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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Vegan food - the Next Generation

I shop for groceries from a list. Sort of. The trip is usually spurred by the need for a staple or three. It’s a short list of things that don’t really need to be on a list, but maybe we’ve got to restock cumin or vegetable stock too. I’ll know we want fruit but wait to see what looks good and is reasonably priced, beyond bananas. I also expect to be inspired to get the makings for a couple of meals just by virtue of walking the familiar aisles to conjure what we might be in the mood for. It’s a fluid thing. There’s no right or wrong.

What’s making these decisions a bit more onerous these days is the seemingly simple question of should I walk the meat aisle for a pound or two of ground beef, some chicken thighs, or turkey breast or not. I want to wean us off of meat and poultry, but it’s complicated. I should back track to the produce section if I’ve gone too far and hoist a hearty yam. Just one in a bowl of pasta makes for comfort food. I should stare at the broccoli crowns until I remember the peanut sauce that I almost got right a few months ago. And there’s the seven vegetable stew that really could be a standard. It doesn’t take too much effort to make once every few weeks.

The meat case is changing. It too is starting to offer meatless suggestions. My store started stocking Beyond Meat a few months ago. I haven’t been tempted and no one at home is asking for it either. To me, there’s something unsettling, maybe just aesthetically or philosophically, about a food that’s pretending to be something it isn’t. Which is why I was intrigued to read about the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis. They’re about to reopen.

The owners of the Herbivorous Butcher take pride in the challenge of creating a wide range of traditional butcher fare using anything but animal products. You can find “staples,” like bologna, bacon, meatloaf, and turkey on display in America’s first vegan butcher shop, according to a recent article in Fast Company, but also substitutes for less mainstream delicacies like Korean ribs, Cuban pork, and porchetta. And difficult to simulate meats like ribeye and pulled pork. The “Herbie Butcher” recently revamped its shredded chicken to make it stringy the way chicken protein is stringy and introduced an extra crispy vegan fried chicken. It’s hard to put vegan and fried chicken in the same sentence. They feel like ideas that live in different worlds. But they come together seamlessly, apparently, for folks who have tried it.

The article’s author raves about their Italian cold cuts sandwich which features salami, pastrami, and capicola ham. I’m kind of tempted to try this. It does sound good. And it’s a prepared menu item with a history familiar to most and a particular story in this particular butcher shop. You’re not just buying a pre-packaged pound of meat alternative in the supermarket. You’re buying the experience of shopping for artisan-crafted foods in that space, taking in the sights, smells, and sounds.

Somehow vegan salami, pastrami, ham and mozzarella seem less like impostors when they are bundled into this prepared sandwich with a cocktail of condiments and a real pickle. I’m one step further removed from thinking about the wheat gluten, tapioca flour, jackfruit, pineapple juice, and other ingredients in their plant-based palette.

On the other end of the aesthetic compass, Eleven Madison Park, the renowned restaurant in NYC, celebrates the plant world for what it is. Bloomberg recently reviewed the restaurant’s $365 vegan tasting menu.

First up is a dish of beets wrapped in mustard leaf kimchi and served with red wine jus. But this root veggie is not steamed or boiled the way we do them at home. The beets have been dehydrated, rehydrated, smoked, and cured to give them an even heartier, nuanced flavor.

The effort put into the beets pales compared to the time and attention given to creating a cucumber melon dish. Fresh cucumber and melon are diced into the smallest possible morsels then compressed and served over an avocado cream and threads of daikon. It takes two chefs all day to make this dish.

What sounds the most tantalizing on this tasting menu is half an eggplant, roasted to caramelized sweetness, with tomatoes, glazed radishes, crispy beans, a cocoa bean puree, and sliced summer corn mixed with grits in a fermented almond cream. You get sweet, salty, umami, and maybe a little bitterness too. It feels creamy and sounds crunchy.

Through meticulous physical and chemical manipulation and design it seems the chefs at Eleven Madison Park are unearthing new ways to enjoy veggies, fruits legumes, nuts, seeds and fungi. It is interesting that the lucky person sampling these dishes uses words like “meaty,” and cheesy,” and “buttery” (for a chickpea-based roll) to describe them. It seems animal-based food remains a reference, a standard to judge a meal’s ability to satisfy and satiate at the very least. The reviewer said she didn’t leave hungry, for sure.

The Herbivorous Butcher’s wide variety and this vegan tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park have both opened my eyes to the possibilities of what vegan foods can and will be if these innovators and others keep innovating. I’m encouraged that we might could become content herbivores in the less than distant future without having to spend a fortnight’s worth of grocery bills on one meal.

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