Let’s say you’re making a movie and need to film a fight scene. How do you make it believable without actually having the actors beat each other to a pulp? Without CGI, your only choice is subtle trickery—choosing camera angles that obscure the action, moving and shaking the camera to confuse the eye, and adding eardrum-pounding sound effects to make an air-punch seem like a sledgehammer blow. This kind of fake-out is essentially what we have to do when making vegan versions of meat and dairy dishes at home—we need to employ flavor and texture smokescreens that confuse, distract, and trick the palate into experiencing something that it’s not.
I introduced this idea of smokescreens in my piece on making a vegan version of a classic Italian lasagna alla bolognese, which traditionally features thin sheets of pasta layered with a beefy ragù and creamy béchamel sauce. Today, I’ll use the concept again to explain my approach to making a vegan version of an Italian-American–style lasagna; you know, the kind layered with ricotta, mozzarella cheese, and either tomato sauce or yet more meaty ragù.
For this lasagna, the big challenges are the ricotta and mozzarella. The pasta is easy—just avoid an egg-based product and use one made with wheat and water alone. And the sauce is easy, too; you can either go for an inherently vegan tomato sauce* or you can use my vegan ragù bolognese recipe if you want something that with a meatier texture and flavor. In the photos here, I’m using tomato sauce.
* Note, this links to all the tomato sauce recipes on Serious Eats, most of which are vegan but not necessarily all.
By far the most difficult substitution is the mozzarella, which has a clean and fresh milky flavor and stretchy melted texture that is near impossible to fake in vegan form. I tested every brand of vegan “mozzarella” (and also “provolone”) that I could find, and while I was somewhat impressed with one or two of those cheeses in their unmelted states, they completely failed to deliver once heated.
That left me with a decision. I could call for the vegan cheese substitutes anyway, but I decided to see if I could come up with an alternative that works better. In place of the cheese, I’m taking a cue from classic lasagna alla bolognese by using béchamel; and for the béchamel, I’m using the same vegan version I created for my vegan bolognese lasagna recipe.
In short, I use the same basic technique for a classic béchamel, but instead of cooking the flour in butter, I cook it in refined (i.e., free-of-coconut-flavor) coconut oil, then whisk in almond milk to make a creamy sauce. Because almond milk and coconut oil do not make a particularly delicious béchamel, I infuse the milk first with aromatics like bay leaf, fresh thyme, garlic, and black peppercorns, and then strain them all out before making the sauce. Those aromatics are the kinds of smokescreens I’m talking about—they layer on flavors that cover up what’s inherently lacking in the vegan substitute.
The vegan béchamel creates a silky and creamy sauce that stands in for the mozzarella far better than the faux cheeses do; the one thing missing is the mozzarella’s stretchiness, but as I mentioned above, that’s something the vegan cheeses fail to deliver as well.
The ricotta, meanwhile, is a slightly easier nut to crack. What we’re going for here is something mild and creamy, but with a slight graininess that emulates the texture of ricotta. I know from past recipes (both mine and Kenji’s) that cauliflower can be turned into a pretty extraordinary purée, but it’s too silky-smooth to be a convincing stand-in for ricotta. My trick is to employ a textural smokescreen by blending firm tofu into a base of cauliflower that I’ve cooked until tender with some almond milk. The tofu breaks up into tiny little bits; blended together with that silky cauliflower purée, it winds up with a much more ricotta-like texture.
For one final textural touch, I also mix in a small amount of refined coconut oil (again, this is the flavorless kind…you don’t want a taste of the tropics sneaking its way in here). True ricotta is made from the whey that’s leftover after cheesemaking, and, since most of the milk’s fat has already been removed with the cheese, the ricotta itself is a relatively lean dairy product. Still, it does have some fat in it, and the coconut oil adds just a hint of that richness to our otherwise lean faux version.
We still need flavor smokescreens, though, because a cauliflower-and-tofu purée, while mild, does not taste quite right. To address that, I blend in a generous amount of the ingredients that often season the ricotta component of a lasagna: fresh basil, dried oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper.
To finish the dish, you simply have to layer it all together in a baking dish and bake it until bubbling and browned on top. The result is a one-two punch of vegan lasagna flavor. If you pay attention, you’ll see the choreography behind the illusion, but if you so much as blink you’ll miss it.
Editor’s Note: Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we’ll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!
Adam Kuban should need no introduction for longtime Serious Eats readers. He founded both the pizza-focused blog Slice and its sister, A Hamburger Today, both of which Ed Levine bought and incorporated into Serious Eats in 2006. He then served as the managing editor of the entire site until 2010, during which time he contributed immeasurably to its development and success.
But we didn’t decide to interview Kuban for Obsessed because of his association with Serious Eats; we did it because he’s a nut for pizza. And I suppose I didn’t really understand how deep his obsession ran until I tried some of the pies he’s putting out at Margot’s, the pop-up pizza shop he sets up in the Emily space in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. And that understanding came in the form of a small pizza epiphany.
As I was finishing off my fifth slice of Kuban’s Collaboroni pie (pepperoni, jalapeño, honey), it dawned upon me that eating a slice of pizza is a dynamic experience, and that every bite should be a little different. Pizza geeks will probably find the observation remedial, but it nevertheless struck me with the force of revelation. The kaleidoscope of my memories of all the cheesy, tomatoey near-triangles of bread I’ve consumed over the course of my life suddenly took on a sense of order, as each was measured against an image of the Good Slice as a Platonic thing, and that image looked surprisingly like the slice of pie in front of me.
The Collaboroni doesn’t seem remarkable on paper. Salty, spicy, a little sweet, but otherwise, a pizza—it’s got sauce; it’s got cheese; it is, fundamentally, a bread. But the toppings were dispersed in a way that made every bite interesting. A bite dominated by pepperoni gave way to another where the blend of mozzarella and other cheeses and the oregano-tinged sauce rose to the fore. The next after that had a little of everything, until a clear, green jalapeño taste gradually rang out above all the others, like a drunk’s shout at a bar. And, while I was trying to intervene in the knock-down drag-out fight between my mouth, which wanted another slice immediately, and my mind, which was making a weak case to wait just a goddamn minute, it occurred to me that the bodily need to eat another was engineered: The first bite of each slice is slightly sweeter than any other, as the honey and pepperoni grease pool together and run onto your tongue, and the final two bites of the slice are saltier than the rest because of the crisped-up ring of Pecorino Romano that skirts the outer edge, where a normal pie would have a crust. The intensely salty final bite makes you yearn for the sweetness of the first bite of another slice, and the process could go on and on forever, until you either run out of pie or, well, die. So, the original epiphany had an addendum: Every slice should make you want to eat another, ad infinitum. The image of the Good Slice in my mind altered slightly, gaining a twin, since every Good Slice should point to another waiting in the wings.
I talked to Kuban about starting Slice, managing Serious Eats, and a lifetime of making pizza, as well as Margot’s and his plans to open up a permanent location to give his pies the audience they deserve.
Name: Adam Kuban
Day job: Social media manager at NYCgo.com
So first off, I want to nail down the timeline of your lifelong love affair with pizza. In that vein, what’s your first pizza-related memory?
Adam Kuban: I have a photo of me and some friends making pizza at what is either my seventh or eighth birthday party, when we lived in North Andover, Massachusetts. I don’t remember the actual party itself. I vaguely recall my dad loading unglazed quarry tiles into the oven around that time while he futzed with trying to re-create Midwestern thin-crust pizza at home.
Was your family into pizza in a way that was out of the ordinary?
AK: Considering that my dad eventually opened a pizzeria, I’d say yes, we were more interested in pizza than most families. The older I get, though, the less I recall specifics. My dad was into this place in Milwaukee, a fantastic place—in the literal sense of that word—that’s still there: Maria’s Pizza. And what he was trying to mimic was that style. Maria’s makes glorious, oblong, flaky-crisp thin-crust pies that overhang the cafeteria-style trays they’re served on; they’re loaded with cheese and have a generous amount of toppings. I always call it “Midwestern thin-crust” pizza; in truth, it’s probably the same thing as Chicago thin-crust. My Milwaukee roots, though, don’t allow me to slap the Chicago designator on it.
Do you think your father’s attempts to re-create Maria’s pizza at home played a pivotal role in your interest in pizza? How frequently was your dad making pizza from scratch?
AK: I grew up eating Maria’s maybe only once a year, when we’d go visit relatives in Milwaukee. It definitely affected my relationship with pizza, in that pizza became a special-occasion food. I mean, we ate it other times of the year back home, but the reverence my dad showed toward Maria’s…. We always drove to Milwaukee from Kansas City. That’s a nine-hour trip. Instead of driving straight to my grandparents’ house, where we usually stayed, he’d detour to pick up a couple large pies. These days, I see that it probably had as much to do with arriving with an edible gift for our hosts as it did with a love of this one particular pizzeria, but what imprinted on me was that this pizza is stop number one.
I don’t recall how often my dad made pizza from scratch. There were two periods, in my recollection: the pre–Mamma Mia’s period, and post–.
Mamma Mia’s was the pizzeria my dad opened in Olathe, Kansas, in, like, ’83. We’d moved to Olathe in, I don’t know, 1982, and the pizza there was garbage, so he thought he’d open a place that served the Maria’s-style stuff he missed. I vaguely recall the quarry tiles coming out during that period, and pizzas baked directly on them. But I never really helped make them.
Then there’s the post–Mamma Mia’s period. The pizzeria lasted about a year. It must have been 1983, because I can’t hear Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” without thinking of the kitchen there. It seemed to do okay, but when a Pizza Hut opened across the street, Mamma Mia’s days were numbered. After that, I feel like the experimentation period for my dad was over, and we started doing Friday pizza nights with Chef Boyardee boxed pizza kits. Was it easier than making pizza from scratch? Maybe marginally. I don’t know. But I loved the boxed kit, too, and my dad used a heavy hand with the Kraft “Parmesan” cheese it came with, which I mimic to this day.
Was there ever a moment where you understood that pizza was a vast subject worthy of exploration, or did your interest just gradually build over time?
AK: I flirted with the idea of creating a photocopied zine about pizza in the late ’90s while living in Portland, Oregon. I never got beyond doing a square-format mock-up and slapping the name “Slice” on it. It wasn’t until blogs really blew up, in the early 2000s, that I realized I might be able to devote a website to pizza. Even then, I didn’t realize the scope of the subject—there are so many angles.
Slice was, at first, just journal-entry “reviews” of pizza, and me regurgitating little bits of pizza news from various local and national news outlets. The links I shared back then, in the pre–social media era, were things that we now all share on Facebook and Twitter with a little line of insight or snark. It’s amazing to think that whole blogs were built around dumb links that, today, you might read only the headline of them and give no more than a “like.”
My imagined audience was my mom, basically. I wanted to write for someone without a ton of technical knowledge of pizza (lord knows I didn’t have it at the time anyway) and in a voice that was welcoming and accessible. Over time, as more and more pizza nerds were drawn to the site, I started writing more in anticipation of their questions—”What kind of mixer do they use?” “What hydration is the dough?” “Are they using bromated flour?” Toward the end of my run at Slice, that got to be a real drag. I mean, it’s great info to have and to know, but trying to satisfy both a general audience and pizza nerds was taxing, and reviews often ran in the 1,200-word range.
When did you decide to start writing about pizza? What made you want to start Slice? Did you have another job at the time?
AK: Since I’d already thought about starting Slice as a zine in the late ’90s, I already had a name for the site. And once I’d moved to New York, in 2000, I started clipping out—yes, physically clipping—stories about pizza in the local papers and magazines. A couple memorable clips I saved were Ed Levine’s “State of the Slice 2002” in the New York Times and a printout of the late Steven Shaw’s “Fat Guy Guide to Pizza.” (Shaw was one of the founders of eGullet, an early forum about restaurants and cooking.) I used all these different articles as guides for exploring New York’s pizza scene.
In 2003, blogs hit the mainstream. I got hooked on Gawker and Gothamist, jumping between tabs all day, hitting refresh. I was addicted to the constant updates on cool stuff around NYC and wanted a blog of my own. After a brief attempt at a more personal blog—which was just stupid, because who wanted to read what I had to say about anything?—I hit upon sharing with the world my search for great NYC pizza. I figured it was a way to share all my first-person pizza travelogues and the trove of third-party intel I’d gathered.
I was working at the time at Martha Stewart Living magazine as a copy editor. It was a weird time—it was just before all the legacy media companies (like Martha Stewart) jumped online in a real way. Back then, working editorial on a monthly magazine often meant two weeks of intense work and late nights, when all the copy came in for the month and you had to scramble to edit it and place it in the layout. And then you’d have another two weeks where you basically just waited for the writers to file their stories. It was during those lulls that I figured out how to configure blogging software and customize its templates to create Slice’s look and feel. And that lull also gave me plenty of time to read about pizza online and plan my next adventures.
When did making your own pizza become something more than just a thing you did for dinner? Was it before or after the creation of Slice?
AK: I started dabbling in making pizza in college, if by “making pizza” you mean following a recipe without really knowing the fundamentals behind it. Heck, I was pretty ignorant about pizza science throughout most of my Slice days, too. It wasn’t until the end of my run at Slice that I started to understand the benefits of long fermentations, how gluten worked and what factors affected it, and, thanks to a lot of Kenji’s work, the way toppings work. (His pepperoni explainer remains one of my favorite pieces on Slice/SE.)
But there are two distinct moments I can point to when the whole Slice/pizza-journey thing became about more than eating pizza out, making it at home, and writing it all up.
The “opening a pizzeria of my own” seed was planted the night I first visited Gruppo Thin Crust’s original Avenue B location. It was super cozy, warm, and inviting. As I sat in a booth there with friends and noted the classic black-and-white tile floor, the beer available in pitchers like at a proper pizzeria, I remember thinking, “Self: File this place in your mind as an inspiration for a pizzeria you might open someday.”
From that moment on, I began noting what made memorable pizzerias and restaurants memorable—the way Paulie Gee visits your table when he’s there, the medicine cabinet in Joseph Leonard’s bathroom, any place whose bar has hooks beneath it for hanging jackets and bags; all of that got sorted into the “things my pizzeria would do” file in a dusty corner of my brain.
But, you know, you can plant a seed, and it may not germinate for years. So opening a place was something I’d think of when I’d see something so right—or so wrong. But it was never anything more than “Yeah, if I won the lottery…”
Which brings me to the second moment—and the first time the concept of opening my own pizzeria became something tangible. That was the day I stepped into Paulie Gee’s kitchen to work my first prep shift.
On some post on Slice, I mentioned in the comments that my ideal life would be spent running a pizzeria in Portland. Paulie responded, “Slicemeister, talk to me.”
He’d just announced that he was expanding to Baltimore through a partnership with a pizza enthusiast there who went by the name of Pizzablogger. (Longtime readers of Slice will remember Kelly from the comments and from his own pizza blog.) If I was interested, Paulie said, I could do a Portland location. The first step, though, would be working a couple shifts a week to see if I’d even enjoy it.
This dovetailed with something my wife had said just a couple weeks earlier: “Why don’t you go moonlight at a pizzeria and see if you even like the work? If you do, explore the next step. If not, it’s time to get a new dream.” (I think she was just tired of hearing me talk about cloud castles every time we passed a vacant storefront in our neighborhood.)
Anyway, I started working prep on Sundays at Paulie’s, and then a pizza-making shift at night on Wednesdays. I LOVED IT. I remember, after the first pizza-making shift, being tired as hell and my feet hurting, but it was the good kind of exhausted—and, most important, I knew I’d been a small part of making a bunch of people happy through pizza.
Circling back to Slice: Can you give a brief timeline of Slice, from conception to birth to when Ed Levine decided he’d had enough of someone horning in on his beat and he bought it out?
AK: I kind of already covered a lot of it, but…
Late ’90s: I mock up a pizza zine, to be called Slice. It’s a square format (to recall pizza boxes) and would feature first-person essays, reviews of pizzerias in Portland (where I lived at the time), and musing about pizza ephemera.
2000: I move to NYC, begin amassing pizza intel in the form of firsthand eating experience, web links, and actual clippings from local newspapers and magazines.
2003: I get hooked on blogs and want to create one of my own. I hit upon turning that stillborn zine into a blog called Slice. We launch on 10/13/2003, with me and a couple other contributors doing gonzo pizza reviews and aggregation blogging of local and national pizza news and reviews.
April 2004: I meet Ed by chance at Totonno’s while I’m leading a “Slice Pizza Club” meetup. I’m starstruck and in no way want to approach him. Someone at my table makes a bathroom trip and, on the way back, unbeknownst to me, tells Ed about the meetup. Ed comes over to get the lowdown.
May 2005: I launch A Hamburger Today (I still LOVE that name) with some burger-heads, as a sister site to Slice. Basically the same format, but burgers—and bicoastal, since one of our founding correspondents, Hadley Tomicki, who was known as “Hamburger Hadley,” moved to LA the month before we launched.
November 2005: Ed approaches me about coming on board as the founding editor of Serious Eats. He liked the voice of Slice and AHT—passionate, authoritative, and discerning but still welcoming—and wanted me to help him establish that tone for a larger site about food.
Late 2006: Serious Eats buys Slice and AHT from me and brings me on board full time to help launch the site.
2006 to 2010: I’m editing and/or writing for SE, Slice, and AHT, while serving as SE community manager and, when Twitter launches and Facebook expands beyond universities, building and managing the sites’ social channels.
2010: I start to burn out. Dealing with community squabbles, trolls, pizza purists and nitpickers, and the long hours of start-up life take their toll. Ed assigns Maggie Hoffman to edit Slice, and I sort of mark October 2010 as the end of the Kuban era at Slice. I continued to contribute posts, reviews, and knowledge through mid-2012 or so.
Early 2011: I go to part time at SE, running social media, managing community, and doing posts here and there on Slice and SE. Shortly thereafter I pick up some part-time work at NYCgo, the website of NYC’s visitors bureau. In 2012 I transition to full time at NYCgo and contributing reviewer/columnist at Slice.
2012: My wife and I have a kid—Margot. I pretty much hang up my pizza hat. Between the baby and another full-time job, I’ve got no time now to visit and review pizzerias the way I once did.
2014: Slice, AHT, and all existing Serious Eats subsites are folded back into SE as mere categories. The archives exist, more or less, but it’s hard to piece together Slice or any of the subsites as coherent blogs in the new SE format. Which in some respects is good, because it’s hard to find my early ignorance on the site, but it’s also kind of a shame.
What were you trying to do with Slice? Was it purely a hobby, or did you have some defined goal you wanted to accomplish?
AK: It was totally a hobby! I was insecure, bored, lonely, and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I started Slice primarily as a way to connect with people.
I’ve noted above that my original goal was merely to start a blog, any blog. But I had also been to journalism school and worked at a newspaper and magazines, so I knew you also had to have a good story to tell and to entertain people. I didn’t have a good enough personal story or lifestyle to make for any type of compelling blog, so I turned to the things I loved doing more than anything at the time—eating pizza and exploring New York. Early Slice was a travelogue of NYC that always ended with a pizza review.
Eventually we (it was me, Marc Bailes, and Ian Ritter in those days) got noticed by Gothamist and Gawker, got mentions there, and the site gained a small and steadily growing readership.
I made enough revenue from advertising that I could pay for hosting fees and mostly cover the cost of pizza and burgers. But it seemed a stretch that I’d ever be able to do it full time, so when Ed came knocking, I was happy to sell them. It didn’t make me rich, but it paid off my credit cards, and I made sure my early contributors got a fair figure for the posts they had made. A lot of people still mourn the loss of Slice. I do, too, at times, but I guess the salve I have that they don’t is that it got me out of debt when I desperately needed it to, and it absolutely changed my life. I have so many new friends now thanks to blogging, and wherever this whole Margot’s pop-up may lead (hopefully to a brick-and-mortar), I certainly wouldn’t be doing it were it not for Slice. It got me out of my funk and, weirdly enough, gave me the confidence I sorely lacked as a 20-something newly arrived in New York.
How did running Slice (and, later, Serious Eats) change the way you viewed pizza? How did it change how you made pizza? You’ve written that you used to be a purist, and attributed it to being a New York transplant. What’s changed?
AK: When I first started Slice, I felt like I had to be more-New-York-than-thou about pizza. In part because I knew no New Yorker would take me seriously, as a transplant open to the idea of deep-dish. The early tagline was something like “Slice: It ain’t about deep-dish, Domino’s, or any other dreck,” which is a TERRIBLE tagline for a variety of reasons. There’s no one more zealous than the newly converted, right?
After a while I mellowed and became more big-tent about pizza. If I were to be true to myself, I’d have to admit that my favorite pizza is the Maria’s thin-crust style. And I would take it every single time as a last slice on earth, against even the best NYC pizza. So how do you remain honest with yourself or your readers, knowing that?
Also, a lot of New York’s slice pizza could be much better. So after a couple years of eating mediocre plain or even minimally topped slices, I got extremely bored.
When Slice was young, the thinking was you needed to eat plain slices or pies (or, with Neapolitan, a margherita) to establish a baseline. But over the years, at least a few pizza nerds I know evolved away from that, saying that you can sort of reverse-engineer in your head what a plain slice would be like, just in tasting the crust itself or a bit of the slice without toppings. I don’t know if I necessarily agree 100% with that, but I think it’s true enough that it has liberated me from the tyranny of ordering plain pizza all the damn time. And heck, these days I’ll just order a plain and something else more interesting. I’m back to exploring my roots, seeking out various regional American pizza styles. I’m all about bar-style pies these days, and various squares—Sicilian, grandma, and Detroit-style, specifically.
Are there any Slice posts that you’re particularly fond of? Any that should be preserved for posterity? Any that come to mind that seem to be totally absurd now? (Ditto for anything SE published when you were running the place.)
AK: Oh, boy. I think ALL of it should be preserved. (What do you know about purging the site that I don’t?)
Over the years people have suggested I write a book. I always say Slice was my book. And that when all was said and done, it would serve as a snapshot of pizza culture in the early 21st century.
The most interesting posts to this day are those I had little to do with beyond hiring and editing talented writers. Kenji’s “Why Does Pepperoni Curl?” post remains a favorite, as does Scott Wiener’s series where he worked at different pizzerias and showed that side of things.
I wish I’d learned more about the business angle of the industry while I was editing the site. Working at Paulie Gee’s and talking to various pizzeria and restaurant operators while writing my own business plan gave me an invaluable insight that Slice could have used.
I had no idea, all those years I was writing, what a process it is to make pizza on a commercial scale. I knew at home what the process was like. I knew you had to make a dough, you had to prep the ingredients—which is fine, you expect a restaurant or pizzeria to have all that work. I guess, more so, I didn’t know how all those parts went together, and how…. Paulie calls it “pizza theater,” which is a great term; it is like prepping some kind of drama or Broadway production. You’ve got all this stuff going on in the background, long before anyone shows up in those seats.
In retrospect, it’s not a huge revelation; if you just stop to think about it, it’s pretty obvious that that’s going on. But it just laid bare the sheer amount of work that goes into the pizza, into what goes on the table. I think I did not appreciate what [pizzerias] were doing, or the limitations they might have had. It’s one of the biggest regrets I have when I look back at Slice. If I could go back and do it again, even if I wasn’t thinking about opening a pizza place, I think it would have behooved me to have worked at a pizzeria for about a year or so, because it answers a ton of questions, like “Why don’t they ferment the dough for three days?” All the stuff you can do at home to make really delicious pizza—not that you’re going to necessarily get commercial results at home—all these things you can afford to spend time on at home, you just can’t do in a commercial setting. For some of these places that do multiple-day ferments on their dough, they have dough sitting around for three days somewhere, so that’s taking up space; that space costs them money, so they have to have a larger walk-in for that dough. So that’s all got to factor in.
Some of my harshest critics sometimes accused me of not knowing shit. And, looking back, I have to say they weren’t necessarily wrong.
Do you remember your first solo forays into making pizza at home?
AK: I didn’t know diddly about making pizza when I started making it in college. I don’t even know where I got the recipe I used. This was at the dawn of the web, and there were no great resources online, like PizzaMaking.com. It always amazes me and makes me a little jealous that people starting out today can avail themselves of this knowledge and be making fantastic-looking pizzas in a matter of weeks.
The biggest challenge I had was that I didn’t realize there was a challenge, if that makes sense. I didn’t know what I didn’t know—or that I didn’t know it. So I never questioned too much why my pizzas weren’t so great. I just assumed pizzerias had super-special pizza secrets and that I’d never learn them, so, shrug.
What was it about making pizza for yourself that you found so compelling as a subject for experimentation? Was there a single style you wanted to perfect, or did you want to try to make any style?
AK: What really made me level up was pursuing a bar-style pizza recipe for my pop-up. For the first time, I established goals for the texture and flavors I wanted, and I delved deep into baking books, baking websites, and PizzaMaking.com to find answers. I got serious about keeping a baking journal and about methodically testing components of the recipe, adjusting a single variable at a time, until I finally dialed in a crust I was happy with.
What was the hardest part about making pizza at home when you first started: a lack of equipment or a lack of knowledge?
AK: Lack of knowledge. And laziness. I’m fortunate enough that I can afford most of the equipment I want. For many years I was just too lazy to really dig deep and figure out what made for good pizza at home. It was too easy to get good stuff around NYC.
When did your interest in making pizza at home shift toward making pizza for other people to purchase and consume? What was the origin of the Margot’s Pizza concept?
AK: Oy. Originally this all started as the intention to open a Paulie Gee’s in Portland—in the same way other pizza enthusiasts have partnered with him in opening in Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, and Columbus, Ohio (what Paulie refers to as a “brotherhood of pizza”).
Knowing I’d eventually be leaving NYC, or so I thought, I wanted to finally do a pizza pop-up series, something I’d been wanting to do since seeing Casey Crynes do pop-ups out of a bar in San Francisco. (Casey eventually went on to open SF’s first pizza truck and, recently, a brick-and-mortar location—Casey’s Pizza.)
I was just going to do a general riff on NY-style pizza, until I had lunch with an internet friend who brought things into focus. He was toying with the idea of opening a deep-dish place in NYC at the time and asked if I’d be interested in being involved. No can do, I said. I enjoy deep-dish, but I don’t have a passion for it, and I didn’t want to do something in the pizza realm that I wasn’t 100% in love with.
“Well, what style would you do?” he asked. “Bar style,” I said instantly, thinking of the pizzas I’d fallen for at Star Tavern in Orange, New Jersey, and Colony Grill in Stamford, Connecticut. Boom! I knew what direction my pop-up would take and set about developing a recipe.
The Margot’s concept mashes together a number of different styles I love. There’s the ultra-thin and -crisp crust that harks back to Maria’s in Milwaukee. It also riffs on 1960s-era pizza because of the sauce, which is “herb-forward”—which sounds like food-journalist-speak. It’s not heavily herbed; it’s just the right amount. At the same time, I love how NY-style pizza is crisp yet foldable, so I made sure you could fold a Margot’s slice. From Detroit’s fantastic pan pies (and about a quarter of the perimeter of Star Tavern’s pizzas), I took the frico edge—the way the cheese fries, crisps up, and “caramelizes,” for lack of a better word. (One of the tour guides at Scott’s Pizza Tours calls edges like that “cheese bacon.”)
As soon as we pulled the first test pizza out of the oven at Emily, where I’d been offered pop-up hours by owners Matt and Emily Hyland, I knew bar pizza was my calling. You know the way some people describe knowing their sweetheart was “the one”? I looked at the first Margot’s pie, tasted it, and knew I’d found what I was put on earth to do. (Yes, I know I sound insane.)
How often do you do the pop-up?
AK: We just came off hiatus and have switched from the occasional Saturday to the first Monday night of every month—for now.
Why is it impossible to get tickets to the pop-up? (I have a reliable source who says the last round was sold out in under a minute.)
AK: There are 3,500+ people on the email list that blasts out the ticketing link. There are 36 to 40 pies per pop-up. It’s demand far outstripping supply, unfortunately.
Are bar pies a favorite to make or eat, or are they just the best suited for the pop-up?
AK: They’re the best to eat, of course! They’re actually terribly suited for a pop-up, since they involve a two-step cooking process—starting in a pan, then popping out for a quick kiss on the oven deck before hitting the serving tray. I mean, it’s not a super-complicated procedure; it’s a little more involved than some. With a Neapolitan you just stretch it, top it, and throw it in the oven, so it’s pretty simple. Same with New York–style, too. The bar pies are only a little more complicated, in that most of the cook happens in the pan. Then we take them out of the pan and throw them on the oven floor for 30 seconds or so, just to crisp them up and give them some color. One of the main reasons for the pan is that I can get that frico edge; otherwise I’d have to leave a rim, a crust around the edge, so the toppings wouldn’t fall off and burn on the oven floor. It also insulates it from the oven floor so it doesn’t cook as fast and can get a little more crisp.
The best pizza style for serving a crowd is probably wood-fired pizza, because you can crank a pie out in less than two minutes. That’s why you see WFO pizza at all these street fairs and other outdoor festivals and events.
Are you ever going to open up a permanent pizza spot?
AK: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I’m still shooting for it, but I’ve been slow about it. I know the time is now or never, strike while the iron’s hot, and all that. But I have a family to support and a mortgage to pay, and good health care through my job right now. And it’s incredibly terrifying reading about, and hearing from friends in the business, how insane the restaurant industry is, particularly in NYC. At the same time, I’m not getting any younger, and I did make a promise to my daughter when she was born that I’d do my best to live out my dreams so she’d have a role model for her own life. I don’t want her to see her dad grow old(er) sitting in front of a screen the rest of his life.
I also think of Paulie Gee, who inspired me to model my dream for Margot. He had preached similar platitudes to his son Michael: “You can do anything you put your mind to,” I think he said he told him. And Michael believed him and worked hard to become an Air Force pilot—then turned the tables on Paulie when he got accepted into the AF Academy: “Now what about that pizzeria, huh?”
So I’m kind of scared senseless to take the next step, but I think it would be a bigger disappointment to not do it. Also, all these people who can’t get tickets to the pop-up need an easier way to get Margot’s bar pizzas. Does that answer your question, Dr. Melfi?
What is your favorite style of pizza to make, generally speaking? Why?
AK: Right now, NY Sicilian. It’s the one I have the most luck with at home. Plus, it doesn’t require making a floury mess of my countertop, or peels, or a ton of urgency, like NY-style round pies do. I generally use Kenji’s spicy Sicilian recipe, and it works well—if you have a Baking Steel preheated in a 550°F oven.
What’s your favorite type of pizza to eat?
AK: Thin-crust, whether it’s bar-style or Chicago thin-crust, or whatever else.
Do you have a pizza-making-related kitchen tool that you can’t live without?
AK: A scale! Weighing ingredients for a dough is essential, since doing it by cups leads to too much variation. I’m sure most SEers know this by now, but it’s worth stressing. That OXO one that Kenji recommends is what I use. I’d vouch for it, too. I’ve never used anything else, though.
Oh, and a Baking Steel. Complete game-changer. Great for cooking NY-style directly on it—and for giving your pan pizzas a huge boost. Everything else, I could find some kind of workaround for.
Do you have a recipe or idea in the works? Anything that’s particularly challenging or thorny about it?
AK: Nothing really. I feel like my bar pizza recipe is dialed in enough for now. I’ll eventually have to retool it for whatever ovens I end up using at a brick-and-mortar Margot’s, fingers crossed. I’d love to have that problem to tackle—a high-class problem, as Ed would say. Anything beyond that is just for fun and not mission-critical in the big scheme of things.
Any tips for the aspiring home pizza-maker? Ideas about where to start?
AK: Get on PizzaMaking.com. I have a long, checkered history with the crowd there. They are all pizza geeks of the highest order. You will find many talented folks there with a ton of knowledge and intel, and they are great about helping out newbies. That said, be prepared for long threads sometimes, with more speculation than answers, and some personalities that can be, well, let’s just say, pizza-splainers.
Any resources in particular you’d like to highlight (online purveyors, cookbooks, blogs)?/strong>
AK: Read and cook some recipes from the following:
See also PennMac for hard-to-source cheeses, meats, and flours. They’ve been a go-to for home pizza-makers for a while now, and one of the only places a civilian can get the coveted Ezzo cup-and-char pepperoni that is lighting Pizza Instagram on fire right now.
Any current favorite pizza spots you’d like to recommend (anywhere)?
AK: Too many to name. Right now, though…
- Sofia Pizza Shoppe on First Avenue and 54th in Manhattan has been my go-to for the last year for lunch. Excellent NY-style slices.
- Pizza at Boro Hotel in Long Island City, Queens. Longtime Slice-ers should know that this is where Lou T(omczak) from the comments is now slinging some excellent pies.
- L’industrie in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is making a killer take on NY-style pizza as filtered through an Italian (though not Neapolitan) sensibility. Really light, crisp, and airy slices. Don’t sleep on it!
- Corner Slice in Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen, for some flavorful, crunchy grandma pies.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is a magic sauce? It’s a simple sauce you can use a hundred different ways. And you should absolutely have one or two in your repertoire! Here are a handful of the best.
1. Original Magic Sauce – (101 Cookbooks)
This was the first magic sauce I posted. I called it magic sauce, in part because it makes everything it touches shimmy with deliciousness. It’s magic like that. Technically, it’s a riff on a chimichurri sauce – but one that has veered off the rails in a big way. Get the recipe here.
2. Magic Ancho Chile Relish – (101 Cookbooks)
This Ancho Chile Relish brings the fast magic – adding depth, raisiny-chile flavor, color, and dimension to all sorts of simple preparations. Perfect swirled into soups, dolloped onto tacos, or to punctuate yogurt. Get the recipe here.
3. Green Kitchen Stories’ Magic Green Sauce – (Green Kitchen Stories)
Just yes to this. Avocado and herbs with a bit of chile and garlic make this crazy versatile. And look at what they do with it – a stunner of a watermelon & Halloumi Salad. Gorgeous. Get the recipe here.
4. Magic Artichoke Dipping Sauce – (Platings & Pairings)
It’s the season for artichokes. Tripling down with mustard, lemon and garlic powder make this simple dipping sauce a stand-out. Get the recipe here.
5. Walnut Olive Miso Magic Sauce – (101 Cookbooks)
A chunky, walnut olive miso creation worthy of its name. You combine toasted walnuts, olives, miso, a dusting of oregano, and a dollop of tahini into a blockbuster condiment of sorts. Get the recipe here.
6. Red Pesto – (101 Cookbooks)
This red pesto is also magic. I make walnut-studded sauce and cast sun-dried tomatoes in the role basil typically plays. Flavor-forward, intense, and delicious. If this isn’t your jam, here is more pesto inspiration. Get the recipe here.
I spend a lot of time trying to simplify drink-making at home, but it’s not because I’m a lazy host. It’s the opposite extreme: I’m too ambitious when I’m planning a gathering with food and friends. I take on too many long recipes, commit myself to too many dishes, and always, always find myself in a panic at the last minute. If you’re like me, you need the cocktails to come easy.
The first key is to skip the trip to the liquor store and work with what you’ve got at home—or assign a guest to bring a bottle of the booze you need. (This kind of delegating is pretty low-risk: “Find decent enough vodka” requires less skill than “make a good salad” or even “pick something up from a good bakery.”) Choosing a drink that doesn’t require a bunch of esoteric liqueurs or aperitif wines helps; the worst kind of liquor store trip is one that involves visiting two or three liquor stores when you can’t find the bottles you need.
So you’ve got vodka, say, on hand—but what are you going to do with it? You’re not doomed to a life of Kangaroos (a.k.a. vodka martinis). I just wrote a whole book full of single-spirit drinks, recipes that don’t require bitters or fancy new Spanish vermut or small-batch orgeat. All they need is one bottle and a few easily found fresh or pantry ingredients. There are nine new vodka recipes to start it off, plus five more that work great with vodka as a substitute for their primary spirit, so that should keep you busy.
The second key to simplifying your signature drink, especially as a busy host, is to think large-format: Pick drinks that don’t need to be shaken to order.
This brunchtime wonder, created by Matthew McKinley Campbell of A Mano in San Francisco, is a cousin of the Bloody Mary, but it’s lighter, fresher, and both fruity and savory. Diced ripe pineapple offers a tropical note that’s kept in balance with fragrant cilantro, scallions, and a little adobo sauce from a can of chipotle peppers. Cherry tomatoes add a delicate tomato element, and there’s a bit of lime for tartness. All the produce just goes in a blender together.
After you’ve whirred your pineapple, tomatoes, cilantro, chipotle, and other ingredients until smooth, you’ll strain the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer or chinois into a large measuring cup or pitcher. The liquid mix gets combined with your vodka (or reposado tequila, if you prefer) and chilled for up to three hours. Then it’s ready to be filled up with ice and served. To get even more out of this recipe, try spooning the solids from the strainer into a bowl and refrigerating them—you’ll have a ready-made, fresh pineapple-chipotle salsa to scoop up with chips, no extra effort or cost required.
Having a food processor in the kitchen makes quick work of so many tasks. A good one will knead dough for pies and pizzas; purée dips; and, with the right attachments, slice and dice way faster and more evenly than most people can do by hand. The one problem? They’re notoriously pricey. We tested a wide range of food processors on the market and even our best “budget” one was still pretty expensive. But today, it’s on sale for $144.99—that’s 60% off its list price, and considerably more discounted than we’ve seen it sold for in the past.
Want to know what else is on sale today? How about a certified refurbished version of Stella’s favorite KitchenAid stand mixer or a really fun waffle iron to make mac and cheese waffles (or any of these other marvelous waffled creations). There’s also a discount on a FoodSaver, if you’re interested in giving sous vide cooking a go. (We highly suggest you do.)
Please note: Deals reflect pricing at the time of writing, and are subject to change.
For a neat and tidy spice cabinet that’s actually useful, I’m typically a believer in less is more. Ground spices degrade with time, so it’s good practice to stock small, fresh batches of the ones you cook with regularly, rather than hoard a pile of mystery powders that you bought years ago.
But there’s one section of my spice cabinet where I just can’t contain myself: dried chilies.
At last count, I have eight varieties in my pantry, each with its own heat level and unique flavor, ranging from the sunny kick of Maras pepper to the sultry raisin sweetness of pasillas. Some bags go untouched for months at a time; others are used almost daily. (TBH, when a recipe says “season to taste with salt and pepper,” I usually sub in red chili flakes for black pepper.) But I’m glad all of them are there, because dried chilies are flavor workhorses that pull way more than their weight in the kitchen.
In fairness, they weigh very little. But roll with me here—these spices are worth collecting if you know how to use them right.
There are a few key things to know about dried chilies before we get started: They generally have different names from their fresh counterparts; smaller ones are usually hotter than larger ones; and darker colors, such as black and purple, typically mean richer dried-fruit flavors, as opposed to the more fiery red-hued specimens.
But most importantly, dried chilies are at their best within a few months of drying, which is a much shorter shelf life than the eight months to a year that we typically recommend for other whole spices. A quality dried chili shouldn’t be totally dry—you want peppers that you can bend and flex without breaking them, and that are plump like really good raisins. For the freshest dried chilies, head to Latin American and Asian markets with high turnover, or buy online from specialists.
We’d also recommend de-seeding your dried chilies before using them. Lots of people think the seeds are where the heat of the pepper lies, but that simply isn’t the case—in fact, the dried seeds taste bitter and aren’t that palatable compared with the chili’s flesh. We’ve covered how to clean dried chilies in depth, but, long story short, you’ll want to cut off the pepper’s stem end with a pair of kitchen shears and remove those seeds. (If you have latex gloves, now’s a good time to use them.) Once you’ve removed most of the seeds, you can snap the chilies into half-inch pieces with scissors or a chef’s knife.
Here are just a few of the more commonplace chilies I like to keep in my pantry, from sparky bright-red chilies to the moody sweetness of darker peppers. Do note that there are literally hundreds more chili peppers—this list reflects my personal tastes and cooking styles as much as anything else, but should get you started nicely.
- Aleppo: These Syrian chilies are only available ground. With a bright, sunny demeanor, they’re well-rounded enough to replace your generic red pepper flakes (which means they’re great on pizza). Their character is sweet and fragrant, fresh and fiery on the nose, but they’re not too hot. As the city of Aleppo is undergoing one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century, growers in Turkey are filling the supply gap with their own red peppers, sold sometimes as Aleppo but increasingly by their domestic name: Maras.
- Árbol: Short, thin, and needle-like, árbol peppers pack way more heat than flavor. They’re perfect for homemade hot sauces and spice mixes, where their subtle toasted notes add an extra layer of savoriness. You may see similar-looking peppers by the name japones, which aren’t Japanese at all but are just as good.
- Guajillo: Long and thin, with dark-red skins, guajillo chilies are hotter than anchos (below), with a brighter character. Combine both varieties with pasillas (also below) for a balance of brightness, richness, and heat.
- Ancho: The all-purpose pepper, anchos are dried Poblanos, with a meaty texture, a rich flavor, and a mild, smoldering heat. They add great flavor and heft to sauces and blend well with a wide variety of ingredients.
- Morita: Though often confused with tawny chipotle chilies, moritas are dark and raisin-like, with a richer, sweeter, and smokier flavor.
- Pasilla: A long, thin Mexican pepper that’s dark to the point of being jet-black. Spicier than anchos, with a more brooding, chocolate-like character. Great in moles and with beef.
- Urfa: This not-too-hot ground Turkish chili is dark, smoky, and redolent of prune and raisin. Where Maras and Aleppo bring bright acidity, Urfa adds incredible depth to kebab mixes and scoops of yogurt.
I also pick up these wild cards when I can find them: round, thin-skinned, maraca-like cascabels, which pack notes of coffee; spicy hot, brightly fruity, itsy-bitsy pequins; and delicately sweet mulatos.
Here’s a taste of what these chilies can do once you’ve got your hands on them.
About once a week, I head down the street to my Mexican grocery and pick up whatever meat or beans look good, along with a supply of onions, garlic, and dried chilies. These chilies are so freshly stocked that they’re still floppy and moist, like dried fruit—which is exactly what they are. I stew everything together until the protein turns tender, then whizz the stock, softened onions and garlic, and rehydrated chilies in a blender until they’re nice and smooth. The result is a thick, rich, spicy chili sauce for pork, poultry, or beans, with no extra fat required. And, with pulverized chili in every bite, the braise is unbelievably fragrant and flavorful.
This is a typical Latin American cooking method that Kenji has interpreted into kitchen praxis for everyone: Rather than grind dried chilies into powder, soak them until they’re soft, then blend them into a paste. You get more flavor and more heat in every mouthful of sauce, and no ground-chili grit. Put this method to work in classic chili con carne and all kinds of braises—Sohla’s spicy braised lamb with dates is a particularly good choice.
You can use this same technique to make your own hot sauce. When I see rare and exciting chili varieties at the market, I fridge-dry them, then soak them in a bit of hot water and blend them up into a salsa or hot sauce. Vinegar or citrus juice extends the salsa’s shelf life; the latter is the go-to choice for the pre-Columbian hot sauces of Latin America.
But that’s just one way to preserve dried chilies for spicy condiments: You can also simply drop a few into your favorite bottle of vinegar to make a punchy pepper vinegar within a week or two. (Small, spicy chilies, like árbols or pequins, are the best choices here, since you don’t need to chop them up to fit in a bottle and they pack a lot of heat in small packages.)
When Helen You and I were working on The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook, one of the first recipes I tried was her chili oil flavored with ground dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, and ginger. That was over a year ago, and the same jar of chili oil has never dipped below half empty. You start by heating a neutral oil, like canola, until it’s almost smoking, then dump in whole árbol chilies and remove it from the heat. Let it cool, and that’s all there is to it. When the jar starts to run low, heat up more oil and more chilies and top it up. It’s a never-ending soup pot of toasty heat, and it’s just the thing to dress wontons (even if they’re boiled frozen ones from the grocery store).
Chili pastes may beat chili powders in stews and sauces, but ground dried chilies still have lots to offer. In a dry pan on medium-high heat, toast árbol or pequin peppers, tossing frequently, until they darken a shade and smell a little toasty, about 30 seconds to one minute. Then pound them into a fine powder with a mortar and pestle for an A+ seasoning to sprinkle on pad thai. Larger ancho or pasilla chilies are great with fruits like mango and avocado—or both, on toast. And take a page out of Sichuan water-boiled cooking by coating thin slices of cooked beef or chicken in a sauce of finely minced red chilies and Sichuan peppercorns.
Chili powder is especially handy to keep around for baking, since it won’t throw off your liquid and acid proportions the way chili paste will. I love adding ground ancho chilies to my standard brownie recipe, along with fragrant cinnamon. When I bake with cocoa powder, I reach for a rare but delicious Peruvian pepper called aji panca, which adds a buoyant blueberry note to icebox cookies.
There’s a lot more to spicy sweets than chocolate (see also: mango, spice cake, and tequila or rum), but the two do go especially well together. Which makes sense, considering they’re both Latin American fruits. For more chocolate-and-chili-pairing advice, consult our complete guide.
The above methods are all handy for putting the fruity spice of dried chilies front and center, but sometimes you don’t want to load a dish up with lots of heat. If you’re after just a smidge of chili presence, cook your dried chilies whole instead.
Making some cacio e pepe? Toast a couple of small dried chilies in olive oil and butter before straining the infused fats into your pasta. Simmering a pot of dal? Finish it with hot oil seasoned with dried chilies, cumin, and mustard seeds—what Indian cooks call a tadka, or “temper”—for a final aromatic note. (The same method works wonders in this coconut chutney.) By toasting your chilies whole, you activate new flavor compounds, but mute the intensity so as to emphasize that flavor, not heat.
Toasted whole chilies wind up in more and more of what I cook; I love their roasty fragrance and delicate crunch. And, while I’ve yet to try my hand at Chongqing chicken, which uses about five chilies for every popcorn-sized chunklet of poultry, I appreciate the dish as a cook’s goal: a reminder that the seasoning matters just as much as the main ingredient.
What’s this, I’m posting on a Monday?! 😉 This post was ready to go last week, but since we had so much fun content already going out (Glow Getter, Ask Angela, and the next issue of In The Glow!), I decided to hold off until Monday for this one. Thanks for all the positive feedback about the reboot of Things I’m Loving Lately, by the way. It’s such a fun way for me to share the things I use and love in my everyday life, and I enjoy hearing about the new things you’re diggin’ too. So feel free to spill the beets, errr…deets, below!
As always, these posts are never sponsored, but I’ll occasionally have an affiliate link or two included in the roundup.
1. Hilary’s Broccoli Casserole Bites
I discovered these frozen casserole bites when I was looking for super-fast dinner options for the kids. We definitely don’t have a made-from-scratch meal on the table every night, so I was delighted to find these mini veggie burger patties packed with awesome organic ingredients: cooked whole grain millet, broccoli, cooked white beans, expeller-pressed coconut oil, carrot, onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar, psyllium husk powder, salt, arrowroot, basil, and oregano. The kids love them dipped in ketchup, and I try to always have a bag in the freezer for those emergency don’t-know-what-to-cook situations! If you’re in a similar pinch, I recommend throwing some on a baking sheet with sweet potatoes fries and serving with a side of sliced avocado for an effortless weeknight dinner option.
2. Instacart Canada
Let me preface this by saying that I’m someone who loves grocery shopping. It’s something I tend to look forward to, especially on those rare, heavenly occasions when I’m able to go shopping by myself. But sometimes I can’t leave the house to get groceries (like during nap time), and find myself stuck needing ingredients to test a recipe. That’s why I was so excited to hear that Instacart, an app-based grocery delivery service, is now available in my area. I simply add food to my virtual “cart” through the app and then my order magically arrives on our doorstep within an hour or two. I also love that I can text my “shopper” and make adjustments as they shop away. I only use Instacart when I’m in a pinch, but so far it’s been a huge help when I can’t leave the house to get groceries. More ingredients = more recipes! Can you say win-win?
3. Hardbite Drop’N Mad Beets chips
At first I wasn’t sure about these earthy-tasting beet chips (I initially described them as tasting like ketchup chips with a hint of dirt, lol), but then I found myself polishing off the bag and realized I’d fallen in love. Now they’re pretty much the only chips I buy when I want to splurge on something deep fried (which is often…#YOLO). I did say I didn’t see my beet chip phase ending anytime soon…
4. HURRAW! Black Cherry Tinted Lip Balm
I’ve been using HURRAW! lip balm for years, but this cherry flavour is new to me and it’s my favourite yet. The red hue leaves a subtle hint of colour, and when I don’t want to go all out with a bold lip colour this is my “no make-up” go-to. Best of all this moisturizing balm is vegan, organic, and made using cold-pressed oils.
5. Love Grown Original Power O’s
We’ve been buying Power O’s for a few years now, and it’s the only cereal we give the kids to munch on. Get this…these fun little O’s are made from BEANS! I buy the original unsweetened flavour, which I love for its short and simple ingredient list: navy beans, lentils, garbanzo beans, brown rice, salt, and tocopherols. My kids enjoy the cereal dry or with milk and sliced banana. I don’t know what Arlo loves more: snacking on this cereal or tossing it onto the floor, leaving crunchy little landmines scattered about for us to crush into smithereens. (Dang it, Arlo, with the food throwing!) *gets the vacuum out yet again…*
6. Sunshine Farms Organic Pickled Jalapeños (Foodland Ontario)
Pickled jalapeños are a fairly new-to-me food product. I originally picked these up a few years ago when I was developing my Chili Cheese Nachos recipe for Oh She Glows Every Day. They were great for the nacho recipe, and I quickly discovered they were just as good sprinkled on wraps, salads, and savoury oatmeal for a kick of heat. I love that the jar has a long shelf life, so I don’t have to worry about keeping a supply of fresh jalapeños in my crisper (which tend to spoil before I can use them up). And bonus points for buying local! Turns out these awesome jalapeños are made in Thamesville, Ontario. Maybe you should pickle some up? 😉
No vegan has ever asked me how I think they should eat, but if they did, I’d probably tell them to avoid faux meat and dairy dishes at all costs. Forget about eating hamburgers, hot dogs, fried chicken, Alfredo sauce, and shepherd’s pie, I’d say. You gave that stuff up as soon as you went vegan. But I’d be saying that from the luxurious position of a person who still eats those foods.
I have to admit, it wouldn’t be a fair response: It’s easy to implore vegans to embrace vegetables in all their natural beauty when Popeyes is still on my menu. Roasted carrots can be a glorious thing, but they won’t quench a vegan’s desire for a juicy beef patty. That’s probably why, when I sent a call out on Twitter for vegan recipe requests, multiple people asked for lasagna. It’s loaded with meat, or dairy, or both, making it a real challenge to veganize successfully.
Before I get to the lasagna, here’s one other thing about vegan recipes: They often suck. This is largely because it’s damned hard to re-create a dish that’s traditionally centered on animal products. There’s incredible variety in the vegetable kingdom, but what it offers is totally unlike meat, eggs, and dairy. The flavors are different, the textures are different, the fats are different, and while some companies are getting better at faking it, there’s still a long way to go, especially for the home cook without a food science degree or access to fancy equipment that’s capable of pulling off some serious ingredient manipulations.
An added problem is that a lot of vegan recipe writers have come to do what they do because they’re vegans first and cooks second, which doesn’t always bode well for their recipes. I’m gonna get a lot of hate mail for writing that, but anyone who’s eaten at enough vegan restaurants and cooked enough online vegan recipes will know I’m not talking smack. These days, you’ll often find the most exciting and delicious vegan and vegetarian food at restaurants where meat is on the menu and skilled cooks of all persuasions are in the kitchen. If you’re a vegan chef who’s about to fire off a diatribe in the comments or in an email to me, just know that I’m aware there are exceptions, and I have no reason to doubt you’re one of them.
On top of all that, people who have been vegan for a long time have gotten too far from the animal-based foods they’re trying to re-create. They may lust after carbonara pasta, but they’d have as much trouble successfully re-creating it in vegan form as most of us would trying to draw an accurate portrait of a person we haven’t seen in years. We may be able to picture them in our minds, but trying to get the brow just right, to nail the shape of the eyes or the ears, quickly makes us realize just how many of the details have faded.
That’s where a non-vegan cook, like me, can be useful. I still eat all this stuff, I have fresh memories of what it’s supposed to taste like, and my standards haven’t collapsed to the point where a pasty puck of beans stuffed into a bun could somehow satisfy a burger craving.
There are many types of lasagna, but the two you’re most likely to encounter are a true Italian lasagna alla bolognese, featuring a beefy ragù and a béchamel sauce, and the Italian-American spin-off, which is packed with ricotta, mozzarella, and either a tomato sauce or a ragù. I’ll deal with the latter in a separate article and recipe. Today, it’s real-deal lasagna Bolognese…except not real-deal, because it’s vegan. But damned if it’s not close.
This is where I give the inevitable caveat: I am not an alchemist. Is my recipe an absolutely faithful replica of lasagna Bolognese, indistinguishable from the original in every way? Of course not. If you’re a meat-eater and you want the real experience, you need to make my non-vegan recipe. But if you’re a vegan who’s been craving that flavor and texture for years and has yet to really get it, I’m confident this will deliver. And if you’re a meat-eater who just wants a little less meat in your life without fundamentally changing the kinds of dishes you normally eat, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.
There are three components to think about here. First, there’s the pasta, which is relatively easy. A classic lasagna is made with fresh, thin sheets of broad noodles, often enriched with egg. For a vegan version, eggy pasta is out. The solution is simple: Just buy a box of dry lasagna made with nothing more than wheat and water.
Next, we have the béchamel, which is typically made by cooking flour in butter, then whisking in milk to form a thick and creamy white sauce. In a vegan version, the butter is out, and so is the milk, which seriously cripples our options. I considered creating a creamy sauce using puréed cauliflower, but I decided that the starchy, floury flavor of a true béchamel was too important to omit completely. That meant that I needed to cook the flour in a fat, then thicken it with a liquid.
For my fat, I went for a neutral-flavored refined coconut oil, which is closer to butter in terms of its melting point than vegetable oils, though a vegetable oil would work fine, too. Make sure not to use unrefined coconut oil, which will still taste and smell like coconut, or you’re going to be chowing down on a weirdly tropical rendition of lasagna (then again, Hawaiian pizza is a thing, so who knows?).
To replace the milk, I grabbed a bottle of unflavored, unsweetened almond milk. It’s not great, and it’s certainly not like cow’s milk, but it’s about as close as you’re likely to get in the realm of plant-based milks. The key to pulling this off is the secret to a lot of vegan recipes that attempt to replicate meat and/or dairy: Lay down flavor smokescreens.
If you make a “béchamel” with coconut oil, flour, and almond milk, then taste it by itself, you will not be happy. You have to cover up its obvious shortcomings. I do that by infusing the almond milk first with aromatics, ones that often go into a classic béchamel, too: garlic, fresh thyme, a bay leaf, and some black peppercorns. I strain them all out after a simmering step, then make the béchamel. After that, it’s time to add yet more flavorful concealer, this time with a healthy grating of fresh nutmeg and some freshly ground white or black pepper.
Even when the béchamel is finished, if you eat it straight from a spoon, as I like to do with a traditional béchamel, you still won’t think it’s all that great. Don’t worry. Once it’s layered into the lasagna and combined with the ragù, it’ll play its part perfectly, adding that starchy creaminess and aromatic depth you’d expect from a true Italian lasagna.
That brings us to the ragù, which is the make-or-break component of this recipe. Do it right, and you’ll almost believe you’re eating a meat sauce. Do it wrong, and you’ll wish you’d microwaved one of those sad boxed vegan lasagnas from the freezer aisle instead.
I build the ragù much the way I would if I were using meat, starting by sautéing minced aromatic vegetables, like onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, in olive oil until they’re tender and beginning to turn golden. Then, instead of adding meat, I add my meat substitute.
I use two things to stand in for meat. First, mushrooms, which are an obvious choice, thanks to their deeply savory flavor. But I didn’t want to go 100% mushrooms, since mushrooms also have a distinctly earthy flavor, and a texture that’s a little more silky than that of ground meat. If I were to use only mushrooms, my sauce would taste exactly like a mushroom ragù—which is a beautiful thing, but not my goal here.
To round out the mushrooms, I use an equal quantity of seitan, also known as wheat gluten. It’s a wet, chewy, and spongy substance with a mild and oddly bread-like flavor, but it absorbs other flavors well. It also really wins in the texture department, with a bite that’s a lot more like meat.
To give both the mushrooms and the seitan an appropriately ground-meaty texture, I crush and tear them by hand into little pieces. You could save time by chopping them, but those clean cuts won’t deliver an important textural cue that tricks your mouth into thinking it’s eating ground beef.
In the pot, I cook the mushrooms and seitan until the mushrooms have dumped all their liquid and have started to brown. This can take a while because seitan is quite wet as well, which slows down the browning process. Once the browning does start, I stir in a large spoonful of tomato paste, then follow it with a generous dose of wine.
I prefer white wine in a classic Bolognese, but in this vegan sauce, I need my smokescreens, and red wine has a more robust flavor that flirts with your taste buds more—and the more flirting your taste buds get from the red wine, the less they’ll notice that you’re not eating meat.
Once the raw alcohol smell of the wine has cooked off, I add a can of puréed tomatoes—I prefer to start with canned whole tomatoes and purée them myself—followed by even more flavor smokescreens: rosemary and sage sprigs, soy sauce, and red miso.
Those woodsy herbs are a classic pairing with Italian braised and grilled meats, so they’re perfect for suggesting meat even when it isn’t there. The soy sauce and miso, meanwhile, while clearly not traditional, add complexity and deep savoriness that normally come from the meat itself.
My final touch for the sauce is a scoop of flavorless refined coconut oil. Its role is to add the silkiness and richness of emulsified beef fat in a classic Bolognese sauce. Without it, the sauce is too lean, a dead giveaway that it’s a vegan impostor.
After the sauce has stewed for a while and grown thick, I stir in a little bit of my vegan béchamel to make the ragù lightly creamy.
Then it’s time to assemble the lasagna, in alternating layers of pasta, ragù, and drizzles of béchamel.
Once it’s baked until browned and bubbling, you can hardly tell by looking that it’s not a beefy lasagna. As for the taste, I’d wager it could fool more than a few people. And even the ones who aren’t fooled? They’ll still enjoy it.
This is a recipe for the laziest nights. No joke. If you can bring yourself to chop an onion, along with a couple cloves of garlic – the rest of this taco soup creation is dump-and-stir. And it’s delicious! Here’s the deal – you can make it in an Instant Pot. You can make it on a conventional stovetop. It’s also occurring to me that it’s probably a perfect slow cooker stew as well.
The soup? It is a hearty melding of beans, and corn, and taco spices, and quinoa. I bring the creaminess and crunch factor in via the toppings – toasted pepitas for the later, ripe avocado, and a dollop of yogurt for the creamy.
For reference, this is the Instant Pot I used for this recipe: Instant Pot DUO Plus 6 Qt 9-in-1
If case you’re interested, here is where all the Instant Pot recipes live.
If you don’t have an Instant Pot, you can certainly make this on a conventional stovetop. Instead of pressure cooking simmer until the quinoa is cooked through and the ingredients come together, 30 minutes or so.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tablespoons taco seasoning
1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed
4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 14-ounce cans pinto beans, rinsed OR 3 1/2 cups cooked pinto beans
1 1/2 cups corn
1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 cup favorite (red) salsa
Serve with: toasted pepitas or almonds, cilantro, avocado, salted yogurt (use non-dairy to keep it vegan), lime wedges
Press the SAUTE button on the Instant Pot, and press it again to bump it to SAUTE MORE. Heat the olive oil in the Instant Pot. When hot, sauté the onion and garlic until softened, 5-7 minutes. Stir in the taco seasoning. Add the quinoa, water, salt, beans, corn, tomatoes, and salsa. Press CANCEL.
Close and seal the pot, and pressure cook on MANUAL for 10 minutes (high). Carefully QUICK RELEASE. Gently shake or tap the pressure cooker, and then carefully open away from you. Taste and adjust with more salt, if needed. Serve as-is, or topped with pepitas, sliced avocado, cilantro, and salted yogurt.
For reference, this is the Instant Pot I used for this recipe: Instant Pot DUO Plus 6 Qt 9-in-1
Prep time: 5 min – Cook time: 10 min
Hello my dears,
I’m often surprised at how often I have to redefine what balance looks like to me. This week was no different. Sometimes balance requires more yoga, sometimes less… way less. Sometimes balance involves more Oreo cookies, less time with the computer, and more walks along the river.
Speaking of the river, our great Mississippi: It’s been high this week – reminding us, as though we’ve forgotten, that she’s in charge. (Thanks for the leeway with the punctuation in that last sentence. I take major liberties.) Along the banks of the river I’ve spotted altars and offerings and it fills my heart with this feeling that we appreciate this place, that we know how precious it is. I’ve tried to let those feelings of gratitude filter through my week.
I hope this finds you rested and ready for some longer Spring days. Here’s my offering this week:
• 15 stories of important and overlooked women from the NYT this week: Overlooked. Strong, and we know it.
• This story about a man and lemons goes into some very unexpected places: A Man, A Plan, A Lemon, China The story of Frank N Meyer. (Taste)
• Menstrual cramps are as painful as a heart attack. Basically we’re all warriors but… honestly, we already knew that. (Elle)
• Sade has blessed us with another song. Casually: Flower of the Universe. Sade is my vibe and style icon. Queen. (NPR)
• I’m listening to the true crime novel: I’ll Be Gone In The Dark and ran across this heart-warming and heart-wrenching tribute: My Friend Michelle McNamara, the Crime Writer Gone in the Dark. (Vulture)
• My beautiful friend and photographer Lani Trock was featured in LA Magazine. Her words about art, creation, and inspiration are beautiful. Also this quote from Tom Waits rings loud in my head: The way you do anything, is the way you do everything.
• The current pop-up is the past taco truck: How Pop Ups Took Over America’s Restaurants (GQ)
• Some companies are taking a stand: Ok Delta! (Times)
• If you watch The Bachelor franchise you know that, at this point, every season is a new, fresh hell. With the fiasco that was this latest season with Arie, I’m going to bow out. As I exit, I’m going to offer you this: 11 Bachelor Rules That Just Don’t Make Sense Anymore. (Vulture)
• We’ve got a few more Fridays in Lent and if you can’t find a local fish fry, you sure can make your own: Friday Fish Fry! (JoytheBaker)
• You should come to The Bakehouse on March 29th! We’re hosting a scent workshop with Smoke Perfume! Also, there are a few spots left in the Strawberry Pie Making Workshop (using Ponchatoula strawberries!!) on April 14th! (Eventbrite)
• What to make when the fridge is looking real reeeaaalll slim. Fried Water aka Onion Egg Drop Soup. The thing is, sometimes recipes with very few ingredients are secretly fussy and I fear that I’m going to end up with a bowl of scrambled egg soup. Still, I’m curious enough to take the chance. (The Kitchn)
• My friend Nicole shared some chicken dinner with me this week and it floored me. Turns out it’s this New York Times recipe for Oven Roasted Chicken Shawarma. I’m absolutely making it for myself soon, so soon.
Let’s enjoy the day!
My love to you,