Saturday, April 4, 2009

You can't make vegetarian cacciatore that is unpossible.

Cacciatore in Italian means hunter, so naturally it's a dish you'd expect meat to show up in. It's one of those really comforting meals full of big, hearty flavors, simple ingredients, and well, some dead animal right? Chicken and Rabbit cacciatore in particular have a following and are among the most popular rustic Italian dishes out there. So who the hell is going to eat some temporary vegetarian's version of Cacciatore?

I know who would:

Think about it. Elmer Fudd is a terrible hunter. Has he actually ever bagged anything at all? He's got dogged determination, I'll give him that, but at least when I went hunting a few times as a young guy I got the hint that I generally suck at it. That said, it isn't helping us figure out just what on earth would go into some vegetarian's version of cacciatore. I mean, all Fudd ever kills is time, and I'm not exactly sure how to properly season a metaphysical concept anyway.

No, for this one, I need some spiritual insight into matters. What to use, what to use?

"Hmmm...could it beeeee....SEITAN?!?!"

You betcha.

Seitan is a weird mad science dough represented by A + B = C. A is some random flavoring crap I don't know whatever you want and also probably water I guess. B is vital wheat gluten, which you can find in the flour isle of most grocery stores, and is the protein extracted from a wheat berry's endosperm. Gluten is what makes bread flour bake into much chewier bread than all purpose, and what generally holds your doughs together. C, if you are just not paying attention to me at all, is the Seitan, which is the delightful protein mass we want to eat today.

Okay, so lets make it, right? Get your mise en place on, homie:

Here's what you'll use:
  • 2 cups vital wheat gluten
  • 2 tsps kosher salt
  • 2 tsp liquid smoke
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp white truffle oil
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • about 1/2 cup water, give or take
Alright, it's the same drill as making bread. Combine your dry ingredients in a bowl, make a well in that, and start by adding your water, then wet ingredients.

Alright, the similarities end right here. Full stop. This ain't no damn loaf of bread, so take what you know about bread dough and toss it out of the window. This is quick setting edible concrete, and the moment you combine wet and dry, your gluten is going to start to daisy chain and coagulate like crazy. You've got to work FAST and combine wet and dry before everything locks up, or else you're not going to have a unified mass of veggie protein. Like so:

Looks positively visceral doesn't it? You can feel yourself wanting to eat this seitan with fava beans and a nice bottle of Chianti...fthfthfthp!

Well, we'll have Chianti at least. Or I will. You buy your own!

Take your protein blob and add it to about a quart of boiling vegetable stock. I bought mine in a box because I'm super lazy but I'm sure if you make your own it'll be tasty too. Boil the seitan for about 20 minutes, then drain. You can reserve the stock for making something I'm sure. I just can't think of anything right now. Maybe reconstitute some dried mushrooms, add chopped green onions and make a lazy bum soup. Of course you can just chuck it, up to you.

Pardon the blue pictures. My camera is really big into Van Gogh or something. At any rate once your seitan is cool, you can cut it up how you please. Think of it like any cut of meat, only you don't have to fuss with fat, bone, or any of that junk. For my cacciatore, I want little cubey bits that I can stab with a fork, so thats what I do. From there, we cook it. Again. Why? Well, consider what you have in front of you as a hunk of "rare" flank of seitan. While you could probably bang that out and make seitan carpaccio with arugula, I'm not about to try it. Plus, we're making cacciatore, so we want that stuff in a stew, yo.

Now, when I'm going to be stewing meat, I like to hit it with good temperature on the stove so that it browns on all sides. Nerds call this the Maillard Reaction but basically its just a chemical change that's taking place on the contact point with your pan. Why should you care? Because it makes stuff taste good! We already know that browning stuff makes it taste good so it should stand to reason that browning seitan guessed it.

Now before we do that, I dredge my seitan bites in a little dusting of rice flour. It's a completely judgment call on my part because I like a little added crisp.

Doesn't need to be long. Remember, we just want the flavor on the outside. We can cook it more when we put this into the pot with the rest of our yummies. Once you get the brown, lets put the pieces on paper towels to dry. Grind down some kosher salt in a mortar and pestle to sprinkle on it if you want, but I don't think its necessary.

Seitan's up, but what about the rest of this? What the hell is a Cacciatore anyway?

Well, Cacciatore is a stew dish that traditionally features tomatoes and mushrooms. Pretty tasty stuff, so lets construct the rest, eh?

Get all this together:

  • 1 pound whole peeled tomatoes (I find the tinned ones are best unless you're doing this with tomatoes in season, then knock yourself out!)
  • 1 pound mushrooms (I use small portabella, but crimini or other small-ish ones are fine. Just wash 'em!), quartered
  • 1 shallot, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
  • 1 tsp capers
  • 2 tsp fresh oregano plus extra for garnish
  • 1 tsp fresh basil
  • 2 bay leaves (not pictured, sorry!)
  • About 1/3 cup Marsala cooking wine
  • Hunk of good firm cheese with the rind (Parmesan, Pecorino, etc are best, but you can also do this with Grüyere if you must. I used Pecorino Toscano in mine)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • pinch of salt
  • black pepper to taste

Okay to start, add your oil to your pot, heat to medium-ish, then add sliced shallots and pinch of salt. Let that go for about 5 minutes, then add your mushrooms.

You want to cook those covered for about ten minutes. Let the mushrooms leave a bit of water in the pot and get juices flowing. To that, we add our wine!

Turn the heat up to high. The steam that comes up will smell like Keith Richard's breath so let it do its business for about two minutes, then add your tomatoes. We want to evaporate that alcohol, but keep the flavor of the wine in the pan. Simple enough.

Let it boil for about two more minutes, then bring it down to a good simmer.

Now we get to have a little fun. Add about 2/3 of your garlic to this, along with your capers, and bay leaves. With that, we also want a little dark magic at work, which we get with a piece of rind from your cheese. Just take a knife to it and extract your rind, and toss that into the cauldron. What you're doing is adding a nice umami baseline of flavor to the dish, and also thickening it ever so slightly.

So what about the rest of that cheese? Hey, lets make some cheesy garlic bread for an accompaniment, and something to mop up the remaining sauce!

Just slice your fresh-baked Mantovana bread, and...

Wait, you didn't fresh bake Mantovana bread? I guess I didn't send out that memo. Nevermind, grab whatever whole loaf of italian bread you can get and cut it up into two thick toast slices. As long as you're not using Wonderbread it doesn't really matter I guess, and it's gonna probably taste good.

The remaining garlic you reserved from earlier? Go ahead and spread those across the top of the bread. Cut thin slices off your cheese hunk and arrange them across the surface of your toasts. Try and leave no bread exposed, and maybe even overhand cheese around the edges. We're going into the broiler and we want to bubble and brown cheese, not to burn bread. Cheese covers bread, problem solved, capice? Put these on a baking sheet and get ready for fun!

If you've never used a broiler, basically your temperature is regulated by the distance of the cooking rack to the heating element or gas or whatever. Closer to the hot stuff, the hotter the heat you radiate to your food surface. Set that rack as high as it will go. We want to napalm these puppies. Now since we're cooking at such ludicrous temperature, we want to keep an eye on the cheese breads. They are going to cook within a minute or two. Keep the oven door open and watch them. Pop a squat and eyeball them. When you get leopard spots on the cheese, you're set.

Now, lets finish the cacciatore. Add your seitan, and chop and add your fresh herbs. Notice I'm only adding the herbs now, and that's because they're fresh. Fresh herbs work best right at the end of the cooking process and before service. If you only have dried, don't despair, but you want to add that stuff about when you added the garlic, bay leaves, and such.

Ladle your cacciatore into a dish, cram a cheesy bread into that, and if you've got that fresh oregano, garnish it up. For wine, I went with a Bell'agio Chianti 2007 which tasted great to go with that heavy tomato sauce. If Chianti ain't your bag, I'm a huge Merlot fan so maybe that's more your worldview?

At any rate, dig in. You may not have caught that wascally wabbit this time, but that doesn't mean you can't tuck into your cacciatore.

1 comment:

Cathie said...

Charlie, I just love your blog. It is wonderful, creative, beautiful, and looks delicious. Most of all funny! I love the Elmer Fudd and church lady! Cathie