Make Beets Taste Like Meat to Build the Best Veggie Reuben

by Jerusha Klemperer

5/17/19

Who eats a vegetarian Reuben sandwich? And why? And what even is the point of eating the meatless version of a meat-filled classic? Take the Reuben: the key ingredients are rye bread, Russian dressing, sauerkraut, melted cheese and_______.

In that blank space, traditionalists and meat lovers put corned beef — and usually at the beginning of the ingredient list. But non-meat eaters, or people trying to cut back on meat, can replace the corned beef with tempeh, seitan, thinly sliced roasted beets, maitake mushrooms, or, as we just learned in a recent piece about vegetarian Reubens in Taste magazine, an earthy parsnip slaw.

Will meat eaters give up their corned beef for beets? The answer is yes — especially if they’re “meaty.”

Jeremy Umansky is the chef and co-owner of Larder, a hugely popular deli in Cleveland that is famous for their (sustainably sourced) pastrami sandwich but also attracts customers seeking their vegetable-forward options, including beet charcuterie and meat-like delicacies made with mushrooms. What, I demanded to know, is their secret is for getting people ecstatically excited about vegetables (and fungi)?

He says that meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike are excitedly ordering Larder’s vegetarian charcuterie and the sandwiches in which they’re featured. And he offers up a few explanations.

 

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The way people have previously encountered some vegetables or fungi might not have been delicious enough.

Experiencing a vegetable or fungus in a new and delicious way might blow your mind. Take mushrooms: lots of people, Umansky points out, think they don’t like them. Maybe because their experience is with a canned watery mushroom on a pizza, or a bland button mushroom from the supermarket. But when they taste something rich and earthy, like a maitake (or Hen of the Woods) mushroom, they might sing a different tune.

 

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The flavor of meat taps into something primal for some people, and if you can recreate that with a beet or a mushroom, you can win over anyone.

Umansky’s crew accomplishes this feat by curing the vegetables in a bacteria called koji. It’s a fascinating process that you can read more about here. But there are other ways to do this that include incorporating smoke flavors or using meaty mushrooms. “That primal urge ends up being really, really strong in people,” says Umansky. “The satiation that an individual gets from biting into a piece of meat, or cutting into it, using certain parts of the mouth and then the aromas and all that stuff that goes along with it, the taste, the flavor. That satiates us on a subconscious level. So, for a lot of people, they maybe don’t necessarily agree with the killing of a chicken or another animal, but they love the taste. And if meat eaters can come across a food that can replicate that taste, that texture without the loss life, or the degradation in welfare standards or whatever it may be, most people are super happy to go along with that.”

Alicia Kennedy, the author of the previously mentioned vegetarian Reuben article, says the corned beef was never the point: it was always about the magic that occurs when you mix melted Swiss, tangy dressing, funky slaw and satisfying Rye. The final ingredient, whether corned beef or smoky beets, doesn’t really matter.

Recipes to Make Your Vegetables Meaty

Jeremy’s guidance for how to get your beets (or other vegetable or fungus) to taste and feel like meat:

TASTE

1. Smoke and/or hard sear.
2. Use earthy spices such as cumin, black pepper, chocolate, coffee, and mushroom powder.

FEEL

3. Cure your vegetables as you would a piece of meat for a couple of days. This can be achieved by rubbing the vegetable or mushroom with salt at a concentration of 1.75% of the vegetable’s weight, wrapping it tightly in plastic or vacuum sealing it, and letting it sit in the fridge for 2-3 days.

 

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