Meatless secret weapons: From smoked watermelon to Mac ‘n Yease

Chefs are getting creative with the bold, flavor-boosting qualities of plant-based ingredients



mid the growing national movement toward embracing more vegetable-minded eating, chefs are exploring the bolder, flavor-boosting qualities of plant-based ingredients via both new and centuries-old processes used to preserve and coax flavor from them. Think six-month-old chickpea miso, allium “ash” and kimchi “salsa.” Beyond flexing chefs’ creative muscles, plant-based flavor enhancers open more of the menu to the growing cohort of free-from diners among us.

Bill Kim, chef/owner of upmarket Asian barbecue spot BellyQ and sister noodle joint UrbanBelly in Chicago, first got into plant-based alternatives out of necessity — learning of a dairy allergy while working his way up through professional kitchens. For the Korean-American chef with a foundation in classic French (ahem, buttery) cooking, discovering humble tofu cream cheese was nothing short of a game changer.

“As you get older, your body tells you what you can and cannot have,” Kim says. “So to find out, ‘Wow, I can cook without butter and cream and still achieve that richness and luxurious texture,’ was such a breakthrough.”

It’s the secret ingredient enriching BellyQ’s BQ alfredo, a cleverly enlightened and gluten-free take on the hefty Italian-American pasta staple. Kim starts by sauteing garlic in olive oil and deglazing it with white wine before he adds coconut milk cut with coconut water, a blob of Tofutti vegan cream cheese and several grinds of black pepper.

He tosses in Chinese broccoli, mushrooms and an ample portion of toothsome Korean rice cakes (glutinous rice pounded then formed into various shapes), which soak in the creamy sauce. A zippy garnish of pickled red onions and lemon zest counters the dish’s mellow richness.

“I don’t think the people ordering it are wondering, is that vegan?” Kim says. “I think they’re probably like, I like alfredo, I’ll try this version. Sometimes they add shellfish, shrimp or a piece of salmon. I just want to open people’s minds to what vegetarian cuisine can be.”

When lemon juice won’t cut it

In a similar vein, Amanda Colello, chef of Fiore Steakhouse at Harrah’s Resort in Funner, California, loves to test the boundaries of expectation when it comes to the classic steakhouse menu. She dehydrates horseradish root into a chunky powder for her shrimp cocktail, which concentrates the heat and lends a popcorn-like flavor. She aerates her tomato bisque through an ISI whipper bottle to turn it into tomato bisque-flavored whipped cream and garnishes it with bloomed basil seeds that look and pop like caviar. And she remixes the classic wedge salad with poached pears, toasted hazelnuts, bacon and dark chocolate shavings.

“When I first took the job and pitched this idea of doing seasonal composed dishes in addition to the steaks, it freaked people out,” Colello says. “They were like, ‘What is this girl trying to prove? We want our creamed spinach!’ But I think now it’s acceptable to celebrate the harvest as much as the meat.”

Recently, she was looking for something other than lemon juice to cut through a rich piquillo pepper risotto with pan-seared sea bass and decided to switch gears and make chive ash. She dehydrates chives at degrees Fahrenheit for four hours to remove some moisture, then roasts them in a 350-degree oven until black. She blitzes them in an espresso grinder then presses the ash into one side of the cooked sea bass fillet, giving the playful appearance of skin.

“The tannins in the ash and that mild chive flavor play off the richness of the risotto without overwhelming it,” she says.

The many faces of preservation

For some time now chef Max Balliet, chef of Neapolitan pizza and pasta restaurant Pizza Lupo in Louisville, Kentucky, has been fascinated with preservation, as much for its potential for creating unique flavor as extending ingredients’ lifespans. He’s fanned said passion via everything from house-made preserved lemons to beer vinegar, harissa, fermented jalapeños and honey-fermented garlic.

“You start to learn the ways things react differently, depending on their sugar content,” he says. “Chile peppers create such a sweet, tangy ferment; whereas when we ferment something starchy like beans, it creates a completely different, funkier product.”

One of his proudest ferments to date is a six-month-old ceci miso. He started by combining pureed chickpeas with koji (rice inoculated with mold that’s oft-associated with sake and, yes, miso production), covering the mixture and leaving it to ferment in big kimchi tubs at room temperature. He checked it every day for the first month, washing it with salt-water brine as needed to prevent unwanted bacteria growth.



“After a month it was definitely funky, almost hinting at what it would ultimately become,” he says. “We’d check it every month from that point and it would get a little sweeter and richer with each taste. At six months, it had so much richness and this intense salty-funky flavor, plus tons of sweetness from that starch converting to sugar. It was too good to wait any longer to serve it.”

He’s since slathered the ceci miso on quail to tenderize it before roasting, and whisked it into a yogurt-based dressing for grilled vegetables. He also mounted the ceci miso with butter, creating an emulsified sauce he tossed with fermented jalapeño farfalle (made with semolina flour, egg and liquid from his fermented jalapenos), country ham and fresh corn.

“It’s so interesting—in thinking of all the different makeups of all the foods you ferment, you start to realize how limitless the flavor possibilities are,” he says. Up next in Balliet’s fermentation lab? Red and cannellini beans. “Bean ferments have an insane level of flavor,” he adds.

Then again, for BellyQ’s Kim, a lifetime of being told that oldest and funkiest is best when it comes to kimchi was enough to cause a little healthy rebellion in the form of the unfermented, vegan “kimchi salsa” he serves on UrbanBelly’s menu.



“When I was growing up, my mom always used to always give me first bite of ‘fresh’ kimchi when she would get together with her sister to make a huge batch,” Kim says. “I remember it like it was yesterday: crunchy, sweet and a little spicy. Not that lactic acid fizz everybody talks about. That kept on going throughout my career — that idea of wanting my kimchi fresh.”

It wasn’t until several customers requested vegan kimchi that he fully embraced a kimchi overhaul. He traded shrimp paste for the restaurant’s go-to, quick vegan marinade of gluten-free soy sauce, lemongrass, mirin and sesame oil, which he pours with fennel seeds over Napa cabbage and seasonal veggies. Almost immediately it’s ready to be dished out as a side or heaped alongside warm wheat berry bibimbap with marinated Chinese eggplant and tofu. (It keeps up to two weeks in the cooler.)

“I treat it like kimchi salsa,” Kim says. “People didn’t understand and gave me a lot of shit at the beginning about it not being fermented, but I simply said that wasn’t our intent. Now we go through a ton of it.”