Jul 25, 2010

FoodBuzz 24x24: Fishing for Seafood Alternatives

We all know about what's happening in the Gulf.  Oil in the ocean = dead wildlife = damage to the food chain = less seafood = economic hardship.  More than that, as a person who cares a great deal about animals and the environment, I am in awe of the devastation we have achieved upon our planet and its future.

FoodBuzz is generously donating $250 for each of the 24x24 posts this month to the clean-up effort, and since this issue is close to my heart, I wanted to challenge myself (and all those who helped me) to offer my best and most creative possibilities.  No, this won't help the fishing companies much- but it may give some restaurants and seafood-loving people inspiration...? 

Sea Bass Made of Veggies (I made this for my own inspiration!)
Seeking the Flavor of the Sea:  The first thing that comes to mind is seaweed. Although the spill is killing a lot of aquatic plant life as well, it's not a widely eaten vegetable here in the U.S., and there are many varieties conveniently available in dried form at supermarkets, natural food stores, and Asian markets.  I also used kelp and dulse powder, and vegetarian fish sauce (found at the Asian market) in some of the dishes. These are pungent and also quite salty, and replaced some of the salt in the recipes.

Looking for texture: The best candidates for shell fish were mushroomsThe Oyster and King Oyster Mushrooms (above) had an incredibly similar texture to clams, oysters, and scallops. For those not familiar with vegan cuisine, I also played around with tofu and seitan (wheat gluten). These sources of protein provide great texture bases for which flavor is added to make meat substitutes.  You can find wheat gluten (or vital wheat gluten) at most health food stores.

 King Oyster Mushrooms (left)

Alternative #1:  Mushroom Scallops

I used the large stems of the king oyster mushrooms.  These stems are delicate in flavor, with a remarkably similar texture to scallops!  I scored the tops and bottoms to mimic the look, and dipped the bottoms in kelp powder before pan frying each side in seaweed infused oil until golden.

General Consensus: Not exactly like a scallop, but a close meaty texture and a creative alternative- delicious!  My critique: I was amazed at the texture, and would be happy to get this as a starter in a restaurant.

King Oyster Mushroom Scallops (using stems)

Tofu Scallops cut with a biscuit cutter
Note: I also made  Tofu Scallops, which was pressed tofu, soaked in seaweed broth, patted dry and dipped in a mixture of flour, kelp powder, and a little sugar on both ends.  I fried them like the mushrooms, and they were tasty, but were definitely tofu and NOT like scallops in texture.
General Consensus: This is cute, but it's tofu.   
My critique: Great way to serve tofu, and would love this cold with a salad or hot over rice (I'm Asian).

Alternative #2:  Oyster Mushrooms on the Spoon

Random question for all vegans:  Is the use of sea shells for food presentation considered vegan offensive?  What if they are just found shells on the beach vs. ones discarded from restaurants, etc.?  I'm on the fence on this one.

These were made with the oyster mushroom caps, thinly sliced and sauteed very quickly (seconds on each side).  I was surprised at how tender these were in texture, and they were easy to slice.  A sea-infused creamy cashew-tofu filling was placed in the middle of two slices, and finished with seaweed broth (thickened by chilling), placed gently on a spoon for slurping, chilled, and finished with a wedge of lemon and a dollop of cocktail sauce. 
General Consensus: There's no replacing an oyster, but REALLY good!  
My critique: These were tender and rich, with a hint of sea flavor in the finish. Receiving this as an appetizer would definitely impress the heck outta me, and I never liked oysters.

Alternative #3:  Oh, Shitake! Clams Casino


These were first made with dried sliced shitake mushrooms that were pressure cooked in seaweed broth for about an hour.  At first, I thought the chewy texture was a dead-ringer for clams, but then I thought, no one wants chewy clams- so why would I want chewy mushrooms?  I tried regular (not king) oyster mushrooms caps, that have a wonderful delicate flavor and the texture was tender with a slight chew when cooked quickly.  I also used tempeh bacon.  Tempeh was a little scary to me for a while, until I tried it this way. It's made up of fermented soy beans that have been pressed into a cake. For the bacon, slice the tempeh very thin and marinate in soy sauce, brown sugar, liquid smoke, and ketchup -SO good, and good for you!  I fried these in a little oil on both sides until golden and crispy.  Then, I sauteed shallots, peppers, garlic, Earth Balance margarine, and a little white wine.  Spooned this mixture on top of the "clams," and topped with a little Daiya parmesan and panko.  Broiled for a few until melty and golden, then finished with chopped tempeh bacon, seasoned roasted nori and fresh basil.
General Consensus: Thumbs up- not much sea flavor, but really tasty alternative! 
My critique: I liked the mushrooms in this- it had enough of a bite to mimic a good tender clam. The bacon and fresh basil are a must, and make this dish.

Alternative #4:  Seitan Fish

I was excited about this one, and the recipe is below.  I sliced the seitan and reconstructed into fillets with a cornstarch-seaweed broth "paste" between the layers.  This was inspired by molecular gastronomy experts, Chef Omar Cantu and Ben Roche on the episode of Future Food called "Something's Fishy." I carefully transferred the fillet to the pan, and pan fried on both sides.  It held together surprisingly well!  

General Consensus: Good, but texture is not like a real fish fillet at all. Does have a fish aroma.

My critique: Not flaky like real fish, but a good meaty, yet tender texture that would please most vegans/vegetarians, especially if prepared with tasty seasoning and/or sauce and grilled until the outside is golden and carmelized. I wolfed it down (again, over rice).

Another way is to cut into strips, batter, and make "fish sticks" in the fryer. I dipped them in tempura batter, then rolled them in a combination of Panko bread crumbs and roasted nori.
General Consensus: Yummy! Tastes like fish sticks.

My critique: These were EXACTLY like the fish sticks I had as a kid- the processed kind...is that a good thing? But the crunchy batter elevated it, and the nutritional value makes these an even better alternative than the original.

Alternative #5:  Faux Roe Sushi  

Speaking of molecular gastronomy, the technique of making "pearls" rocks! It gives you the ability to put any liquid into pearl form, with a gelatin-like skin.  The interior stays liquid, so it pops when you eat it.  This is a sushi a vegan/vegetarian will definitely appreciate.   

Description:  A sake-lemon marinated slice of tofu, tempura battered and fried, resting on sushi rice and topped with 3 kinds of pearls: carrot-ginger, shoyu-miso, and wasabi-sesame, and lovingly encased in crispy nori.  

General Consensus: Very pleasing to the eye! Pearls don't taste like real fish roe, but offer an explosion of flavors.

My critique: Something that would make a vegan cry if they were served this in a sushi restaurant.  An unexpected gesture of caring and unsolicited extra effort beyond the standard flavorless cucumber and nori. Does the chef have a crush on me or something?  Uh, I kinda went overboard on the pearls- didn't need that many and they sort of went all over the place when I bit into it.

Seitan Fish Recipe:

1 14oz. package extra firm tofu (pressed and drained)
1/2 C. seaweed broth (pressure cook seaweed in water for about an hour, I used wakame seaweed and a good amount of water as it will soak up a lot)
1 tsp. white miso paste
1 C. yellow zucchini squash, chopped
1 C. white onion, chopped
1 tsp. sea salt
1 T. vegetarian fish sauce
1 1/2 C. vital wheat gluten

Blend everything except wheat gluten until smooth.  Add the mixture to the wheat gluten and mix until well combined (should form a soft dough).  Place loaf in a large sheet of aluminum foil and wrap tightly.  Cook in pressure cooker for 30-40 minutes, or steam for 45 minutes - hour until firm to the touch (springs back).  Let cool, and use as desired.  Refrigerate to store. 

Some more pictures for inspiration (I had some fun with the veggies in my garden)...

Special Thanks:  To Mark for great ideas and culinary advice.  To Mike and Cee for supporting my late hours and giving honest opinions on the food. To Levon and crew for tasting "wierd" things that are vegan.  

Note:  If anyone has specific questions on how any of the food was made, feel free to email me at vegspinz[at]gmail.com

In Summary:  Cooking is a lot like fishing.  You make a cast.  You hope your technique is sound, the conditions are right, and that you'll hook into something good.  If not, it's back to the drawing board, or in my case, the cutting board. 

The act of discovery is what gives us life, and even if it's preceded by many moments of frustration... it's all worth it.  Happy Fishing!