We are having our first rainy day in. . . oh. . . ever so long, so it is a good time to catch up on my adventure in improvisational cooking.
Of the foods I miss most since adopting the vegetarian lifestyle — bacon, sausage, and really juicy, rare burger — pulled pork barbecue is right at the top of the heap. Actually, I started missing proper pulled pork pretty much as soon as I left North Georgia. True, pulled pork has become a foodie “thing” in recent years, but, to my mind, nothing matches the pulled pork I grew up on in Northeast Georgia. I learned to tolerate other regional versions, but none of them lived up to my tangy, vinegary memories.
Pulled pork reaches its Platonic Ideal at Zeb Dean Barbecue in Danielsville, Georgia. Before I was a vegetarian — and, OK, once or twice since, mea culpa — whenever I went home for a visit, a pilgrimage to Zeb’s was a must. I’ve written before about Zeb’s, in the context of Sweet Tea. In the context of pulled pork, Zeb’s is nirvana. The. Best. Pulled Pork. In. The. Universe.
The key to Zeb’s deliciousness is the sauce. As you can see in the photo above, Zeb’s sauce is fairly thin, with lots of vinegar, pepper, and paprika and little or no tomato. Now, for Southerners, barbecue is a very personal thing. If you travel around the Southern United States eating barbecue, you’ll realise that the preferred meat (pork, goat, beef, or chicken) and the sauce ingredients vary widely from one county to the next. In low country North Carolina, they like mustard-based sauce. In Kansas City, Missouri, where they also pride themselves on barbecue, the sauce is sweet-and-sour, brown sugar and tomato-based. I hear they make barbecue in Texas. Out of cow. I’d say I’m skeptical, but then, I am about to tell you how to make barbecue out of tofu. Glass houses, and all that.
At Red, Hot, and Blue — which was co-founded by Bush 41 hit man, Lee Atwater — the original Memphis sauce was heavy on Worcester Sauce and ketchup. Now they are a national franchise and they have wandered from their Memphis roots. RH&B now offers five different sauces, <gasp> Barbecue Brisket, and <double gasp> pulled chicken. The original, homey, hole-in-the-wall location in Arlington has, sadly, closed.
Fairlington United Methodist Church, in Arlington, Virginia, had a chicken barbecue every spring and served absolutely melt-in-your mouth half chickens, cooked over hardwood and mopped with a tangy, sweet-and-sour barbecue sauce. My mouth waters just thinking about it. I haven’t been for years. I hope they still do it.
The sauce I grew up with was a little bit greasy, a little bit hot, very vinery, and very black peppery (which is different from hot). My original exposure to this North Georgia sauce was at PTA fund-raising barbecue dinners that my elementary school had at the beginning of each school year. You’d get one of those plastic, divided plastic school lunch plates with pulled pork, stew (scraps and burnt end of pulled pork that were chopped and stewed with sweet corn, onion and other stuff), coleslaw, and a slice or two of squishy white bread. The sauce looked like a vinaigrette with lots of pepper and paprika.
Charlie Williams’ Pinecrest Lodge was most famous for its all-you-can-eat catfish fry — complete with deep fried dill pickle chips and fried okra — but their barbecue was great, too. Vinegary. Peppery. Smoky. Yumminess. Tragically, Charlie William’s is now gone, too. Sometimes progress sucks.
Pulled pork, barbecued chicken, and catfish fries are all in my past now. But was it possible that I could develop a formula for a barbecue sauce that might at least pay homage to those childhood memories? I’ve tried various versions over the years. But my Forty-Day Invention Test provided the motivation, finally, to knock the barbecue sauce challenge on the head.
There are some obvious challenges to creating a vegetarian version of something as decidedly carnivorous as pulled pork. If it strikes you as odd that a vegetarian food blogger spends so much time reminiscing about meat, just remember, I’m not doing this because I hate meat. I’m doing it because I love my husband, animals, and the planet, pretty much in that order.
For a sauce that will go on vegetables and/or tofu, the flavour needs to be a little subtler and a good bit more complex. There is also the problem of smoke. I smoked my tofu (I’ve been making smoked tofu “bacon” for several years), but because tofu is essentially fat-free, the smoke taste can be a bit harsh. You have to take care not to overdo it. Smoking the tofu also cooks it, which comes at some price concerning texture. I want to get my hands on a cold smoker, which would eliminate that problem and could enable me to smoke things like cheese. In the meantime, getting some smoke in the sauce gives you options. I added a bit of smokey flavour to the sauce by using smoked paprika instead of the regular paprika that you would typically find in a North Georgia sauce. Smoked paprika is sort of wood-neutral, that is, it isn’t obviously hickory, apple, or mesquite smoked. You could also use Liquid Smoke, which comes in hickory flavour. The only smoke essence I can get here is manuka smoke-flavored, which is lovely, but isn’t North Georgia. I wouldn’t use mesquite smoke, either, but you can do what you want. I’ll never know!
Mouth feel, at least in the tofu version, was a bigger challenge than flavour. Let’s be honest. The thing that makes pulled pork barbecue taste awesome is the fat. Perfectly slow-cooked pork is oleaginous, almost creamy, with crunchy bits of skin and burnt bits of meat. So, all the sauce needs to do is complement the flavour of the meat and balance out the fat. That’s what the vinegar does — it emulsifies with the fat to transform grease into deliciousness.
There is no grease in tofu, so my sauce was going to need more added fat than I might want to put in a sauce for meat. I used butter, but margarine would work just as well, here. Maybe even better.
In general, I disapprove of ketchup in barbecue sauce. In this case, though, it was necessary in order to hold the sauce together and make it, well, saucy. It gave the sauce the substance it needed to coat the tofu bits.
Another challenge for vegetarian barbecue is Worcester Sauce. The best-ever-and-really-only-acceptable Worcester Sauce, Lea and Perrins, contains anchovy and is not, hence, vegetarian. Some of us choose to look the other way, or pretend we didn’t read the ingredients. My ultra-principled partner will have none of that. Here, however, New Zealand came to the rescue with HP (Brown) Sauce, which is a bit like A1 Sauce, but, again, without the anchovy. It also adds a bit of saucy texture. If you can’t find HP Sauce, Pick-a-Peppa (my go-to vegetarian Worcester replacement) would work just as well, but I haven’t found Pick-a-Peppa here in New Zealand. I’ve tried a couple of vegetarian Worcester sauces, but they lack a certain zing.
Kechup is much sweeter here in New Zealand than I’m used to, so I didn’t add any sugar. You can add some, to taste, depending on the sweetness of your ketchup. You know what you like.
I’m pretty sure Zeb’s doesn’t put lemon juice in their sauce, but I like it here.
I’m happy with what I’ve come up with, even though Zeb wouldn’t recognise it. I hope you are, too!
Northeast Georgia Barbecue Sauce, Sort Of
1 cup (250ml) ketchup
1/2 cup (60ml) cider vinegar
1/2 cup water (60ml)
1/4 HP Sauce (60ml)
2 ounces (50g / 4TBS) unsalted butter or margarine
1 TBS smoked paprika
1 tsp garlic powder
Lots of finely ground black pepper (something between 1 tsp and 1 TBSP)
1 tsp Sriracha Sauce (or 1/4-1/2 tsp Tabasco)
1 bay leaf
juice of 1 lemon
Combine all the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
The sauce is best if you let it rest for a day or two so the flavours can marry-up.
There is a Chinese gentleman at the Riverbank Market who sells lovely, very compressed tofu. It is the consistency of cheddar cheese and doesn’t need draining. If you use the extra-firm, water-packed tofu commonly available in supermarkets, you’ll want to drain it very well.
1 lb (450g) extra firm tofu
1/2 recipe of Northeast Georgia Barbecue Sauce, Sort of — more to taste
Optional: your favourite spice rub.
Drain the tofu by putting on a plate and weighing it down with a couple of heavy cans or a bag of flour.
Next, you need to “cure” the tofu. Rub it well with kosher or sea salt, a 50/50 mix of salt and finely ground black pepper, or salt and your favourite spice rub. I used Penzy’s Ozark Blend, which is very black peppery. Think Col. Sanders secret herbs and spices. If you don’t live in the United States and can’t get Penzy’s excellent spice blends, use whatever spices you like. And next time you are in the US, find a Penzy’s store and stock up! You can mail order, too.
Wrap the tofu with its salt and spice coat in cling film and put it in the fridge overnight.
Next, you have two options.
Option 1: take the tofu out of the fridge wipe off the excess salt, and grate it on the coarse side of a box grater. This gives it that “pulled” look. Sauté it briefly in a neutral oil, like peanut or canola, then add the sauce and let it simmer for a few minutes so the sauce can soak into the tofu.
Option 2: smoke and chop the tofu: I smoked my tofu over hickory wood for about 20 minutes in my handy-dandy Cameron’s stove top smoker. My extra-firm tofu developed a bit of a crust in the smoker, so instead of grating it, I chopped it very fine. The smoker added a nice, smokey verisimilitude, but aesthetically, I would have liked to have had some grated tofu, too. Next time, I think I will go half and half.
Serve the pulled tofu on a toasted bun topped with cole slaw. I used my favourite North Carolina Pickle Slaw, recipe below.
North Carolina Pickle Slaw
I don’t know what makes this North Carolina, except I based it on a recipe from Nava Atlas’ American Harvest: Regional Recipes for the Vegetarian Kitchen (Ballentine, 1987) that she called North Carolina Slaw. Sadly, American Harvest is out of print. I think of this as my one-third slaw, since all the dressing ingredients are 1/3 cup. I guess the metric version would be 75ml Slaw.
I don’t think the celery seed is authentic. But I like celery seed in my slaw. Potato salad, too.
For the Dressing:
1/3 cup (75ml) mayonnaise
1/3 cup (75ml) American-style yellow mustard (don’t use your fancy Dijon for this)
1/3 cup (75ml) vinegar, I used malt, but cider would be more authentic
1/3 cup (66g) sugar
1 tsp celery seed
Whisk all this stuff together to form a smooth dressing
For the Slaw:
1/2 small green cabbage (about 1 lb / 450g), shredded
1/2 small red cabbage, shredded
3 or 4 scallions, chopped fine
1/4 c / 60ml chopped pickles or cornichon
1 large or 2 smallish carrots, grated
a handful of parsley, finely chopped
First, sprinkle the shredded cabbage with a bit of salt and let it drain in a colander for about an hour. Unless you’ve gone overboard with the salt, no need to rinse it. (That’s why I don’t add salt to the dressing)
Second, run the cabbage through a salad spinner to drain out as much water as possible. If you don’t have a salad spinner, wrap the cabbage in a kitchen towel as squeeze it as dry as you can. (These steps ensure that your cabbage will not weep and make the dressing all watery. Don’t worry, the cabbage will stay nice and crisp.)
Third, combine the dressing and the slaw ingredients in a big bowl and mix it well. Let it stand for at least an hour before eating.
Your delicious pulled tofu sandwiches will look something like this. Although, with luck, you won’t burn your sandwich buns!