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002 - A Belated, Fermented Veganuary
Plant-based eats, fermented feasts and chocolate…that isn’t chocolate.
Thank you for subscribing to Food Team Monthly. This month we took things in a vegan direction with Plant Boiis and linked up with world renowned fermentation expert Johnny Drain…We can’t quite believe it’s our job either. Buckle up and read on for tips to transform your vegan cooking at home, how to make chocolate pots… with no chocolate and THREE ferment-packed vegan recipes you can cook at home. If you dig the newsletter, please click the share button - it makes a real difference!
Slater: Veganuary isn’t a word I really thought about until I started working at Sorted. But over the last three years it has somewhat punctuated my calendar, gently reminding me to think about making small plant-based changes to everyday recipes across the business. One of the benefits of working in food media is that inspiration can come from adhering to a few trends here and there. Suddenly, coconut cream, nutritional yeast and plant proteins of all shapes and varieties work their way into dishes across the Sorted ecosystem.
Butternut squash is roasted until soft with spices before being blended with coconut milk to make a vegan “butternut chicken” sauce. Rice noodles are blanched and fried with oh-so-seasonal mushrooms - an animal-free play on my all time favourite dim sum dish of pork-filled Cheung Fung. Dhal is reworked, this time with mustard oil instead of ghee providing a subtle, layered warmth. The effect of the animal-free emphasis towards the start of the year can be felt throughout its course. It’s a great time to be a recipe developer.
Kush: I have always been of the opinion that you should eat what makes you happy. I also believe strongly in quality over quantity when it comes to meat, cheese, dairy and fish! Vegan food is something that comes naturally to many global cuisines that I love, from spinach curries from India, hot oil noodles from China and spring onion pancakes from Korea, there is a wealth of long standing, naturally vegan dishes out there.
I find that Veganuary is a great time to champion those dishes but I am not tempted by plant-based dishes that are intrinsically based on a meat or animal product. They often get so bent out of shape to make them animal-free, that the end result is a culinary dumpster fire!
Slater: We had a premature Veganuary late last year when Ben announced he had met the Plant Boiis at an event and they would be coming in for a flying visit. It had been 2 years since the boys, all established Instagram vegan content creators in their own right, decided to combine forces to create a plant-based, Avengers Assemble-style super group. They bounded into the studio, with an enthusiasm and zest that I have become used to. It was my assumption before working with content creators, “influencers” and minor celebrities (TV’s Ben Ebbrell) for a living that as soon as the cameras were off, they would switch off too. So far I have found that not to be the case.
We sat down and chewed the (plant-based) fat for a while before diving into a vegan “pass it on”-style cooking jam - a near perfect ice-breaker. It is incredibly hard to hide your true feelings, personality and facial expressions when faced with very few ingredients and even less time in which to cook them. It was also a great chance for us to observe how seasoned-vegans cook and how they approach recipe development.
The day we spent with the Plant Boiis highlighted three areas that you can level up your vegan cookery at home:
Lesson 1: Make room for mushrooms
Slater: We tend to rely on mushrooms heavily when developing vegan recipes at Sorted for a couple of reasons. Firstly, their taste. Once fried or roasted with oil, mushrooms rival a golden ribeye steak in terms of… umami. They can then be used in all manner of dishes in much the same way you might use browned meats. Think broths, sauces and killer meaty mushroom burgers
Our “cooking jam” with the Plant Boiis had barely kicked off when Johnny highlighted the other reason we rely on mushrooms so heavily - the texture! Mushrooms, especially oyster mushrooms, have a texture very similar to that of meat once cooked. They can be fried or roasted in the same way that you might cook a steak, or shredded with a fork to produce strands of mushroom that behave in the same way as pulled pork.
Johnny coated oyster mushrooms first in a simple, light flour batter, then used it to adhere seasoned breadcrumbs to their surface. Once fried they had a fried chicken-like texture.
Lesson 2: Flavour bombs are your friend
Kush: It is pretty easy to cook with meat and fish. If coloured and cooked in the right way, most meats are naturally delicious and full of depth of flavour, so with vegan food you have to rely on techniques and ingredients to add those layers of flavour into your food. Fried shallots and garlic, as found in most Asian shops, are a staple I keep at home when I need to build layers of flavour into dishes without a heavy meat stock reduction! Porcini/Cep mushroom powder is also an ingredient that is so simple to use and packs such a punch that it's quite comical that it's not in every chef's arsenal yet!
Slater: It was evident from cooking with the Plant Boiis that they agreed with this sentiment. We made a really quick blender sauce with jarred peppers, spring onions, garlic, ginger and the all important gochujang. This was tossed through fried gnocchi to form a Korean-inspired base for the crispy mushrooms.
Lesson 3: There is a time and place for vegan meats and cheese
Kush: Vegan ultra-processed protein substitutes (I don't like to call them “Meat Alternatives”) are now found in every supermarket and fast food chain this side of the moon. In terms of history, these items are very, very young and have been developed at pace to quickly quench that smash burger thirst. At this stage I can’t say I’m into them… but tofu, tofu I can get onboard with.
I regularly order plates of freshly made, just warm silken tofu that's been drowned in a hot chilli oil, garlic and pickled radish mixture that wraps you in a warm blanket and tickles every taste bud. Salt and Pepper Tofu - yes please! Tofu instead of paneer in nearly any Punjabi preparation - why not! We even make Tofu “meatballs” at Sorted for Sidekick that even Jamie loves!!
Slater: I was of the same opinion as Kush, but it was when cooking with the Plant Boiis that I realised, in moderation and in certain circumstances, plant-based meats and cheeses can add depth, texture and ultimately satisfaction to everyday dishes. Giuseppe threw a few slices of vegan chorizo into the sauce with the gochujang gnocchi. Initially I was horrified, but as I thought about it more, it started to make more sense. The chorizo added a pork-like, smoky richness to the sauce as it melted in slowly.
I won’t be serving soy protein steaks or quorn goujons on their own any time soon - but I can imagine pulsing them to make a textural mince for example. I can’t imagine vegan cheese will find its way onto my cheese boards, but I could imagine blending some good vegan feta into a pesto, heavily seasoned with nutritional yeast. What it lacks in flavour, it more than makes up for in creamy texture once melted thanks to emulsifiers.
Slater: Our fashionably early Veganuary was now in full swing and we were more than excited about the next guest we had booked into the studio.
Since completing a PHD at Oxford in material sciences, Dr Johnny Drain had traveled the world as a fermentation expert and “gun for hire”, sharing his knowledge with some of the world's best chefs so that they could best harness the power of microbes. His latest venture, a cocoa-free, vegan chocolate enterprise piqued our interest too. I could tell that Kush was slightly nervous - for at least 3 hours, he would no longer be the studio’s go-to food geek.
Kush: Slowly fermented foods that have had time and love dedicated to them already are your best friend when trying to reduce your meat and dairy intake. Whether it be the now ubiquitous miso paste or the much maligned marmite… dark, umami heavy pastes are your friend. It may not have been obvious to many, but I understood why Johnny had come to mind when Slater was looking for people to collaborate with around Veganuary.
Slater: I had asked Johnny to bring in with him some ferments to kick us off, and he didn’t disappoint. We moved through various kimchis, misos and garums, each more potent and more complex than the next. The tasting climaxed with an intensely savoury (not very vegan) beef garum. A light, fermented sauce made with leftover beef trimmings in much the same way fish sauce is made with… fish. It was really interesting to see how he had transformed what would have been wasted into something so new and bold.
I reflected on the fact that, while a vegan diet might not be for everyone, if we are to eat meat, fermentation held the key to utilising the whole animal. I also thought about how fermentation also held the key to a plant-based diet. Nutritional yeast, quorn and all things mushroom relied on all things microbal to taste so good.
Kush: He then pulled out the big guns, his cocoa-free chocolate! He explained that it consisted of a blend of fermented ingredients that were then processed as you would do cocoa beans - conching, refining etc. until you end up with chocolate…but couldn’t tell us much more thanks to a pending patent.
We tucked in, with the idea of cocoa-free chocolate not quite slotting into place in our chef's minds… then wow! As with Cocoa based chocolate, the best way to experience it is to let it melt on your tongue so as to help bring out the volatile flavour compounds. It reminded me of high quality 40% milk dark chocolate - Valrhona Jivara (to be precise).
If he could produce a chocolate without relying on Cacao at all then that's a game changer! Better for the planet with no deforestation - amazing!
Slater: If you have accidentally added water to melted chocolate before, creating a grainy mess in the bowl, you could be forgiven for thinking the two ingredients just… don’t mix. But you would be wrong, under the right conditions they do, and what’s more, it’s totally vegan. It had been a long while since either Kush or I had made a water chocolate ganache. A variation on the classic made with water instead of cream accentuating the natural notes of good chocolate, where dairy fats might confuse things.
Johnny blended 155g of light sugar syrup with 175g of his cacao-free chocolate creating a velvety emulsion. He allowed the ganache to set in pots, then topped with creme fraiche and caramelised hazelnuts once cool.
Kush: The hazelnuts complemented the caramel notes present in the chocolate, and the lack of dairy or eggs that would usually mask the natural flavour notes really stood out. With a little technique and an accurate food thermometer, this technique can be utilised at home for a guilt free treat!
Slater: After spending a month with our heads buried in all things vegan and fermented, we were full of recipe ideas. We wanted to develop a plant-based three course meal that championed vegetables, fermented flavour bombs and all that we had learned over the month.
Crispy Oyster Mushrooms with Whipped Ssamjang Tofu
We spent some time last month playing with silken tofu. Once blended it can be tossed through pasta sauces, soups, risottos but also works really well as a stand-alone dip once heavily flavoured. It provided an airy, smooth base on which to serve crispy tempura oyster mushrooms inspired by our time with the Plant Boiis.
For the mushrooms
100g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
50g corn flour
200ml soda water
250g oyster mushrooms
For the tofu
300g silken tofu
2 tbsp ssamjang
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely grated
1.5L vegetable oil
¼ bunch coriander, leaves
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted
2 tsp gochugaru
Add the flours to a large mixing bowl. Add the soda water and quickly beat with chopsticks to combine - a few lumps are fine. It is important to not over-mix at this stage. Leave to chill in the fridge while you prepare the mushrooms.
Brush any dirt from the mushrooms and tear them up into bite-sized chunks straight into a large mixing bowl. Toss with 3 tbsp of flour and a generous pinch of salt. Ensure they are all lightly coated with flour. We will batter and fry them later.
Tip the tofu into a clean kitchen cloth, bring the edges up around the tofu and squeeze out any moisture over the sink.
Add the tofu, ssamjang and garlic to a tall measuring jug. Use a hand blender to blitz until smooth and mayo-like. Season to taste with salt.
Tip the oil into a large pan and place it over a high heat - the oil should only come ⅔ of the way up the sides of the pan. Once hot enough, a small drop of batter should sizzle immediately upon entering the oil. This is around 190°C for those who own a thermometer or a deep fat fryer!
Dip the floured mushrooms one at a time into the batter. Shake off any excess, then carefully lower the battered mushroom into the oil. Fry for 3-4 minutes, until golden brown and crisp. To avoid overcrowding the pan, fry the mushrooms in 4 batches.
Once ready, drain on a cooling rack set over a tray. Keep them warm in the oven while the rest fry.
Spread the whipped tofu onto a large serving plate and add the crispy mushrooms. Top with the coriander, toasted sesame seeds and gochugaru. Serve!
Tray-Baked Sichuan Aubergine Pulled Noodles
These noodles are a joy to make, but they can be tricky to get right. We have taken the stress out of the spicy aubergine sauce by making it a one-tray affair, so you can concentrate on your pulling and stretching technique!
For the noodles
300g plain flour
½ tsp salt
For the aubergine
2 aubergines, cut into bite-sized chunks
4 tbsp vegetable oil
½ tsp Sichuan peppercorns, ground
1 tbsp Sichuan pixian chilli bean paste
2 tbsp crispy chilli oil
1 tbsp black vinegar
1 tbsp light soy sauce
20g ginger, peeled and finely grated
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely grated
½ tsp caster sugar
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Fill a large saucepan with water and put it on to boil - this will be for the noodles later.
To make the noodles, add the flour and salt to a bowl along with 150ml of cold water. Bring everything together with a butter knife in the bowl, then knead on a clean work surface for 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic.
Split the dough into 8 balls, then flatten and stretch them slightly to form small flat ovals.Transfer to a heavily greased tray and cover with cling film. Allow to rest while you make the aubergine sauce.
Toss the aubergine chunks with the vegetable oil, szechuan pepper and a generous pinch of salt in a large roasting tray. Roast in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until golden and soft.
Add the chilli bean paste, chilli oil, vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and sugar to a small bowl. Beat to combine.
Once the aubergine is ready, toss with the chilli sauce in the tray and return to the oven. Roast for a further 5-7 minutes, until the paste darkens slightly.
To make the noodles, pull the ovals outwards between your hands, slapping the dough on the work surface in the centre all the while. Once the dough reaches a 2mm thickness, quickly rip the noodle in half lengthwise.
Plunge the noodles directly into the boiling water, they can be cooked in batches of 4 at a time. Once soft, transfer straight into the tray with the spicy roast aubergine. Repeat with the rest of the dough.
Toss the noodles through the spicy aubergine in the roasting tray, add a splash of the noodle’s cooking water if the sauce feels a little thick or claggy.
Divide between bowls, top with the spring onions and get stuck in!
Vegan Leftover Sourdough and Coconut Sundae
We had loads of leftover sourdough crusts in the studio and in the spirit of maximising flavour from leftovers we thought they would work really well in a pudding!
For the ice-cream
1 tsp vanilla paste
200g leftover sourdough crusts, ripped into bite-sized chunks
100g coconut cream
1 tsp xanthan gum
For the caramel
25g coconut oil
200g coconut cream
4 tbsp toasted coconut flakes
To make the ice-cream, tip the oatmilk, sugar and vanilla into a medium saucepan and place it over a high heat. Once it starts to simmer, take the pan off the heat and add the sourdough. Allow the milk to cool and infuse with the sourdough.
Once cool, pass the sourdough milk mix through a fine sieve into a large jug. Push as much soaked sourdough through the sieve as possible - this will help stabilise the ice cream later.
Add 100g of coconut cream and the xanthan gum. Blitz until smooth with a hand blender.
Cover and leave to cool completely in the fridge.
Once chilled, churn until thick, smooth and frozen in an ice-cream machine. Once ready, transfer back into the container from earlier and leave to freeze fully in the freezer for 1-2 hours.
To make the caramel, melt the sugar in a medium saucepan over a medium-high heat. Allow the mix to turn a deep amber colour, then slowly beat in the coconut oil and coconut cream. Simmer the sauce, beating all the while until any lumps of sugar have dissolved. Take the pan off the heat and allow the sauce to cool completely. Chill in the fridge until needed.
Scoop balls of the ice-cream into bowls and drizzle over the coconut caramel. Serve with plenty of toasted coconut flakes.