In our quest for the perfect vegetarian sausage, we decided that a base of bulgur wheat mixed with black beans should pretty closely approximate the “mouth feel” of ground pork sausage. So, to start our first test recipe, I decided to cook 1/2 cup of bulgur wheat and mix in a cup of black beans, which will give us enough of a base to stretch out through a couple of test sessions.
Every step in the process will eventually contribute to the final flavor. With this in mind, and because I’m not a fan of cooking grains in plain old water, I decided the wheat needed to be simmered *in* something. What might add an earthy, slightly bitter complexity to the grains? Vegetable broth would be too sweet, and not quite on the mark in the flavor category. How about…. coffee?
Sounds strange, right? But coffee has a nuttiness that I think just might work in the final product. So, one cup of brewed coffee and 1/2 cup of bulgur wheat into the pot, boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes, and step one is complete. Upon tasting the cooked grain, I did think the coffee flavor was a bit too strong, but a quick rinse under cold water in a mesh strainer mellowed the excess flavor.
To the mixing bowl! I added the black beans (canned) and, since we don’t have a food processor, smushed them into the wheat with a potato masher. Next, it was time for the Secret Ingredient:
Although in the last post we thought we might try powdered milk as the binder, the store was out of it. They did, however, have this lovely canister of powdered *buttermilk*, featuring this handsome, red-cheeked chef of vaguely European mien. His charming smile all but called out to me in mock Italian: “Hey, you! Forget about powdered milk, try-a my powdered buttermilk, capice?” Why not give it a whirl? The sournesss of buttermilk might add something traditional vegetarian sausages miss, and anything with butter in the title can’t be that bad, right?
I added the buttermilk, measuring as I went, and it seemed to be working wonderfully. 1/4 cup did the trick. I then added a combination of other ingredients to approximate that inimitable sausage archetype. Since this is a test recipe, I’m not going to provide their exact measurements here, but I will tell you that I used soy sauce, sage, thyme, nutmeg, pepper and salt. A quick taste let me know I was on the right track.
Flavor seemed right. Consistency seemed right. So, it was time to toss some of this stuff into the old frying pan and see who saluted.
By the way, I do mean OLD frying pan. Wondering why we’re trying to raise some seed money to get this project started? It’s to replace equipment like this:
Since our eventual goal is something that will be deep-fried, we need to know that a) it won’t cook too unevenly in oil; b) it’ll hold together if wrapped around an egg; and c) it will taste delicious. To that end, I decided to make a few patties out of half of the mixture and fry ’em, leaving enough left over to muck with if the first batch didn’t work. I put about 1/4 cup of Canola oil* in the pan and turned that sucker up to 7.5 (out of 8). When it had a nice sizzle, I spooned in three patties of varying thicknesses and let ’em have it!
As the mixture started cooking, it really began to develop a distinctly delicious sausage-like smell, a perfume you’d imagine wafting from the kitchen in a Southern grandma’s house at breakfast time. True fact: when Emily came into the kitchen, I asked her whether she thought it smelled like pork sausage. Her reply? “That’s not real sausage?” I was on to something.
Then it happened. Before my eyes, the lovely little patties I’d created began to break down into crumblies. I tried to hold them together, to retain their shapes as I inserted the spatula under each one. They simply weren’t holding together. Part of the problem was the condition of our little frying pan, to which even the oiliest ingredients will stick like evil glue. However, I believe that what was happening was that the buttermilk was breaking down and absorbing the liquid as the sausage cooked, losing its consistency and causing the patties to crumble.
Still, holding together is one small part of what we’re looking for from our sausage. more importantly, how did it taste? After it had browned, quite nicely, I used a slotted spoon to remove the sausage to a plate, and called in Emily for a test:
It is delicious!
The flavor, the mouth-feel, the texture, are almost exactly identical to country-style pork sausage. The ingredients as used, in the proportion they were used, were nearly perfect. It was slightly salty, so I’ll need to cut down on that just a bit, but otherwise it tastes closer to real pork sausage than any store-bought substitute I’ve ever tried. I sincerely doubt that a meat-eater would even be able to notice the difference if unaware. We mixed the crumbles into a tomato sauce and served over butternut squash ravioli, and oh my goodness, you guys! This stuff is REALLY, REALLY GOOD.
Still, it’s not quite ready. It just needs one more something that will help it stay together as it cooked. What would that something be? Tune in shortly for the exciting conclusion and find out!
And don’t forget to visit our Kickstarter page and help support this lil’ project!
*It’s always tempting to use olive oil, but don’t forget that olive oil has a flavor. I don’t want that flavor in this dish, so to the Canola I went.