Saturday, March 10, 2018

faux gyros for lunch: a learning experience

After watching many, many videos on how to make seitan, I created my own seitan "lamb" recipe for gyros, which you can see here.

The object of the game was to put together wet and dry ingredients, as with a regular dough or batter, and to end up with a loaf that must then be processed further. So that's what I initially did: I dumped the wet and dry ingredients into a bowl, created a shaggy dough, then plopped that dough onto a lightly floured work surface and kneaded the hell out of it for the ten minutes recommended by that avant-garde vegan guy. (NB: not everyone recommends a ten-minute knead. Most cooks generally say, "Knead until the dough is firm and stretchy, but difficult to pull apart.")

I noticed two things right away: (1) the mushroom chunks from my dried-mushroom "powder" tended to leap out of the dough mass as I was kneading it, which meant I was constantly reincorporating the shroom flecks as if I were collecting hair with a lint roller; (2) the dough, being made mostly of vital wheat gluten, felt queasily like flesh as I kneaded it. It didn't feel like any dough at all, and this was creepy to me. There was something rubbery, resistant, and tensile about the mass—something that did hint at flesh. Not that I've had much experience baking bread, but I've done a pizza dough or two, so I have some idea as to how normal dough feels in the hands when you're kneading it. Seitan dough is positively eerie in comparison; the fact that you're massaging almost pure protein makes for an uncanny tactile experience. While my other senses were telling me that this was in no way a type of meat, my hands were telling me that this was a young woman's well-toned buttock.

Here are a few shots of the kneaded mass, your first look at seitan:

The white flecks in the above pics are the aforementioned dried mushrooms. I had made some mushroom powder by grinding up dried shiitake mushrooms (pyogo beoseot in Korean), and while most of the resultant material had been pulverized, plenty of chunks remained, and thanks to granular convection, those chunks worked their way up to the surface. I could have ground down the large chunks in my mortar and pestle, but I had wanted some chunkiness because I reasoned that that would add to the fleshy texture of the finished seitan.

After kneading the dough, I let it rest for thirty minutes in a large plastic bowl while I cleaned my work area* and prepped a vegan beef broth (recipe here). Like rice, you cook seitan by bringing liquid to a boil, then immediately bringing the liquid to a simmer the moment the seitan goes in. Unlike rice, you need to let the seitan simmer a long time—about 60 to 90 minutes if you're dumping the seitan in as a single, huge mass, as I did. If you cut the seitan up into smaller chunks, you can reduce your simmer time to about 30-40 minutes.

Here's the seitan, all a-simmer:

If the above looks to you like a huge shit log in a bath of diarrhea water, I don't blame you: that's how it looked to me, too—like something from a sewer. I'll say this, though: that vegan beef broth wasn't bad at all. While it's definitely not legitimately beefy in taste, it certainly hints at beef, which is probably about all one can ask for. With the right soup recipe, the fact that the broth is vegan might even go unnoticed.

I let my seitan simmer for about 80 minutes. I took it out, drained it, and patted it down a bit before laying it on one of my cutting boards. I have two plastic boards: a green one for vegetables and a red one for meat. You can see, by the color of the cutting board, what I think the seitan qualifies as:

Out of sheer primate curiosity, I weighed my loaf of seitan to see whether it had indeed increased to two pounds, as one recipe said it would. It tipped my kitchen scale at about 785 grams, or 1.73 pounds. Fairly close. Had I baked the seitan, there would have been no water to absorb, and I assume the loaf would have been denser but also lighter.

I let the loaf cool for thirty minutes while I went downstairs and bought some tortillas. Being impatient, I sliced the seitan up once I got back from shopping, trying to keep the slices thin to mimic gyro meat. (This turned out to be a mistake, and I'll talk about why down below.) The knife's passage through the seitan was smooth as I sliced it, but there was some resistance. The seitan's texture was firm but somewhat rubbery—meatish, but alien enough to feel strange. Below, you'll see the result of my slicing:

I did taste a slice or two of the seitan at this point, and I can't say I was all that impressed. The herbs, spices, and seasonings all pointed toward lamb, but the lamb itself was still missing, and in its place was this strange not-quite-meat. In terms of mouth-feel, the first chew was the most rubbery, but the texture became more like meat with successive chews. That fact in itself was weird and vaguely off-putting; the seitan simply wasn't registering right as I chewed it. I have a feeling that vegans who craft meat substitutes for themselves are engaged in a grand act of self-hypnosis in an effort to convince themselves that what they're eating isn't just meaty, but actually better than meat (both morally and gustatorily).

With the loaf now cooled and rested, the next step was the pan-frying. First, though, I grabbed my tortillas (I have to say, these Korean-made flour tortillas are way better than the off-brand Western shit that many groceries sell: there's none of that bitterness that comes from too much baking powder) and "Greeked" them up by painting on a very thin layer of olive oil mixed with garlic powder. I then pan-fried the tortillas for about 45 seconds per side, which was just about the perfect way to prep them. I then set the bread aside and concentrated on my "lamb." Below are three shots of frying and fried seitan:

Let's talk about why slicing the seitan thinly was a mistake. Meat is muscle. Muscle tissue is made of cells, and every cell contains a tiny bit of water, thus making the tissue as a whole rather watery. You have to cook the hell out of meat to drive all that water out. Muscle tissue also contains small or large amounts of fat, depending on the cut of meat we're talking about. Together, the muscle's natural moisture and fattiness give the meat a certain body. Seitan isn't flesh, and as I quickly discovered, the process of pan-frying the ersatz meat quickly drove the water out of those thin slices, turning the thinnest of the slices into, for lack of a better phrase, crunchy "meat" chips (NB: I was pan-frying in olive oil, in keeping with a Mediterranean flavor profile). The thicker slices of seitan fared better on the pan, and after I finished my first batch, I elected to pan-fry the subsequent batches of seitan 90% on one side and only 10% on the other. Next time around, I'll know to cut the seitan slices thicker, to sear one side with very high heat, and to barely cook the other side. In sum: cutting seitan thin and pan-frying it is a mistake unless you want "meat" chips. But here's another thing: the crispy, hardened "meat" chips, while tough to eat, tasted better than the softer slices of pan-fried seitan!

Below: a shot of my Greeked-up tortillas:

Next up—a shot of the beginning of a build as I construct my first gyro:

Perhaps the best thing about these gyros was my tzatziki sauce. That's what brings all the elements together. And I don't apologize for putting dill in my tzatziki. If you don't like it, don't eat it. And don't expect to be invited back.

The last two food-porn shots of my first gyro:

I ate three gyros in all. What a way to break my five-day fast.

Overall, this was a real learning experience. I think I might have cheated myself by tasting a slice of the seitan before I'd had a chance to pan-fry the "meat" and put it into a gyro. Tasting the meat confirmed what I'd already suspected, which was that it was impossible to simulate lamb. To be sure, I knew that from the beginning: I never seriously expected to get bona fide lamb from vital wheat gluten, but all the same, I was curious as to what my labors would produce. After tasting the "raw" seitan (i.e., after taking it out of the boil), I then tasted it after pan-frying, and the flavor was much improved—especially that of the "meat" chips. Finally, I tasted the seitan inside a gyro, and that's when I realized I should have waited to taste the meat. Seitan lamb doesn't make much sense out of context, but once you put it in the context of a gyro, with vegetables, feta, and tzatziki, it makes more sense and is a somewhat passable substitute for lamb. You wouldn't have to be a supertaster to know that what you were eating wasn't real meat, but the fact that the meat wasn't real wouldn't bother you. Seitan is good enough, I think, to serve as a meat substitute in a pinch. Its texture becomes less of an issue when it's part of a gyro, and if you were ever to mix it in with real lamb, as a way of bulking up the meat, you might not notice it at all.

Which brings us to the issue of vegetarians and subterfuge. People on diets often have to find ways of psyching themselves into accepting major dietary changes, so for vegetarians and vegans who still have some sort of attachment to meat, there's a certain amount of self-deception going on. This isn't entirely bad; in fact, it often leads to an astounding amount of creativity. I've already linked at least twice to the vegan guy whose video shows him making seitan "ribs" (see above). Those "ribs" do look good, and I'd like to try making his recipe someday, but there's no getting around the fact that those ribs simply aren't meaty, meatalicious meat. But artful vegans, along with trying to fool themselves, are often about the business of trying to fool carnivores into eating something meatless. Sometimes this chicanery** works; sometimes, as with the recently popularized Impossible Burger, this doesn't. In the end, meat is meat and plants are plants.

This leads to my next point, which is that, if you're turning vegetarian/vegan, you're better off going balls-to-the-wall without even trying to simulate meat. It's a personal bias, but I think that the best vegetarian food around is Korean Buddhist food. I remember going to a Buddhism conference in Anyang, and during the lunch break, we attendees were served a marvelous vegetarian buffet lunch that made me completely forget about meat. Nothing in the buffet even tried to resemble meat; every dish was unrepentantly full of vegetables that looked and barked like vegetables. While I was teaching at Dongguk University, which is Buddhist, I often ate at the campus's vegetarian cafeteria,*** which offered a rotating buffet menu every day of the week. There, too, I never once missed having meat, and the selections were unfailingly tasty. As we move closer to the meat-simulacrum end of the spectrum, the "veggie burgers" that I've enjoyed most have been the ones that didn't try to imitate ground beef, but which were instead stamped patties made entirely of easily discernible vegetables—pea pods, bamboo shoots, soybean sprouts, and the like. Simulating meat probably comes from some lingering attachment to animal flesh. I'm aware there are vegans out there who have rejected meat entirely, and God bless 'em. But for those vedge-heads**** who linger on the carnivore frontier, I'd strongly suggest fully rejecting meat and diving deep into le monde végétal.

Anyway, I'm no longer sure whether I want to spring the fake-lamb trap on my unsuspecting coworkers. Before I made the seitan, I thought that, if the simulacrum came close enough to the real thing (as you see above, the pan-fried "lamb" sure looks a lot like real gyro lamb), I might be able to fool some people into eating it. Now, I'm no longer sure because the "meat" certainly didn't convince me that it was anything other than fake. All that said, I've only begun to explore the possibilities with seitan. It could simply be that I need to tweak my recipe to make the "lamb" more palatable. Perhaps I need to add fat, and more water, to the dough. The research has only begun, and today was only the first assay.

ADDENDUM: for a reminder of what real gyro meat looks like, see this döner kebab post from 2016. Scroll down a ways to see true pan-fried meatiness.

*Seitan dough is godawful rubbery. When it sticks to your utensils—I began making the dough by stirring with a wooden spoon—it behaves like gunked-on cheese, and is just as obnoxiously difficult to clean off your kitchen tools and surfaces.

**Granted: Gordon Ramsay, who is in the linked video, isn't a vegan, but he's pulling the vegan trick of trying to fool carnivores into thinking they're eating meat when they're not.

***Okay, okay: the blog entry that I linked to makes the point that there is an apparent meat analogue on my plate. That said, I still didn't miss meat whenever I ate at that buffet, and the meat analogue never convinced me that it was anything other than tofu.

****Sorry, but I write "vedge," not "veg," just as I write "mike," not "mic," and "fridge," not "frig." Those shorter forms all sound wrong to me, so I'll stick to what sounds right, thank you very much. To my ear, "veg" rhymes with "leg"; "mic" rhymes with "dick," and "frig" rhymes with "pig" and is a euphemism for "fuck." Blame my Phonics background if you want.


Charles said...

You are right--once it is all fried up, it definitely looks like it could be sliced gyro meat. Before it is fried up, it looks like downright nightmarish.

I am morbidly curious.

Kevin Kim said...

It could just be the recipe I used, but the seitan doesn't taste much like lamb at all. I have since seen some other recipes on YouTube that call for things like liquid smoke and liquid aminos (and vegan Worcestershire) to be added to the dough... I'll give those a try and see how a different approach works out.