I’ve been a vegetarian since I was eight years old. I mention this fact only because I’m not quite sure I know what animal flesh tastes like anymore.
But, I have tried all sorts of meat imposters over the years. There’s tofu, of course, but there are so many other choices aside from soy-based protein, many that involve seitan, a wheat-based meat alternative.
I eat plenty of seitan these days, especially since I work at Adobe Books, which is next door to Big Lantern, a Chinese restaurant that offers a wide selection of faux chicken, beef, duck, and even fish. But although I’ve made the conscious decision not to eat animals, I never really thought too much about what’s in this wheat meat I do consume. During a recent lunch at Big Lantern, as I sat between the bright red walls over a plate of Kung Pao Meatless Chicken (my guilty pleasure dish), I found myself wondering: What exactly is in this “chicken”? At the end of my meal, I realized it was time to find out by making my own seitan. And I know just the person to help me do it.
Rebecca Dienner is a personal vegetarian chef. One of her seitan recipes is published in Therapeutic Chef , a cookbook by Kristin Doyle. Rebecca agrees to join me in my kitchen to show me how to make homemade seitan.
The night’s menu is seitan with gado-gado salad, an Indonesian dish with diced veggies and a sweet and salty peanut dressing. We get started by preparing the vegetables for the salad. In my compact kitchen, Rebecca dances with grace from one ingredient to the next, touching and smelling everything. I chop a head of orange-colored cauliflower called cheddar cheese cauliflower. It looks strange, but it’s a naturally occurring mutant – not a GMO – and Rebecca insists we use it because it has 25 percent more vitamin A than regular cauliflower.
Along with the cauliflower, we prep tomatoes, red cabbage, celery, carrots, cucumbers, romaine lettuce, long green beans, and sunflower sprouts (Rebecca’s favorite sprout). Until it’s time to combine the veggies for the salad, we keep them in separate bowls, making my dinner table look like an artist’s paint palette. Now we’re ready for the seitan.
Making homemade seitan with regular flour, it turns out, is a tedious process. “The only reason that you would make seitan from scratch,” Rebecca explains, “is that it is slightly cheaper and the texture will be denser.” To get those nuggets of gluten-y goodness, you have to knead and rinse the flour under running water for approximately 40 minutes, a process that removes the starch from the flour that then makes the gluten. Thankfully, we’re skipping all that.
For time and sanity saving purposes, Rebecca recommends buying high-gluten flour, or vital wheat gluten, which is what we’re using. In a bowl, we mix two cups of it with two cups of water. I dump the mixture, which feels like sticky cookie dough, on to a floured surface on the kitchen counter and roll it with my hands into a giant log, kneading it for about 10 minutes to break up any lumps. We cut the gluten log into cubes, and then drop these into a pot of boiling water – which plop in the water with a splash and then quickly bob back up to the surface – along with a few slices of carrots, celery, garlic, and vegetable bouillon for flavor.
Once the cubes have boiled for an hour, we drain the water. They’ve doubled in size. I’m curious, so Rebecca makes me poke ’em. I find they’re still soft but have a sponge-y firmness about them. Although the broth has helped infuse these cubes with flavor, they’re still fairly bland. (I don’t actually try ’em because they still look way too gross to possibly be tasty, but I’m breaking the old-fashioned adage: don’t judge a book by its cover.)
Rebecca has a secret weapon – a breading dip. The dip includes three spices – smoked paprika, a sweet chili blend, and African cayenne pepper – mixed with flour. Rebecca is not big on measuring cups or tablespoons, so she makes measurements with her eyes and by taste. The dip is mostly made up of flour, and then she pinches in the spices until combined to her liking. She makes me smell it, and I’m knocked off my feet by the smoky aroma of the paprika.
In a frying pan full of olive oil, shoyu, and toasted sesame oil, we
begin sizzling ginger and garlic. “My two ultimate favorite
ingredients,” adds Rebecca, “because they make everything tasty and they
are also so healthy, filled with cleansing and restorative properties.”
After rolling the seitan cubes in the flour mixture, we stir-fry them.
Now they’ve got a crunchy outer layer while still soft and chewy
Finally, all those veggies come together in a bowl. I like my base to be romaine lettuce, and after that I just go wild and put all the other stuff in there in great big heaps. Then, I top this with the still-warm seitan, peanut dressing (recipe below), fried shallots, and roasted peanuts. I’m nervous before I take my first bite, but it’s actually really good. Especially the breaded seitan, which is crispy on the outside and reminiscent of what I remember meat to taste like (or should taste like!).
I’m looking forward to making more of my own seitan and experimenting with creating new dishes with it. Not to say that you won’t be seeing me at Big Lantern, but at least I now know what’s in the “meat” I eat.
Follow the recipe below and make your own seitan and gado-gado salad.
2 cups vital wheat gluten
2 cups water
1 cube vegetable bouillon
4 cups water
2 cubed carrots
2 chopped celery
2 garlic cloves diced
1 cup Flour
Add to taste:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
1 teaspoon grated ginger
3 tablespoons shoyu2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
In a bowl, mix water and wheat gluten.
Knead mixture until even consistency.
Cut into pieces as desired.
Bring pot full of water to boiling, add vegetable bouillon and carrots, celery, and garlic for flavor.
Boil wheat gluten cubes for an hour.
Mix flour and spices for the breading mixture.
Roll cubes in breading mixture until entirely covered.In frying pan, combine olive oil, shoyu, sesame oil, ginger, and garlic, and then fry breaded cubes until browned and crisp
Include any combination of veggies you like, such as:
Steamed long green beans, cut 2–3 inches long
Combine all veggies, top with homemade seitan, peanut dressing, and garnish with:
Shallots, diced and stir-fried
1 cup of organic creamy peanut butter
1 ¾ cup coconut milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons shoyu
½ teaspoon tumeric
Chili sauce to taste
Garlic, diced (to taste)
Sea salt as desired
Squeeze in one or two limes