18 April 2021

Mac's McCheese, Part 2


It was okay. 

The nutritional yeast is still the weak link, but it's only sprinkled on top like Parmesan cheese. The main cheese sauce uses a vegan cheddar I've gotten before. To my knowledge, it's made from cashews. Quite a few of the vegan ingredients from Purple Carrot are like this, so if you notice many of their dishes have a nutty flavor, that's why. 

... As long as we're here, and especially since I mentioned parmesan cheese, I learned something interesting from British TV presenter James May. He has a cooking show on Amazon Prime Video called Oh, Cook!. It's rather low-key compared to the other productions he's been involved with, and as he tells it, it's primarily meant to accompany/promote a cookbook he's recently published. It's almost like the show was an afterthought, especially with its off-the-cuff, cinema verite style of presentation. That's not knocking it; I rather enjoyed every second of it. Admittedly, it may have lost a bit of steam around episode 5, but that could well be a result of me simply not being built for binge-watching. 

In a later episode, he offered a correction regarding a dish he'd made in a previous one. The correction came from one of the crew, along with much of the show's banter, though May is clearly in top form since he doesn't have Hammond or Clarkson to fight fire with fire. The dish in question was said to be vegetarian. However, as the aforementioned crew pointed out, parmesan cheese is not considered vegetarian. At first, I thought he was simply mixing up vegetarian and vegan. It turns out there's a step in the making of parmesan cheese that's not too animal friendly. Without getting into the whole science of cheese and how it gets made, parmesan's process involves something called rennet. 

Rennet is a broad term for a collection of enzymes in a cow's digestive system. In the case of parmesan, the rennet is sourced from unweaned calfs as part of veal production. For me, this is not a problem. Much like the lard in refried beans or the fats on a grill that are used to cook veggie patties, this is incidental, and also part of a much larger process. That is, the calfs aren't being slaughtered exclusively for their gut stuff. Moreover, not all parmesan cheese uses rennet in its production. There are alternatives out there, though how widespread they are is hard to gauge. Given all the parmesan cheese I see in grocery stores and the notable lack of veal when I pass by the meat counters, either a little goes a long way, or the use of rennet has become the exception to the rule. 

While it doesn't bother me, I know some vegetarians are more strict than me, so it's only right they be informed if they don't know already. 

To your health. 

17 April 2021

Mac's McCheese, Part 1

 I've been vegetarian for over a year now, and it was a complete accident. My roommate had been recommended trying a vegan diet to help bring down her cholesterol. I went along for moral support and to challenge myself. Sometimes when I'm grocery shopping, I'll play the Vegan Game, and maybe some of you have as well. When you're waiting in the checkout lines, look down on your cart and look at what you'd have to put back if you decided, right then and there, to become vegan. There's no shaming, mind, only an exercise in introspection, thinking for once about the stuff you don't think about. 

I learned in that first week that I am not cut out to be a full vegan. The long and short of it is I love cheese and ice cream too much. The other problem was a poor choice of dishes. I love Mexican and Italian the most, which lend themselves very well to non-meat options. I also like a lot of Asian dishes, which lend themselves equally well, if not more. When it comes to Indian dishes, though, I see a lot of problems. I mentioned loving Mexican food, but too many people think that means piling on the spices. Since leaving New Mexico especially I've noticed too many people don't understand spice. I can respect those thrill-seekers out there with their ghost peppers and whatnot, but that's not spice to me. That's heat. That's all heat and no flavor. I love green chili to death, and while that can be especially hot, it more than makes up for it in the flavor it provides. The heat has a character, is my point. Carne adovada is simply an embarrassment. I ordered it out of curiosity, expecting some kind of Mexican analogue to General Tso's, as the dishes look fairly similar. Three bites, enough tears to refill my water, and a fully drained set of sinuses later, I couldn't carry on. Call me weak if you like, but I don't look at my food the way a skier looks at black diamonds. The food serves me, not the other way around. Man v. Food is a false dichotomy. 

A common complaint about vegan dishes is they can be a little bland. This is perfectly understandable, and eye-opening when you learn how much sugar is in the foods you normally eat, hence the addiction and the less-processed stuff tasting a little off. It's like that scene in the first Matrix movie when they're discussing what we know as "chicken" in terms of flavor. Look up why carrots are orange if you really want the rug pulled out from under you when it comes to what qualifies as a GMO. Anyway, I don't personally mind bland food; it's why God gave us candy and soda. The problem with these Indian dishes I was trying out was they tried to make up for their blandness by piling on spices, the kinds of spices that don't offer any real flavor of their own and instead simply make you feel like you're trying to swallow a hot coal. Don't get me wrong, there are some Indian dishes I like very much. These simply weren't ticking any of those boxes. 

The main event came second-to-last if memory serves: Vegan Mac & Cheese. The original comfort food, now minus the dairy. Another common complaint about vegan dishes or other such alternatives to meat and animal products is they try too hard sometimes to be like the thing they're trying to make you do without. What I mean by that is rather than giving you a new experience, they try and pass for something else and act like everything's normal when you know damn well it isn't. A bean burrito is every bit as appetizing and satisfying to me as one with shredded steak, the difference simply being which one I would be in the mood for. If I'm in the mood for a burger with a proper meat patty and instead I bite into a fish fillet, that's grounds for disappointment. A for effort, but when it doubt, just be yourself, is my point. 

Besides, most of the "flavor" people talk about when referring to meat has nothing to do with the meat itself, but the preparation. Have you ever had plain, skinless chicken? I'm talking going straight from the package and onto the baking sheet with no steps in between. Yes, there's a texture, but texture is not a flavor. That taco seasoning will do all the same wonders for your chickpeas and black beans as it will for your chicken and beef. There's certainly no shortage of cheese-flavored snacks, so I was willing to give this the benefit of the doubt. Then, I read what the main ingredient was:

Nutritional yeast. 

That was probably a mistake, but I figured as long as I'm exploring what goes into my food, I'm not going to make an exception for the... exception. I want to know what's standing in for my cheese, by dammit. Actually, nutritional yeast isn't the end of the story, it's just the primary component chosen above all the others to be what graces the branding on the package. It hardly mattered, though. 

This particular style of nutritional yeast, to its credit, looked and smelled like cheese. The trouble is it didn't smell like especially good cheese. It didn't help that it looked like shredded cheese that was not long for this world, like when you get down to the land half-handful of the bag and you're not sure if it's cheese dust on the strands or something that tends to grow on things that are not long for this world. The taste did not redeem it. 

Like I said, when something is bland, I can deal with that. There's a difference between bland and bad. Bad doesn't even have to be vile or gut-wrenching or nauseating. Bad is simply bad, the kind of taste that makes you feel like you're being punished for something, like whatever you're eating doesn't want to be eaten and wants nothing more in the world it may or may not be long for to let you know it and will make you suffer for it every step of the way. You know you shouldn't be eating something when it makes you feel like a failure. This is not hyperbole, and it's certainly not me being a picky eater. 

This happened in November of 2019, and I'd almost forgotten that I'd written about it, so I apologize for being repetitious if you also remembered it from back then. I'm bringing all this up again because we've recently moved away from Hello Fresh as their options have gotten a touch repetitive, and they're not offering nearly as many meat-alternatives in their veggie options as I'd prefer. In the year-plus we've been subscribed, I've seen their "plant-based ground" a total of twice, perhaps thrice. 3 meals a week for over 70-odd weeks, you'd think they'd offer it up more. That was when my roommate discovered Purple Carrot. They're a fairly new enterprise (they don't even have an app, just their main site and a few social media accounts), and while they're slightly more expensive than Hello Fresh, their main claim to fame is their menu is entirely vegan-friendly, right down to the butter, cheese, and mayo. There have still been some bad dishes, but others have been pleasant surprises, many downright awesome. Tempeh is a decent meat alternative, depending on how you prepare it. Tofu can go either way. Seitan, also known as wheat meat or gluten meat, is the standout. For something dating back a few centuries, it holds its own against the Impossible and Beyond options. Like those, it wouldn't fool you, but it doesn't taste like an alternative. 

Moreover, many of their cheese options have been perfectly palatable. The biggest issue is they typically don't give you much of them, which is likely why they work. That is, if they gave you more of them, you'd probably start to notice the shortcomings. This is when I'll typically "cheat" and put in some proper cheese or butter or mayo, but credit where credit is due. 

Tonight, though...

Dun... dun... DUUUUUN!

Wish me luck. 

For the record, while I have my cruelty-free beefs with Purple Carrot, and there's definitely been some duds, I'd still recommend them if you're vegan and looking for a meal kit service. I'd certainly recommend giving them a try if you're not vegan so you'll at least have a leg to stand on when you claim that the lifestyle is not for you.