Meatless magic: Making vegan barbecue that will even satisfy carnivores

Is the very notion of "vegan barbecue" an oxymoron? Or can there be a marriage of smoke, heat, and meat substi

Barbecue. The very name of this food channels ferocity, savagery, even—say it with me—barbarism. Barbecue, after all, is what happens when you combine smoke, heat, and meat. Fattier the better, spicy red pepper-infused sauce licked lusciously from the fingers and bringing a flush to the face, all glistening with gratifying juices. An ur-eating experience, good 'cue heartily satisfies our most primal appetites.

So where in this caveman culinary experience is there room for higher-up-the-brainstem (and food chain) eating? Chewing animals vs. eschewing chewing animals—can there be an equally heavenly marriage of smoke, heat, and meat substitute? Or is the very notion of "vegan barbecue" an oxymoron?

Me, I'm no vegan. Much more a "hunt, kill, and butcher it myself" kinda girl. But once upon a time I did indeed embrace the vegan lifestyle, and in recent days, when feeding my 15-year-old stepdaughter, I've been channeling those no-animals-harmed-in-the-making-of-this-meal recipes. Emma has been a no-meat-for-me girl ever since I first met her, back when she was 10. She's very close to completely vegan now—once she breaks that stubborn cheese addiction, anyway—and I enjoy playing around with some of our family's favorite foods to create vegan versions. These meals must also pass muster, however, with my youngest son. Cole, 8, once made himself an "I Heart Meat" sign and taped it to his chest to protest my attempt to instill Meatless Mondays. My own health issues mean our meals must also be gluten and casein free. It's a tough crowd to cook for, yes.

But vegan barbecue: That could be the secret weapon, I mused. The magic one-pot meal that satisfies all and offends none. And I had a secret weapon in the fridge: a hefty, meaty (yet meatless) laetiporus sulphureus mushroom that my other son, Jack, found while we were camping. Also known as "chicken of the woods," the sulphur shelf mushroom—despite its name—tastes nothing like chicken. It does, however, have a remarkably meatlike texture. Far better in fact than any of the manufactured tofurkey and fakin' bacon faux-flesh products out there.

My first attempt involved pulling the nearly two-pound mushroom to shreds with my fingers, and then slowly sauteing those in a cast-iron skillet just barely limned with sunflower oil. I wanted to get a bit of char on the shreds while keeping them relatively moist and chewy. The mushroom pieces cooked up nicely, and I bathed them in my go-to barbecue sauce: a simple concoction of brown sugar, vinegar, and ketchup, with a dash each of Sriracha and bourbon. The result was . . . well, inoffensive might be the best word. It tasted OK; everyone tried it, nobody hated it, but nobody asked for seconds, either. The beta version chicken-of-the-woods 'cue was impressively meaty in texture, but simply lacked soul.

There were two problems. Lack of fat: There is no concoction more gloriously unctuous than pulled-pork barbecue, the food I was riffing on, and this entire batch of mushroom faux-becue held maybe two tablespoons of oil. And lack of character: With little flavor of its own to lend, the chicken of the woods needed some help in the smoky bass-note department.

I solved both issues at once, clever me, by grilling large chunks of mushroom over a bed of glowing wood—not briquette—coals, slathering them in scandalous amounts of oil, which would drip onto the coals and cause brief but fierce flame-ups—all the better to impart that smoky flavor. Once the mushroom chunks had cooled just enough to handle, I finger-shredded the shrooms into warm barbecue sauce I'd amped up with molasses (in place of the brown sugar) and some chipotle chile powder. Much, much better—the masses happily wolfed it down, asked for seconds, then thirds, and even wiped clean the serving dish with hunks of vegan cornbread. And asked to have it for dinner again soon. Very soon.

Great! Now my only problem would be locating chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms on a regular basis. Not something you come across in the supermarket produce section, unfortunately, or even the farmers market. But I recalled how a friend had raved to me about vegan "pulled pork" barbecue made with jackfruit. I had seen these giant, spiny alien-looking green orbs before, in Asian markets, but had never before heard of jackfruit's value as a convincing stand-in for meat.

I polled my vegan foodie friends and heard enough happy jackfruit talk to go ahead and experiment. Because I live in northern Baltimore County, however, acquiring raw jackfruit requires a serious drive to H Mart. Canned jackfruit is easier to come by—any supermarket with a decent Asian or Caribbean section will have it. I generally avoid canned goods but, happily, this is apparently one of the few foods in the world that actually benefits from industrial processing: Raw jackfruit requires serious pressure cooking to achieve the proper texture. The side benefit is convenience in the form of ready-to-eat faux-meat that makes a super fast killer 'cue. (Pro tip: Be sure to buy the jackfruit packed in water, not syrup or brine. Sliced vs. whole really is up to you, though.)

Even knowing all this going in, the first sight of jackfruit from a can does not inspire confidence. The chunks of fleshy fruit, which reminded me a bit of hearts of palm, were pallid and a bit slimy. I rinsed and drained the chunks and patted everything dry with paper towels. There was no possible way to grill these floppy objects, so where would the smoke essence enter this picture? I settled on tossing the pieces in a barbecue rub spice mix that was heavy on chipotle chile and smoked paprika, hoping that would impart the necessary smoky complexity. After letting them sit a while to soak in the flavor, I sauteed the jackfruit chunks in a generous amount of oil (more fat = more better 'cue)—but just long enough to impart a bit of sear and color since the jackfruit was, technically, pre-cooked, and I feared rendering into mush. I then stirred in some barbecue sauce, turned down the heat to low, and let the whole thing simmer slowly for half an hour. Every now and then I'd give things a stir with not one but two forks, slowly shredding the chunks down into a more porklike consistency.

The results were outstanding. I love real-deal, slow-smoked pork barbecue—I've got Andy Nelson's on speed dial—and had doubted that I'd ever recreate anything even tangentially worth eating from non-animal ingredients. This meatless wonder was worthy. It even looked like real-deal pulled pork.

Even the kid in the "I Heart Meat" shirt agrees.

Vegan "Pulled Pork" Barbecue

Ingredients

2 large (20 ounce) cans young jackfruit packed in water

4-5 tablespoons barbecue spice rub (I like a mix of dark brown or maple sugar, chipotle or other smoked chile powder, garlic salt, smoked paprika, and pepper)

1 cup (8 ounces) of your favorite barbecue sauce

Oil for cooking

Directions

Drain jackfruit, rinse, and pat dry. Cut out the cores and roughly chop the pieces. Toss with spice rub mix.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and add 2 tablespoons olive, sunflower, or other light oil. When sizzling, toss in the jackfruit pieces. Stir and fry until they show some color and sear, about 3-4 minutes.

Pour in barbecue sauce, mix together, and reduce heat to low. Cook for 30-45 minutes (trust me—longer is not better here), stirring and shredding the jackfruit with two forks every 10 minutes.

Serve on rolls or with cornbread, topped with your favorite vegan cole slaw.

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