Let’s say we’re interested in making a vegetarian version of Scotch Eggs, those delectably delightful staples of British Pub Food, hardboiled eggs wrapped in pork sausage and deep fried. We could always pick up a package of prefab vegetarian sausage substitute– Lightlife’s Gimmee Lean certainly fits the bill, even though it’s sticky and difficult to work with. However, in the interest of the Meat/No Meat philosophy, we want to figure out our own version.
So, let’s think about sausage. The kind we use is country style, which I suppose we could categorize as “plain sausage”: think Jimmy Dean, breakfast patties, salty, juicy goodness. (We don’t want anything too exotic at this point, since we’re just making the basic, so no chorizo (yet)). The best kind is, of course, fresh, purchased from a butcher shop or other purveyor of ground, spiced pork, especially since Jimmy Dean usually has copious amounts of MSG and nitrates, which many find categorically yucky. Typical sausage seasonings usually include sage, maybe some thyme, nutmeg, perhaps a couple of fennel seeds tossed in for good measure.
When we think about our vegetarian version of sausage, we want to compare it to the pork version. Pork sausage is slightly crumbly, moist, fatty, salty, juicy. It isn’t usually consistently textured; in with the ground meat we usually find little pockets of gristle and grease. This is a big difference between store-bought veggie sausage substitutes and the real thing. The kind we find in the store is often smooth and pasty.
For our version, we’ll need some kind of base. Since we want to come close to the texture of the real thing, we’d like to have at least two components to our base, a main ingredient and a secondary. We think crumbly, moist, so a grain of some kind– perhaps quinoa? It would do the trick, especially since once it’s cooked it can be mashed and has an interesting mouth feel. But alas, the store we visit is out of quinoa (only in Seattle) so we need some other possibility. Looking around, most of the other grains are too large to work. Amaranth is a possibility, but it’s kind of obscure, and would need to be ground further at home. We settle on cracked bulgur wheat, familiar to most people from tabouleh.
What about the second ingredient? We’ll want less of it, and it should be interestingly textured and readily mash-able. How about beans? Black beans have a nice, meaty flavor and would add some proteins to the mix, so we’ll go with a can of those.
Now we need something that, when mixed with liquid, will bind it all together. The problem with many of the usual binding agents– flour, for instance, is that they have a bad habit of drying out whatever you’re trying to cook. Since Scotch Eggs are deep fried, this is an even greater concern; we don’t want our sausage substitute to turn the egg into a crispy asteroid with a sandy interior. We need something that will help retain moisture.
We also want to add some kind of fat to the mixture. This could be oil, but we are going to fry them in oil, so we run the risk of a final product that’s too oily. It could, theoretically, be butter. We can try these as possibilities, but let’s explore other options and think outside of the box a little bit. What kind of binder could both hold our veggie sausage together and add a little fattiness and sweetness to our sausage? How about powdered milk? It’s sometimes added to pork sausage for the exact same purpose, so let’s give it a whirl!
Now we’ve got the basics for our first test batch of veggie sausage: bulgur wheat, black beans, powdered milk. We’ll use water and a little soy sauce as our liquid, since soy salt adds a little saltiness. For seasoning, we’ll use sage, thyme, savory, nutmeg, salt and pepper– traditional sausage spices. In the next installment, we’ll whip up our first test batch and see how it goes.