I became a vegetarian slowly. It didn't take that long compared to the year or two that some converts claim in their switching processes and deliberations. It came naturally to me as I had once flirted with vegetarianism for six months when I was a teenager. I think I fully switched over in about a month, and since then — four years ago — I've been more or less vegetarian save for occasional lapses with fish. It's that damn Japanese cuisine, I tells ya. Sushi, sashimi and all that great, healthy Japanese cooking. But this article is not about that.
This article is about fake meat. See, once I became vegetarian, I had learned that it wasn't just eating salads or potatoes at restaurants. No, siree! A wide range of healthy, dietarily advantageous and ethical culinary delights was to be had, consumed and downed with supreme gusto. Also known as seitan, Textured Soy Protein (TSP), wheat gluten and other such names, I like to think of it as fake meat. I would also like to think that after four years, much experimentation and many a great, good and crappy meal, I know where you can find the best fake meats in Chicago. I will also include a simple recipe for making seitan on your own in bulk so you can store it and cook it later in your own recipes.
First, where you can sample it:
• Alice and Friends (5812 N. Broadway Ave. 773/275-8797) has hands down the best fake meat in Chicago. Order up the Kabobs or the BBQ UnChicken Drumsticks and you'll swear you're eating meat. I am not kidding. This is culinary perfection as it doesn't come across at all like regular seitan. If I didn't know, I'd swear it was meat.
• The Chicago Diner (3411 N. Halsted St. 773/935-6696) is renowned for being one of the longest standing vegetarian/vegan restaurants in town. While the menu changes every so often, their seitan is excellent, with different dishes employing slightly different kinds of seitan as is needed. The No Meata Fajitas and the excellent Seitanic Ceasar are to be on your hit list when you visit. It's a shame they no longer serve their Gyros plate, an amazing seitan sliced exactly like traditional Gyros.
• Soul Vegetarian East (205 E. 75th St. 773/224-0104) is worth the trip to the South Side and not just once. Repeated trips are recommended to try their vast menu. However their brand of seitan is excellent. It's quite versatile as it takes on various dishes with ease, unlike the Diner's various kinds (a difference that is complimentary to both places). The BBQ Twists and their Gyros are not to be messed with. Good down home food for cheap. Fake meat to savor.
Secondly, where you can buy it:
• The Broadway Market (4879 N. Broadway Ave.) is a well-kept secret. They have the biggest range of fake meats I have ever come across, at affordable prices. The aforementioned UnChicken Drumsticks at Alice and Friends? They have them here, sans the BBQ sauce, so you can buy them yourself. They have fake chicken, lamb, beef, fish — you name it, they have it. And it all tastes like what it's supposed to be. The place is large so take your time looking around or you may just miss certain areas.
• Your local supermarket. You know that section in the produce where they have the fake cheese, fake salami and such? Well right there is usually a brand of seitan called Whitewave pre-packaged and ready to be thrown in whatever dish strikes your fancy. Gardenburger, Morningstar and various other brands also make fake meat products which are pretty tasty.
• Specialty supermarkets: Whole Foods, Trader Joes, People's Market and the like cater to the vegetarian and vegan crowd and have fake meats in all the regular places you'd find stuff.
And lastly, how can you make it? The best thing about this is that it's a lot cheaper than buying it from your local specialty or regular supermarket (though Broadway Market is tough to beat for variety and its bulls-eye renditions of various meats) and you too can adapt it like the Chicago Diner does to achieve different flavors. Here's a basic recipe for seitan (there are many ways and many kinds), which will feed you for a few days or for a large party.
You will need:
2 cups vital wheat gluten flour
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1-1/2 cups water or vegetable stock
3 tablespoons soy sauce
A few things to note here: Make sure you use vital wheat gluten flour and not just wheat gluten flour, as the latter turns all kinds of weird. I use Bob's Red Mill which is pretty easy to find. The water is the other essential ingredient really. The vegetable stock, spices and soy sauce are just there to flavor the seitan. And this is where you can experiment by adding various kinds of seasonings and sauces to make the seitan have that extra flavor or to just kick it up a notch — although keep in mind that you'll probably be using other spices in whatever recipes you use the seitan for, so don't overdo it.
To cook, start by boiling a large pot of water. Not a saucepot, but the kind you'd make stock in. While you wait for that to boil, start assembling the ingredients. In a mixing bowl throw in the vital wheat gluten, the garlic powder and ground ginger. Mix it dry with a fork. Then add the water or stock and soy sauce slowly but not too slowly, letting it mix with the dry ingredients. You can then start to mix it with the fork until it starts to become like dough. Ditch the fork and use your hands to massage the dough. Get all the dry ingredients in there, leaving the bowl relatively free of any residue. Knead the dough, take your day's frustrations out on it, and then let it rest for 15 minutes. Come back to it and while running under cold water knead it again and let the impurities (actually the wheat) escape. Shouldn't take more than five minutes. Leave it be. Check that your water is boiling, and if it is, slowly ease the doughy mass into it. You can add soy sauce or any other similarly light sauce to the boiling water to infuse even more flavor. Boil for at least 45 minutes and for up to 2 hours. Every so often, turn the mass.
After being boiled well, what you should have left is a dense, slightly smaller mass of seitan. Take it out of the water and let it dry a little on a cutting board or baking sheet. At this point you can taste your creation; it should be flavorful if you've seasoned it, otherwise it'll be somewhat bland — though more flavorful than tofu.
What do I usually do? I usually cut up a few fajita-like slices right then and there, season them with salt, pepper and cayenne, throw a sliced onion and some oil into a pan, saute those onions real nice with some green peppers and add the sliced seitan, some soy sauce, a dash of BBQ sauce and some jalapeno sauce and serve with some oven baked toasted tortillas for a spanking good no meat fajita time.