5@5 - Vegetarian comfort food
December 8th, 2011
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

As the winter months settle in, so does our urge to permanently hibernate alongside the biggest and heartiest plate of comfort food we can get our mittened hands on.

And while visions of chicken pot pie and spaghetti and meatballs may have immediately started dancing in your head, comfort food can be just as satisfying in meat-free form - at least if Alyssa Gorelick, the executive chef of Fern, Flavors from the Garden, in Charlotte, North Carolina, has anything to say about it.

Comfort Dishes Where You Won’t Miss The Meat: Alyssa Gorelick

1. Pot pie
"I wanted to do my vegetarian take on a comfort dish that was still very recognizable. I did not want to try and imitate the meat here - I wanted the pot pie to be rich, hearty and satisfying on its own to the point that you do not even notice the meat isn’t there. This is one of the elements to vegetarian cooking that I love the most - using technique to showcase the ingredients you have rather than trying to make them taste like something else.

I believe the key to making any great pot pie is that rich, silky broth - starting with a traditional roux from butter and flour. Pack the broth chock-full of farm-fresh vegetables, chickpeas and mushrooms and finish it with fresh herbs, like rosemary, to retain their lustrous color and aroma.

I’m sure if you ask anyone, they’ll say the best part of any pot pie is the buttery croissant topping. For a twist on tradition, place a croissant on the top of the pot pie instead of baking it over the bowl. Not only is this an easier way for home cooks, but keeping the croissant separate lets you showcase the gorgeous colors and textures of the vegetables and have plenty of pastry for dipping into the broth."

2. Tempeh bolognese
"I may be vegan, but I love Italian food and nothing beats a big bowl of pasta. When I get this craving, I love to make a vegan version of bolognese that makes you feel like you are eating a hearty and meaty bolognese.

Tempeh is one of my favorite ingredients; and in this dish, crumbled tempeh takes on the texture of ground meat and if you can believe it, the flavor.

To give the sauce and tempeh that slow-cooked flavor you love from bolognese, let the sauce cook for a good couple of hours. The acid will break down the tempeh and you will realize the flavors that make this dish a comforting favorite come from the sauce, not the meat. The texture is wonderful and satisfying - just add your favorite pasta and top with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese and it could fool any meat-eater.

I love to play around with the different flavors depending on my mood; maybe adding roasted mushrooms for a heartier texture and deeper flavor or smoked spices - a little bit goes a long way!"

Tempeh Bolognese
Makes approximately 6 cups

1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 celery ribs, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
32 ounces tempeh, cubed
1 cup red wine
3 ounces tomato paste
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 bunch fresh basil leaves
Parmesan Cheese or vegan Cheese

1. In a heavy-bottom pot over medium heat, sweat the onions, celery and carrot in the olive oil for approximately five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute.
2. Add tempeh and allow to warm through. Once partially cooked, deglaze the pot with the red wine.
3. Reduce the red wine for approximately 10 minutes then add the tomato paste, tomatoes, salt, pepper and half of the basil leaves.
4. Let the sauce cook over medium heat for at least two hours. Once the tempeh has softened, you can use a whisk to break up the tempeh more and achieve more of the “ground meat” texture.
5. When ready to serve, add the remaining fresh basil, toss with cooked pasta and finish with Parmesan or your favorite vegan cheese.

3. Vegan bratwurst
"Some recipes become a foundation that you can use for a diversity of dishes, where simple substitutions can change the entire flavor profile - and this is one of them. This dish also makes the perfect pairing with a beer. When cooking with beer, especially dark beer, you need a hearty dish to match the flavors - especially with the holiday season.

The sausage is made from housemade seitan seasoned with sage, coriander seeds, pinto beans and smoked portobello mushrooms. You can use a vegan casing or do what I do - roll the sausage links in a cheese cloth and truss it to steam for about an hour and a half. The sausage actually forms its own skin to give the firm texture you expect in a sausage. To add more flavor you could also smoke the sausage instead of steaming.

Sage is one of my favorite herbs. It is comforting, warm and the aroma brings back the nostalgic feeling of seasonal memories. Serve the sausage as you would with any brat: alongside its perfect pair of homemade sauerkraut and braised local mustard greens (with a touch of apple cider), and finished with a delicious stout mustard. This to me is the perfect example of a dish where you won’t miss the meat. Vegans and vegetarians should never feel deprived!"

Stout Mustard
Yields 16 ounces

2 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/4 cup yellow mustard seeds
1/4 cup brown mustard seeds
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 bottle stout beer
1 tablespoon dry yellow mustard
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. In a heavy bottom saucepan, sweat the shallots in the canola oil for approximately five minutes. Add the yellow and brown mustard seeds and warm through.
2. Deglaze the pan with the white wine and allow to reduce for 5 – 10 minutes. Add the stout beer and continue to reduce until the liquid is 1/3 in volume.
3. Add the dry yellow mustard, Dijon, brown sugar, molasses and apple cider vinegar and cook for approximately 10 minutes, season with salt to taste.
4. Remove half of the mustard and pulse in a food processor until smooth. Fold back into the remaining mustard to achieve preferred texture. Adjust seasoning to taste.

4. Healthy Eggplant Parmesan
"Leading a healthy lifestyle is all about balance; being able to indulge without letting your diet hold you back from remaining active and feeling good. One of my personal favorite dishes is eggplant parm, so I am constantly trying to tweak the recipe – making it better than the last. I like to use yellow squash and zucchini in addition to eggplant for flavor and texture diversity.

One of the secrets to good parm for me is using a fresh pomodoro sauce – it’s a must for me an is so simple to make. The acidic bite from the fresh tomatoes makes the sauce an unbeatable choice. This dish can also be very easily made vegan, just by swapping out the cheese for a vegan variety. When cooking at home I like to use Daiya mozzarella, which you can find easily at any health food store or organic retailer. The texture of the Daiya melts really well and is still packed with that mozzarella flavor you look for."

Healthy Eggplant Parmesan
Serves 6

1 eggplant
1 yellow squash
1 zucchini
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons kosher salt
3 eggs
2 tablespoons water or soy milk
2 tablespoons arrowroot
3 cups whole wheat panko bread crumbs
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
6 fresh tomatoes, medium diced
1 8-ounce package fresh or vegan mozzarella cheese
1 bunch basil leaves

1. Slice the eggplant, squash and zucchini in 1/2-inch rounds and season with cayenne pepper and salt.
2. In a small bowl, whisk the egg, water (or soy milk) and arrowroot together to create the egg wash. Coat each slice in the egg wash first, then the panko bread crumbs.
3. Place the slices on a baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes, until fork tender.
4. While vegetables bake, in a medium sauté pan, sauté the garlic in a tablespoon of olive oil for approximately three minutes, then add the diced tomatoes. Cook the sauce for approximately 20 minutes and season with salt and black pepper to taste.
5. Once the sliced vegetables are tender, top with the mozzarella cheese and return to the oven until melted.
6. To serve, stack the vegetable slices on a plate, coat with the fresh tomato sauce and garnish with fresh, torn basil leaves.

5. "Shrimp" and grits
"This southern favorite proves that you do not need the meat to get the feeling - using marinated tofu for the 'shrimp.' To get the flavor of shrimp, season the tofu with a kelp broth for saltiness and a creole blend of spices for lots of flavor.

Marinate the tofu overnight to let the flavors set in and when you are ready to cook, sear the pieces of tofu in a pan to get that prefect texture and char. To complete the dish, serve the 'shrimp' over grits (I love Anson Mills) made with a corn butter.

When you remove the corn kernels from the cobb, there is so much milky goodness left over to be used. To make the corn butter, steep the corn cob and the kernels in butter for about an hour and then strain it. Use this on anything from toast and pancakes or to finish the grits for your dish.

Pair the 'shrimp and grits' with braised greens - a favorite during the winter when you can only eat so many potatoes and root veggies - and the steeped corn, which becomes a salsa, as garnish."

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Bite • Cuisines • Think • Vegetarian

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Laura

    I can vouch for Alyssa's cooking. I live in Charlotte, and Fern (where she's head chef) is a very, very welcome addition to our restaurant scene, which, in the past, has been sorely lacking when it comes to well made, well planned, locally sourced, organic vegetarian and vegan cuisine. I have *no* qualms taking non-veg-heads there. And, to me there's a huge difference between tofu/tempeh/seitan and the uber-processed, chemical-flavoring-filled faux "chik'n" or "beef" imitation meats that are on the market, so I'm not offended at all by her use of the first three in the recipes above. Way to go, Alyssa!

    December 16, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  2. ThatBelle

    Ok...nobody come after me with a pitchfork, I admit-I'm about to ask question that will show my ignorance! (Side note, really wish she'd posted the pot pie recipe!) I do not know a great deal about a vegan diet, but I thought that it meant not only vegetarian but also no animal products like butter, cheese, milk, etc? The reason I ask is that she mentions in the pot pie that you have to start w/a flour and butter roux, but she says later that she's vegan. Would a vegan use butter? Not being critical-really don't understand!

    December 16, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • JainaJade@ThatBelle

      There are Vegan butter substitutes, such as soy "butter" and coconut milk "butter". When I do vegan cookies for my SIL I tend to use soy butter, and most non-vegans are floored that I didn't use real butter once they try a bite :-)

      December 16, 2011 at 8:28 am |
      • ThatBelle@JainaJade

        Thanks, this helps!

        December 22, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  3. Claire

    Good lord! I've been a vegetarian for three decades (since I was 12!!) I'm semi-obsessed with vegetarian comfort food. Simple things, like a roasted root vegetable and walnut soup that Peter Rabbit's mom could have made


    To dickensian savory pies, like this beautiful deep mushroom pie (so good with mashed potatoes)


    I've got a million good recipes for vegetarian comfort foods!!

    December 10, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  4. nothanks

    I've been a vegetarian all my life 30 something years and none of that sounds appetizing. I wan't my dishes to be as comforting as the regular food with meat. Veggie pot pit should have the same veggies as a chicken pot pie, which does not include squash etc. sautee tofu chunks with a nice flavor to replace the meat with veggie broth and it's delicious. Eggplant parm is only made 1 way stop ruining it! Veggie Meat sauce is always grillers or grillers crumbles. Crumbles makes a great veggie shepards pie, meatloaf or meatballs also taco's mmmm.

    December 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  5. Guest

    Im a carnivore who enjoys an occasional vegetable
    If I were vegetarian It would be completely Impossible without falafel and tabouleh
    Whenever it comes to meat free meals Mediterranean is the way to go

    December 9, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Laura

      Eating Mediterranean food makes it very easy to be vegetarian. When I was in Lebanon, it was very easy to go days/weeks without eating meat. And they have the most amazing produce – giant, flavorful tomatoes, crisp, fresh miniature cucumbers. I've never eaten better and enjoyed eating as much as I do every time I visit Lebanon.

      December 10, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Rick

      Laura: My folks were from Lebanon, so I grew up eating the cuisine. I love it. There are lots of vegetarian choices.

      December 13, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  6. Deborah does Vegan

    I love experimenting with mock meats, I made some of the best nuggets using seitan... but I will never give up my occasional filet, medium-rare, crispy grilled edges with mushrooms and steak sauce...... pork, chicken, most beef cuts... can easily live without....

    December 9, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  7. k

    "This is one of the elements to vegetarian cooking that I love the most – using technique to showcase the ingredients you have rather than trying to make them taste like something else."

    Then 3 of 5 recipes have ingredients that are made to taste like something else (tempeh as meat in the bolognese, seitan as meat in the braut, tofu as shrimp, not to mention vegan 'cheese' that's something else made to taste like cheese, which would bring it to 4/5)!

    How about vegetarian dishes that are delicious on their own without fake meat?

    December 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
    • Ally

      agreed. There are so many wonderful vegetarian recipes out there. Most meat eaters think of the tasteless veggie patties that people try to pass off as burgers.....what a waste!

      December 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  8. David Hoffman

    Pot pie has a top crust layer. Not a croissant perched on the edge of the bowl. My aunts, uncles, and grandparents could all cook a proper pot pie from scratch. If this lady is a professional chef, she sure lacks basic cooking skills or is really lazy.

    December 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
  9. Fess up

    "... that makes you feel like you are eating a hearty and meaty bolognese." Tacit admission that meaty is the better of the two. The jig is up, lady.

    December 9, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  10. Ally

    When I want a pot pie it's the rich, creamy gravy I'm craving along with the flaky crust. Not "broth". If I want broth I'll opt for soup. The picture of the pot pie above looks quite watered down, otherwise it sounds like a great recipe!

    December 9, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  11. Emma

    why not just call it "tofu and grits"?

    December 9, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  12. Wastrel

    All good, except the fake bratwurst and shrimp. I love pot pies, and my tip is don't worry about the crust too much as long as you get the insdes juicy. Even if your crust turns out as hard as a rock, it just makes the pie easier to carry around! (Try hot water dough as used in Chinese food, it's easy.) BUT, please please, if you want to make a vegetarian dish, let it stand on its own as a dish without meat instead of an imitation of a meat dish. The fake "bratwurst" and "shrimp" nonsense is why some people consider vegetarianism to be an eating disorder.

    December 9, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  13. Joe

    *bites into a huge juicy cheeseburger*

    om nom nom

    December 9, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  14. Rick

    I've been a vegetarian for over 30 years, and I do not miss meat at all

    December 9, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  15. JainaJade

    never would have thought to use marinated tofu in place of shrimp....thinking I'll have to give this a whirl soon :-)

    December 9, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  16. Jerv

    Great read. Love the pot pie and croissant idea. Thanks!

    December 9, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  17. Derek

    Been vegetarian for about 6 months now, and haven't missed meat at all. I've found the below to be true with the best tasting dishes. That's also part of the fun in discovering new things.

    "This is one of the elements to vegetarian cooking that I love the most – using technique to showcase the ingredients you have rather than trying to make them taste like something else."

    December 9, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  18. actorsdiet

    yum! veggie comfort food is my favorite

    December 8, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
  19. Truth

    *head explodes*
    Wishing it was a little more than a year ago...

    December 8, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      That's *interesting*.

      December 8, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Truth@Kat

      Tell the truth (no pun), but you're a closet sadist, right?

      And btw, I will be in Manhattan next week taking my college roommate to dinner. Any good new places you would suggest? I've not been back home in some time.

      December 8, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        It is not a new place, but it is the best place: Hearth in the East Village. It is the finest of all restaurants. I will not be in NYC - I'll be in Vegas. And you're from NYC?!?

        December 8, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
      • faith@Kat

        Vegas?! Will you by any chance be laying the ground work for the klatsch secret supper that (we hope) will be held there?

        December 8, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        Your mouth to my bosses' ears! But I'm mostly there for fun.

        December 8, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
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