Smothering Vegetables (or, how to make some super-rich vegan eats)

I’ve always enjoyed creative vegetarian cooking, as a great way to enjoy eating plants, which offer a far greater variety of flavors and textures than do meat, dairy, or seafood. That being said, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of what I call acts-like-meat, or these vegetable proteins made to look and taste like the flesh of some animal (usually chicken, but there are some pretty convincing beef-ish items out there.) I don’t think this category includes veggie burgers, since they are just patties, of which beef burgers are one, and I’m pretty sure falafel goes back farther than hamburgers.

Very often, you can achieve great results by using a meaty vegetable in the place of animal parts when preparing any one of a number of foods. Eggplant Parmesan, for example, is, in my opinion, far more delicious than a Chicken Parmesan. Squashes, mushrooms, and eggplants are the usual suspects when taking this approach, but never underestimate the power of cauliflower.

Very recently, when trying to think about how to satisfy my own craving for some really delicious, yet unexpected, vegetarian food with the flavor of the south, I became fixated on the idea of etouffee. I was fairly convinced this would show impressive results. I’d read up on umame, a concept I came across while researching what makes something like Worcestershire sauce so savory. It would require onions. Lots of them. I could eat onion all day every day, they might be my favorite vegetable (I always say that this time of year, before the parade of favorites begins in late spring with asparagus as the Marshall.) Tomatoes. Check. Mushrooms yield lots of umami. Check.

Traditional etouffee and gumbo roux is made with peanut oil, which has a lot of flavor. I cook it very, very dark. I took some portobellos, shiitakes, and creminis, cleaned them, and threw the stems and gills into a stock pot with vegetable scraps and lots of tomato and herbs, and simmered the lot for several hours, until it took on the color of beef stock and smelled richly of the forest floor, or a good compost pile.

Sauteed in a little extra peanut oil before the addition of some holy trinity (celery, onion, green peppers) and a shock of garlic, the mushrooms were ready to be “smothered,” for which the old Cajun word is etouffee. The addition of the vegetable broth and roux, plus some pepper, hot sauce, and still more herbs, was followed by covering the pot and simmering until the mushrooms gave up their essence and brought everything together. Then, just to give the etouffee a double meaning, I steamed some kale with lotsa garlic and black pepper, and smothered them with the etouffee. Popcorn rice on the side (basmati will do in a pinch.) Just when I sat down to eat with my friends, I realized that it wasn’t only vegetarian, but had no animal parts or byproducts anywhere in, on, or around any part of its preparation. It was a big hit.

I’ve had pot roasts that weren’t so rich and savory. You definitely won’t need to eat the meat to have it good at Big Jones.