"The Food Doctor" will appear regularly as a question-and-answer column to address alternative cooking in the deli. This time, Chef Steve discusses incorporating vegetarian menu items into the deli mix, cooking traditional recipes with nontraditional ingredients and cooking with substitute ingredients.
In our industry, eating represents more than simply satisfying one's appetite. Customers, recognizing that they are what they eat, have hundreds of nutrition- and health-oriented food concerns. Overall, though, the one thing they have in common is the desire to eat well without sacrificing flavor.
For customers comfortable in the kitchen, this can be a welcome challenge. But it can be daunting for the time-starved prepared-foods folks. They want to know how to eat the things they love made with the ingredients they need. If you're not helping them with their dilemma at the deli, you're missing a great opportunity.
Typically, customers want to eat a vegetarian meal at least once a week because it's good for them. Customers are often frustrated because they have a limited number of vegetarian dishes in their repertoire or they don't know how to make a vegetarian version taste like their old favorite. The deli offerings can show customers that nutritious can be both delicious, familiar and creative.
Often what people want is familiar fare with a nutritionally sensitive twist. They want a classic dish prepared in a lighter way. An example might be an Enlightened Fettuccini Alfredo, made either vegan or low fat. The challenge here is replicating mouthfeel. Creamy oat milk, when thickened with a bit of arrowroot, helps create a pleasant texture in the totally vegan version. You could enrich this with soy-based Parmesan cheese. For the low-fat version, use mostly milk for the sauce and enrich with a bit of cream. Again, if you thicken lightly with arrowroot or cornstarch the sultry mouthfeel can be duplicated without the fat. For another familiar favorite, you might offer a golden, pan-seared medallion of Chicken Piccata made with a soy chicken product.
Mastering Meat-free Meals
Replacing the flavor and texture of meat in recipes while maintaining taste and appeal is perhaps one of the most challenging menu areas. If I sing the praises of seitan, Quorn or oat milk to a customer, I'll sound like a health food nut gone off the deep end. However, if I serve a soy-based Seven-Layer Tortilla Pie with Chipotle Chili Glaze and Tomatillo Salsa, the reaction will be quite different. The proof is in the flavor.
Try experimenting with wheat gluten products, soy-based meat substitutes and tofu. In many recipes, you almost can't tell the difference between these substitutes and the real thing. As a rule, seitan or wheat gluten works best sliced into "steaks" or chunks and either braised in a sauce, grilled or roasted and served as you would a piece of meat. You may choose to marinate the gluten first to add additional flavor.
Soy products that emulate ground beef are better for stuffings, sauces, fillings, patties and meatballs. Tofu and tempeh can also be pureed, ground or mashed and then formed into patties, croquettes or loaves. To do this you'll need a binding agent to hold the mixture together, such as eggs, egg substitute or even well-cooked starchy grains. Whole tofu should always be marinated overnight before cooking. Tofu's porous quality allows it to absorb almost any flavor. I am constantly surprised by the wonderful results one can achieve.
Recently, I marinated thick slices of wheat gluten in peppercorns, herbs and wine. Then I seared them in a hot pan and made a sauce with roasted vegetable stock and red wine before serving—meet Steak Diane without the meat.
Don't Got Milk?
Recipes converted from dairy-based to nondairy are also challenging. But there has never been a greater selection of alternative ingredients for cooking and baking. Almost every grain and nutmeat is made into a beverage—some solo, others in combination—to produce delicate, slightly sweet flavors. Some of the soy, grain and nut milks are great dairy substitutes.
Some nondairy milk-style beverages work well in cooking and others are better suited for baking. For example, oat milk imparts a creamy, silky texture and rich flavor to hot soups unlike any other grain- or nut-based milk beverage. Try making creamy vegetable soups with oat milk instead of cream. Use oat milk to round out sauces and pan gravies.
Soy milk and nut milks are much better at replicating the flavor of dairy milk in baking and desserts. The flavor of soy milk can be strong, but in baking the taste blends well with nutty flours, grains and fruit. Try rice, bread or couscous puddings with almond or soy milk. If you are looking for a completely vegan milk alternative, use straight grain or nut beverage. If you just want to reduce the fat in a recipe, try half soy or nut milk and half dairy.
Eggs are often replaced in baking and cooking. Pureed dried fruits, such as prunes, apricots or apples, will perform the same function as eggs in baking. In other cases, pureed silken tofu makes a good substitute for eggs. It depends on the result you are looking for.
You have to know your limitations, though. Sometimes the original defies alteration. For example, several years ago I tried to make a hollandaise sauce with silken tofu. It looked exactly like the real thing. It had the same consistency and color, but it didn't have the flavor.
Alternative ingredients, if used in the right way, can be a wonderful win-win situation. The customer gets a delicious and healthy dish. As much as we talk about health, no one wants to sacrifice flavor for it. With the abundance of ingredients now available, we don't have to sacrifice anymore. We can just make great food using healthy and flavorful ingredients.
Chef Steve Petusevsky is a pioneer in the marriage of good taste and sound nutrition, successfully pairing healthy ingredients with creative cooking techniques. He was formerly the national director of creative food development for Whole Foods Market and is author of the Whole Foods Market Cookbook, (Random House, Summer 2002).
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 7/p. 24, 28
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 7/p. 28