little thicker, less if you want it thinner (obviously).  You can skip the paste if you want your sauce thin or if you don’t mind simmering the sauce a bit longer.  Add in the pinch of sugar to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes and let the sauce simmer for about five minutes.  Add in the chickpeas and simmer for another five to ten minutes.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.Pan o sauce
Jacob showed up at that point and mentioned that my house smelled garlicky . . . then he asked to taste my concoction.   He always likes my food.   The wine is really what makes this sauce.  If you don’t have any or don’t keep it around the house, you can use water or veggie broth, but it won’t have the fullness of flavor that red wine provides.