‘Committed carnivore’ Sophie Morris and her panel of blind tasters put recipes from three new vegan cookbooks to the test
Banana peel bacon BLT sandwich
It’s not ideal when the kitchen still smells of the previous night’s dinner at breakfast, but for once I was delighted. Why? I’d been experimenting with vegan bacon, something I had given up on. The ready-made versions are usually so abysmal that they don’t even deserve to be called “facon”. But given that this one looks like bacon, smells like bacon and cooks like bacon, I had high hopes that it would taste like bacon, too. On a first nibble, it’s genuinely exciting: crispy and smoky. I can tell, I’m sorry to report, that it’s not bacon. But it’s a great copy.
I use it to build a BLT, sandwiching the faux meat between sliced bread with crispy lettuce and juicy tomatoes, as directed by the zero-waste and mostly plant-based chef Max La Manna in his new book, You Can Cook This! (Ebury Press, £22). He also gives recipes for maple miso mustard and a lemon-herb mayo to amp up the sandwich.
I invite my neighbour Alaina over to taste test the “BLT” and ask her to guess the mystery ingredient. “Could it be a green bean?” she asks. “I’m pretty sure it’s an actual vegetable.” She pronounces it delicious, saying the seasoning makes it convincing. “Texturally it doesn’t have the crisp of bacon, at least not US bacon. But for British bacon, it’s pretty reasonable.”
Let me enlighten you. The “B” in this vegan BLT is actually banana skin, marinated in soy sauce, brown sugar, smoked paprika, garlic powder and optional liquid smoke.
You leave the skins, each split into three strips, in the marinade for a minimum of 15 minutes, then fry in vegetable oil and bake until crispy. The genius of this is that banana skins are a waste ingredient found in nearly all homes. La Manna says that over a million are binned in the UK every single day.
As the number of people eating vegan and plant-based diets in the UK continues to rise, from a reported 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 in 2019, more products and cookbooks emerge to feed them. But many of those cutting out animal products don’t want to rely on processed bleeding burgers or bangers, known for being high in salt and unhealthy additives.
Step forward an inspiring generation of innovative vegan chefs, showing us how to cook up our favourite “fakeaways”, comfort foods and nostalgia dishes from scratch - savoury or sweet.
La Manna’s zeal to help us eat better and waste less is matched by Richard Makin, author of Anything You Can Cook, I Can Cook Vegan (Bloomsbury, £25). If you’re tired of vegan food that’s achingly worthy but unexciting, this is the book for you. Makin is pushing fleshfree fakeaways with just the right balance of fun and fastidiousness: fish and chips, Cajun fried shrimp, nachos, doners, burritos, tacos and even a beefless bourguignon.
“Unfortunately, being vegan often still means missing out,” he says. “This book is my attempt to imagine a parallel universe where vegans can eat whatever they want, wherever they want.”
As with La Manna’s book - even as a non-vegan - there’s little I don’t want to cook among Makin’s recipes. There are sushi and lobster rolls, but also the dishes of my childhood, such as Lancashire hotpot and Manchester tart.
“You probably weren’t expecting a section entitled ‘Meats’ in your vegan cookbook,” he writes. “But I believe there’s something intensely and irreversibly formative about all those early food memories, no matter how hazy (and meaty) they are. Refusing to cook these nostalgic, evocative dishes just because I no longer eat meat feels a lot like throwing the pasta out with the pasta water: what a waste!”
” After trying out his mushroom brisket sandwiches, I’m not sure I need any further sandwich recipes in my life. Like the banana peel bacon, the mushrooms” lavour and texture is right up there with their brisket namesake. They are chewy, fibrous and smoky, though obviously not brisket. But who cares when it’s so delicious?
It’s also really easy to make.
Oyster mushrooms are doused in paprika, cayenne pepper, garlic, onion and stock powders, sugar and salt, then fried. A large white bun, cabbage slaw and a generous smear of Makin’s gochujang (chili paste) barbecue sauce finish off the dish.
Makin also gives useful guidance on restocking your pantry - kombu (edible kelp), miso paste, vegan stock and nutritional yeast are your plant-powered friends - and there are recipes for cheeses including Parmesan, cheddar and ricotta.
Another dish that intrigues me is a play on a smoked salmon bagel. Though he now lives in the UK, La Manna is from New York - where lox and cream cheese bagels are as common as cheese and pickle here.
As it happens, all my plant-based testers are also from New York, so it’s a fair race. For this one (inset), La Manna uses carrot strips. “They soften in the marinade,” he explains, “becoming deliciously chewy, and it has the perfect balance of smoky spices, mimicking the texture and taste of smoked salmon.”
The marinade is olive oil, rice vinegar, smoked paprika, black pepper and liquid smoke. It’s a delicious, zingy, quick pickle.
But is it lox? Alaina is unlikely to serve it to her Jewish family any time soon. “This one I’m less convinced by,” she admits. “It’s delicious, but it’s not lox. It’s the texture. Lox is soft and this has some crunch. But it’s a good sandwich.” We have a fair result with the vegan cream cheese, though. It’s a newish product made of soy, called Julienne Bruno Crematta, which has just launched on Ocado for £3.50.
If hotpot or lox aren’t feelgood flavours for you, there will be something else out there. Denai Moore’s Plentiful (Hardie Grant, £24) another brilliant new publication, is full of veganised versions of the Jamaican recipes she grew up with, from cheesy “beef ” patties to spring veg rundown and brown stew tofu.
Even among a growing field of vegan cookbooks, these three feel like genuine game-changers. Although I’m not vegan and will eat animal products again, if I only cooked from these books, I’m not sure I’d miss anything. Even bacon.