Note: For the 32 days between February 1st and March 4th, I’m adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I’ll be updating my progress with a brand new recipe. For past posts, check here!
[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]
Vegan-ifying recipes is a pretty fun job for me. It’s exciting to try and figure out ways to take some of my favorite foods and convert them into completely meat-free versions that are as exciting and delicious as the original dish. The challenge lies in not cheapening the food, not making it feel like it’s a knock-off of itself, a shadow of the original. The last thing I want is for my wife to eat something and think to herself, “this is pretty good… for vegan food,” or “this chili is good… but I wish there were beef in it.”
My goal is always first and foremost to make the food as fan-fu*&ing-tastic as possible. So good that it never even crosses her (or anyone else’s, for that matter) mind that what they are eating is completely animal product-free.
Sometimes this is a relatively easy task. The Vegan Chilaquiles I developed last year or the Meta-Eggplant Sandwich with Rich Tomato Sauce were both pretty straightforward, delicious things. Other dishes, like my Vegan Chili made with slightly ground chickpeas or my Vegan Mapo Tofu flavored with pickled mustard root and semi-dehyrated mushrooms took a bit more work, but the end results were so delicious that they’ve since become more in-demand in my household than the original dishes they were modeled after.
I like to try and make my life as easy as possible, and in all honesty, the less thinking I have to do, the easier my life becomes. These two sandwiches are pretty much no-brainers. They also happen to be delicious to boot, which helps their case. I’m talking Mexican tortas.
What makes them so easy to vegan-ify? Well, the sandwiches rely so little on meat to begin with. At their most basic, all they are is a sturdy-crusted, soft-crumbed white roll stuffed with a bit of meat (often pounded and fried milanese-style), and a host of condiments, which can range from sliced onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, to avocado, pickles, beans, or roasted chilies. In most cases, the condiments vastly outweigh the meat, both in terms of flavor, and sheer volume. A torta is truly a sandwich that’s all about the condiments.
For my sandwiches, I knew I wanted to get a good mix of hearty, creamy fillings, along with some sharp, vinegary elements, a bit of heat, and some fresh vegetable notes. Avocado (a.k.a. vegan butter) was an easy option. On top of the sandwich it goes. To line the bottom of the ‘wich, I used a big dollop of homemade Spicy Vegan Refried Beans, which I spiked with some extra chipotle chiles for heat and smoke, along with a glug of molasses, which adds a rich, sweet element.
I adore rajas, slices of charred fresh chiles. They’re easy enough to make at home using poblano peppers, particularly if you have a gas burner—just throw the pepper directly over the flame, rotating them until blistered and charred on all sides, then cover them up for a few minutes until the steam loosens their skin, which can then be peeled away. Even without a gas burner, you can make them using a broiler. (Extra points if you go the macho route and use a propane torch or better yet, a grill).
For those bright, vinegary pickled elements, I use Pickled Red Onions, which I keep a jar of in my fridge at all times. A few slices of pickled jalapeño are nice too, if you’ve got ‘em.
Finally, shredded lettuce and cilantro add freshness to the mix.
The only question remaining—and it’s really incidental—is what to add as the main ingredient to bulk it up. Any sort of hearty cooked vegetable will do, but I’ve had great experiences in the past with fried eggplant and with braised greens. Both options are filling, juicy, and nicely textured. I made one variation with fried eggplant breaded in panko-style breadcrumbs, and a second with silted spinach greens sauteed with mushrooms and garlic.
Want to take that sandwich to the next level? Just grill it pambazo-style. Douse it in Red Enchilada Sauce and grill it up on a panini press until toasty and charred.
The sauce soaks into the bread, adding another dimension to the already is-there-such-a-thing-as-too-flavorful? sandwich.
This past weekend, I fed an entire ski-house full of young, active, hungry folks recovering from a day on the slopes (or in the hot tub, as the case may be) with a variation of this eggplant sandwich. Out of all of them, only a single one that I know of was unsatisfied with the results, but he’s the kind of guy grew up eating only meat and potatoes and thinks ketchup is a vegetable. Even I am willing to throw in the towel on some challenges.
Check out the slideshow for a step-by-step walkthrough of the construction.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.