Fake-out “beef and broccoli” over brown rice cakes

I fell off the wagon in a big way. I know. Between the time of the semester and the recent loss of my best canine kitchen helper*, I haven’t felt particularly inspired in the kitchen as of late. And I’m behind on my Chopped Challenges. The producer/judge has been informed of this and is apparently “cooking” up a basket for me… But I do have one little triumph I’d like to offer.

I tend to vehemently resist foods that try to be other foods – I like tofu and tempeh, but I like them for what they are, not as “fake meat.” I’ll happily buy both soy-based sausages and bratwurst in the same shopping trip, because I like the taste of each one. So it’s not really common for me to concoct vegetarian meals for the purpose of substitution or imitation. But when, a few weeks ago, I unceremoniously tipped a few tablespoons of oyster sauce over a skillet full of well browned mushrooms and kale and the result tasted almost exactly like a plate of beef and broccoli from a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, and when we spent the part of the evening usually reserved for reluctant washing of dishes instead picking the leftovers out of the skillet, I decided this one was worth sharing.

Recently I’ve discussed my new obsession of crisping rice in the pan before serving, and as the owner of a new stove with magnificently hot burners, this practice is getting easier and more dependable, and I just can’t. stop. doing. it. Here, I thought the crisp nuttiness of the rice would be a great flavor and textural contrast to the vegetables and their savory sauce. In lieu of a fancy ring mold, I packed steaming spoonfuls of cooked brown rice into a biscuit cutter, pressing the rice down firmly to create a disc that stayed together, before levering it carefully a pan of extremely hot oil to brown and crisp on each side.

It’s a classy looking presentation, too, if you’re careful enough that the cakes stay together during transport, as you can stack or fan the cakes artfully across a plate or platter before smothering them with their umami-laden topping.

For a light dinner (but heavy in flavor), we didn’t think this needed another thing, but if you want added substance, a good bowl of won ton or hot and sour soup as a lead-in certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

* At the very end of March, after much discussion and heartache, we let our Lucy go. She was almost fifteen and her quality of life was beginning to diminish due to mobility problems and increasingly frequent infections that were becoming resistant to antibiotics. Don’t worry, though; we sent her out with true foodie-style aplomb: on her last day she had bacon for breakfast, and a big slice of chocolate cake after a lunch of chicken, rice, and broccoli bits (her favorite vegetable), because why not? Eventually, her remains will fertilize and hopefully help grow a raucous mix of wildflowers in the back corner of our yard, beneath a pink trumpet tree. We think she would like that.

She couldn’t stand like this anymore, but this was her favorite way to be in the kitchen with me: interested and close to the food.

Fake-out “beef” and “broccoli” on brown rice cakes
Serves 2-3
About 60 minutes (brown rice takes a while…)
1 cup raw brown rice
24 ounces crimini mushrooms
8 ounces kale
about 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2-3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce or to taste
black pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons sliced green onion tops, dark green parts only

 

  • Cook the 1 cup brown rice according to package directions. I always use my rice cooker, where it takes 45-50 minutes. You’ll prep and cook everything else while it is working. When it finishes, remove the lid of the cooking vessel to let it cool slightly, and stir in the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F. As soon as you turn it on, line a sheet tray with aluminum foil, drizzle on 2 tablespoons olive oil, then put that in the oven while it preheats, so the oil is hot when the mushrooms are ready.
  • While the oven and the pan heat, prep the vegetables: stem the mushrooms, wipe the caps gently if they seem dirty, then quarter each one. Remove the central tough stem from the kale and chop into bite-size or slightly larger pieces (it will wilt down a bit as it cooks), and set aside. Slice up the green onions and set them aside as well.
  • When the oven has preheated, carefully remove the oiled pan, add the mushrooms and a little more oil, then place back into the oven. Roast at 400F for 20 minutes, remove and pour off any collected liquid, gently toss the mushrooms, and return to the oven to roast for another 20 minutes. They will be deeply browned, a bit wrinkled, and concentrated in flavor.
  • When the mushrooms have about 10 minutes to go, heat a scant 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the kale all at once and let it cook down for a minute or two, then toss in about 1 tablespoon water to help. Wilt until it is as tender as you like; I like a bit of bite in there still, so I only cook it for 3-4 minutes.
  • When the mushrooms and kale are finished cooking, add the mushrooms to the skillet with the kale, stir in the oyster sauce (start with 2 tablespoons – it is strong), then season to taste with soy sauce, black pepper, and/or more oyster sauce as you wish. Set aside (if you want fewer dishes, dump the vegetable mix back onto the sheet tray you cooked the mushrooms on, turn off the oven, and put the tray back inside – the residual heat will keep things toasty while you finish the dish. Meanwhile, quickly wash out the skillet, dry, and continue as directed below.)
  • To make the rice cakes, heat the final 2 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the oil is shimmering and almost smoking. While it warms, if you haven’t done so already, mix the 1-2 tablespoons sliced green onions in with the rice. Pack about ⅓ cup rice into a 3 inch ring mold or biscuit cutter set on a cutting board that can handle the heat, pressing down very firmly with the back of a spoon. Carefully remove the cutter; if you’ve packed tightly enough, the rice should stay together. Repeat until you have sufficient rice cakes; plan for 2-3 each (I found 2 per person was perfect; I think N. would happily have gone for a third).
  • Use a spatula to carefully transport the rice cakes from cutting board to skillet one at a time. Once they are in the skillet, do not adjust or move them. Turn the heat down to medium-high, and let them sit and sizzle for 3 minutes without disturbing them. This is essential for structural integrity.
  • After 3 minutes undisturbed, gently but firmly flip each rice cake using a thin spatula, and cook another 3 minutes until nicely browned on both sides.
  • To serve, arrange rice cakes on a plate as desired, add a few scoops of kale and mushroom mixture on top, and eat immediately.

Kidney bean, brown rice, and shiitake “vurgers”

I talk a lot on this blog about myself.  Today, I want to talk a little bit about my husband.  Before I met him, N. did a study abroad program in London.  He was there for six months, and by “there” I mean taking classes in London, but also zipping around England and then parts of Europe with a speed that his British hosts looked upon with alarm (“what do you mean you’re going to York just for the weekend? That’s a 3-4 hour trip!  It’s a whole holiday!”  To which N., who grew up in a road-tripping family, would shrug and go anyway.  Example: his family, when they lived in a suburb of Sacramento, California, thought nothing of jumping in the car to drive to Reno for the day.  Once when his parents visited us in Oregon, we drove to Tillamook from Eugene via the coast to get ice cream and cow cookies at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, and then headed home in time for dinner).

Skyscraper gazing

N. is a little camera-shy.

Interestingly, and perhaps unfortunately, N.’s study abroad program took place shortly after some of the worst scares of mad cow disease in England.  He was there in late 2002, and eating beef was a no-no.  This meant, when I met him, that N. had some food issues.  He wasn’t a picky eater – that’s not quite the right word.  He was, let’s say, a particular eater.  Beef, especially beef that wasn’t well-done, was out.  The frightening potential consequences had been too drilled into his head.  Lamb was too gamey.  Pork was not his favorite.  When I was trying to impress him with my rudimentary cooking skills when we first met (rudimentary is kind – the first time I tried to make him French toast for breakfast, the bread collapsed into over-soaked crumbles in my custard mixture.  But we fried it up and ate it anyway – sweet scrambled eggs with bread bits – and he was either kind enough or smitten enough to pretend he liked it), we ate a lot of chicken breast.

N.’s willingness and preference when it comes to food has expanded and matured significantly since we’ve been together.  Still, though, he is wary.  When we lived in Oregon, we were lucky enough to find ourselves in Eugene, which is a bit of a hippie mecca.  This meant we had a wide variety of vegetarian choices.  Neither of us is vegetarian, but N. developed the habit of ordering veggie burgers when we went out to eat, since it was a safe bet.  You didn’t have to worry about doneness, and many of the restaurants we frequented made their own patties instead of relying on something frozen from a box.

Even though we’ve been living in Los Angeles for almost a year now (can that be true?!), and we’ve done our share of restaurant investigating, we don’t have the favorites yet that we had in Eugene.  Though we’ve found some delicious options, N. doesn’t have a go-to veggie burger yet.  This week, therefore, I decided to make him one.

It always interests me, when a veggie burger is advertised as a homemade patty, to find out what its base is.  A lot of meatless patties – especially the premade kind you find in the freezer section – are wheat based, which seems like a strange thing to put on a sandwich: a patty of pressed wheat between two pieces of bread made from wheat.  Gluten-fest!  But sometimes they are made from tempeh, and sometimes from beans, and we had a really tasty one once that I’m sure had shiitake mushrooms mixed into it, which contributed a fantastic texture I haven’t found again.   Food Blog May 2013-1444

Food Blog May 2013-1446Taking this textural component as my must-have, I considered my pantry and spice cabinet, and cobbled together what turned out to be a delicious, filling patty made of brown rice, kidney beans, and reconstituted dried shiitake mushrooms.  I used a mixture of red wine and hot water to reconstitute my mushrooms, which contributed to their deep, earthy flavor.  You could use chicken or vegetable broth if you prefer, or just hot water.

Food Blog May 2013-1447To bump up the flavor and add a little moisture, I added onions and garlic I’d sweated down with some warm, southwestern spices, and pulsed the whole thing in a food processor with a generous pinch of salt until it was willing to be molded, but not completely homogenized.  The beans should be smashed but not totally pureed, and you should be able to discern the occasional grain of rice in your shaped patty.  This adds texture and interest when you are chewing, and makes the finished product less like you’re chowing down on a fried patty of bean dip.  Not that fried bean dip patties necessarily sound like a bad thing…

Food Blog May 2013-1448N.’s one complaint about veggie burgers is that they are often smothered in cheese.  It’s as though restaurants are trying to hide the flavor-that-isn’t-meat.  That might be exactly what some people want, but for us, these non-cow flavors are just as interesting and tasty.  To make this a burger (or vurger, as one of our Eugene favorites called it) worthy of N.’s preferences, I decided to skip the cheese on the actual patty, and incorporate it into the bun instead.  Thus we settled our patties on homemade jalapeño cheese “kaiser” rolls, which I’m going to have to boast about… maybe next week…

For now, though, the patty itself: these are a bit dense and fairly filling, but the mushrooms really do add a delightful chewiness that I wouldn’t want to skip.  Adding in some tempeh crumbles to replace or enhance these components would likely be delicious, though I haven’t tried this yet myself.  The final addition of the barest squeeze of lime juice makes a surprising difference: it takes them from slightly heavy to a flavor I can only describe as somehow more awake.

Food Blog May 2013-1452A few days ago Deb at Smitten Kitchen asked what her readers’ go-to dinners were.  I thought about this for a while and decided ours were pizza, roasted vegetable tacos, and a lovely little one-bowl meal I learned from a friend called “Scatter Sushi.”  I can tell you, though, based on the reaction these “vurgers” got at our house, they just joined that list.

Food Blog May 2013-1456

Note: these patties are vegan (until you put them on a cheese roll), which means they lack the dependable binding power an egg typically brings to such a party.  Therefore, I recommend shaping them and then letting them sit for half an hour or more before cooking, which will let the rice and beans soak up some of the moisture from the vegetables, and thereby hold together better.  If they threaten to crumble on you or you’re frustrated or frightened by their potential fragility and not determined to keep them vegan, go ahead and add an egg to the mix.

Brown rice, kidney bean, and shiitake “vurgers”
Makes 4 patties
1 cup cooked, cooled brown rice
1 15 oz. can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 oz. dried shiitake mushrooms (about 12)
3 cups wine, water, or broth for reconstituting mushrooms
¼ cup diced onion
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 TB olive oil, divided
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp oregano
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp salt (if you are using dried beans rather than canned, you might want to increase this quantity)
1 tsp lime juice or red wine vinegar
  • First, reconstitute the mushrooms.  Heat water or broth to near boiling, then pour into a heatproof bowl with dried mushroom caps and wine (if using).  I typically like to use 1 cup of wine and 2 cups of hot water – it’s enough heat to revive the mushrooms, and enough flavor to intensify them.  Cover, making sure the mushrooms are fully immersed, and let sit for about 20 minutes.  I like to place a small plate atop my soaking bowl to keep the mushrooms underwater.
Food Blog May 2013-1445

Mushroom soaking contraption

  • When the mushrooms are soft and pliable, drain them and set aside until cool enough to handle.  Heat 1 TB of the olive oil in a skillet and gently sweat the onions and garlic until the onions are translucent and the garlic is aromatic and sweet.  This should take 5-8 minutes over medium-low heat.
  • As the onions soften, add the cumin, paprika, oregano, and pepper, turn the heat down to low, and stir to combine.  Let the spices cook with the vegetables for another 2 minutes, to let their flavors meld and warm.  Turn off the heat and set aside.
  • Once your mushrooms are cool enough to handle, squeeze them gently to release some of the water they have collected in their bath.  You don’t want them to be drippy, but you don’t want to squeeze them completely dry either.  Some of the liquid they’ve soaked up, especially if you’ve used wine or broth, will add lovely flavor to your veggie patties.  It will also help hold the patties together.  Remove the stems (they are tough and unpleasant to eat) and then chop the shiitake caps roughly.
  • Place rice, beans, chopped mushrooms, onion, garlic and spice mixture, and ½ tsp salt in the bowl of a food processor.  Pulse 4-5 times at 3 second intervals, just until the beans are broken up and the rice is in smaller pieces.  You want some of the mixture to be smooth, but some to retain texture and shape.  Taste for seasoning, and add more salt if needed.  Squeeze in the lime juice and pulse one more time just to integrate it.
  • Remove your mixture from the processor, being careful of the blade, and dump it into a large bowl.  Press it together with your hands a bit to ensure workability.  If it is really crumbly or you are nervous about the patties holding together, you might add a lightly beaten egg or some olive oil here.  However, don’t be too worried – they are going to firm up a little when you let them sit after shaping.
  • Divide the mixture in four even quantities.  One at a time, press and shape each quarter into a round, flat patty no more than 1 inch thick.  Everything is cooked already, so you don’t have to worry about rawness, but you do want everything to heat evenly.  Any thicker than this and your burgers might still be a bit cool in the middle.  Mine were just under 1 inch thick, and had a diameter of about 3 inches.
  • Once all 4 patties are formed, set them aside on a plate or a board for at least half an hour.  If you are going to wait much longer than that or if you are making them ahead, stick them in the refrigerator, but be sure to let them come back up to room temperature before cooking, so they heat evenly.
  • When you are ready to cook, heat the remaining 2 TB olive oil in a skillet (I just used the same one I’d cooked my onions and garlic in) over medium to medium-high heat until it glistens and ripples.  Add the burgers carefully to the skillet and let them sizzle for 4-5 minutes on each side, until they develop a deep, bronzed crust.
  • Serve with your favorite condiments on the bun of your choice.  We kept it simple: mayonnaise, red leaf lettuce from the garden, on the jalapeño cheese rolls I’ll share with you here next week.

Note: if the burgers look like they are falling apart, or if they threaten to break when you try to flip them, turn the heat up a little.  This, bizarrely, helps keep them together because it sets the outside faster, so the surface of the patty is firmer.