Vegan Umami for Beginners

Eating seasonally is such a trendy catchphase that it’s easy to miss how basic it is. Although it’s escaped us a bit with processed food and year-round fresh berries, the idea of eating different food during different times of the year is engrained in our society and bodies. It seems preposterous to drink hot chocolate in the summer, just as lemonade isn’t nearly so tasty in the winter. Similarly, our bodies crave thick, hearty meals to protect against the chill cold, whereas a light salad with fresh greens and good bread can be perfectly satisfying when the heat is smothering. There’s something fundamentally reassuring about eating these foods at the right times.

However, finding that filling winter meal can be challenging for Western vegans and vegetarians. So many of American and European society’s traditional winter foods are meat-heavy, like chicken noodle soup, meatloaf, and beef stew. This meat-focus is for a reason – along with the heaviness of the food, the sense of something being “hearty” is associated with “umami.” A taste, just like salty or sweet, umami is the sense of “savoriness.” The Kikomann website, although self-promotional, has a good explanation. Because meat is full of amino acids (the building blocks of protein), meat dishes are often high in umami. But that doesn’t mean that vegetarian and vegan dishes can’t make good use of this flavor as well.

Thankfully, I happened upon a perfect solution to solve my personal craving when I threw together a number of ingredients from my fridge the other day. Although its original use over pasta wasn’t very good – it’s not a sauce – it did make for an excellent vegan winter stew. Two of its three main ingredients are heavily umami-oriented, so it’s both filling and hearty. Best of all, it’s made with ingredients locally available in many parts of the U.S. (and probably Europe as well) throughout the winter.

Hearty Vegan Winter Stew
– 1 medium-large onion
– 3-4 cloves of garlic
– 4 tbs of olive oil, plus extra if needed for frying
– Salt
– Pepper
– 2 cups Portobello mushrooms, either regular or “baby Bellas”
– 1 tbs of dried basil
– 1 tbs of dried oregano
– 6-8 ounces of seitan (Also known as “mock duck,” seitan is made with gluten, the main protein of wheat. Unfortunately, it is clearly not for those who are gluten intolerant. It can be made at home from high-gluten flour, but I bought it packaged.)
– 14 ounces of canned diced tomatoes (Obviously, it’s ideal if you canned them yourself or can buy them from a local farmer who canned them. Sadly, I was not that ambitious this summer. This is about the size of the smaller cans at the grocery store or half the size of one of the big cans.)

1. Chop onion and garlic.
2. Heat 2 tbs of olive oil in a large saucepan. When hot, add onion and garlic. Lightly salt and pepper (a pinch of salt and a crack or two of pepper).
3. Saute onion and garlic on medium-low until translucent.
4. Chop mushrooms as they cook.
5. Roughly chop seitan into manageable pieces. This isn’t necessary if you buy cubes.
6. Add mushrooms, basil, and oregano to the onions and garlic. Salt and pepper again, somewhat more heavily.
7. Heat the other 2 tbs of olive oil in a large, non-stick saucepan.
8. While the vegetables are cooking, fry the seitan pieces in the non-stick pan. When the pieces turn golden-brown, flip them over with tongs. Depending on the size of the pieces, this will take from 1-3 minutes. You will probably need to do at least two batches so that the pieces don’t overlap. Add more olive oil to the pan if the pieces have soaked all of it up. Put the finished pieces on a plate with a paper towel on it to soak up the oil.
9. Add the fried seitan and the tomatoes to the onions, garlic and mushrooms.
10. Serve with delicious bread!

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