Before all these impossibly uncanny meat approximations hit the market, mushrooms were the meatless workhorse of vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Though the new faux animal proteins have pushed veggie burgers beyond the ol’ portobello-between-two-buns, I urge you to not forget about mushrooms as a meat substitute, particularly if you’re looking for something to take the place of ground beef.
Out of all the things that grow in the dirt, mushrooms have the meatiest flavour, but — seeing as the competition is leaves and roots — that’s not really saying much. But the longer you cook them, the more flavourful they get, and if you finely mince them before cooking, the water evaporates away, and they transform into savoury, crispy little bits that take on the appearance of ground meat. (It’s almost creepy, actually.)
They do, however, still taste like mushrooms, which is obviously not a bad taste, but it doesn’t quite scratch that hearty, meaty itch. If you want to nudge your mushrooms (and other vegetables) closer to the uncanny valley, and increase the salty, savoury umami flavour we associate with meat and meaty things, get your paws on some Chinese olive vegetable.
This condiment is not new, but it might be new to you, especially if your experience with olives has been dictated by American and European cuisines. As the name would suggest, it has been used in Chinese cooking for quite some time, and it ups the umami factor like you would not believe, eliminating the need for other savoury ingredients. Theses olives aren’t pickled.
Instead, immature Chinese white olives are cooked with mustard greens for a long time, creating a paste with a strong, savoury, complex flavour. (If you don’t have a good Asian market near you, you can order it online. Some brands contain MSG, which I consider to be an added bonus.)
Unlike pure, crystalline MSG, which adds an isolated hit of umami, Chinese olive vegetable adds funky nuance that reads as “beefy.” When mixed with finely chopped, heavily sautéed mushrooms, you have a ground meat sub that’s perfect for tacos, ragu, or anything else you would add ground meat to. It’s easy to make, though slightly time-consuming, as it takes a while to drive off all the moisture from the mushrooms. I recommend making a whole bunch at a time and keeping it in the fridge to use as needed. To make this meatless wonder, you will need:
2 pounds of cremini or white mushrooms
6 tablespoons of butter or olive oil (You may not need all of it.)
2 teaspoons of fine sea salt, divided
2 tablespoons of Chinese olive vegetable
Wash the mushrooms, and tear each mushroom into three or four pieces with your hands. Working in batches, add the shrooms to the bowl of your food processor, and pulse into fine but still discernible bits.
Heat two tablespoons of butter or oil over medium-high heat in the largest stainless steel pan you have. Once the butter starts to foam (or your olive oil is nice and hot), add a single layer of the mushroom bits, give everything a stir, and let cook, stirring very occasionally, until the moisture has been driven off and the mushrooms are starting to brown. (This will take at least half an hour.)
Continue to cook, scraping any browned mushroom bits up off the pan with a wooden spatula. If things are getting too sticky, add some more butter or oil. Once the mushrooms are all browned, and have a deep, savoury flavour (take a taste!), transfer them from the pan to a bowl. Repeat as needed until you’ve worked your way through your pile of mushroom bits.
Once you’ve cooked all the shroom bits, add your Chinese olive vegetable, and stir to evenly distribute the condiment throughout the mushrooms. Use immediately or store in the fridge for up to five days. I really like this stuff in tacos, but it’s also divine when simmered in some simple tomato sauce for a complex, vegetarian ragu.