The Whole Truth
“It seems to me that there are doors people will not open, dishes they will not try, because they haven’t been exposed to well-prepared, delicious, meatless dishes,” says Chef Jason Sellers.
The creative meat- and dairy-free menu at Asheville’s Plant restaurant is breaking down those doors for many folks. Since launching the Merrimon Avenue eatery with partners Leslie Armstrong and Alan Berger last year, the establishment has received accolades from omnivores and vegans alike, thanks to Sellers’ ability to complement and enhance the flavor of each wholesome ingredient.
“Some people think that by eating a vegan diet or even one vegan meal, they’ll feel deprived or that the food will be bland and tasteless,” says Armstrong. “Nothing could be further from the truth. A vegan meal only excludes a few food items, but replaces them with endless varieties of vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.”
Sellers’ creativity comes through in everything from ginger ale made with fresh rootstalk steeped overnight, then mixed with agave nectar, lemon juice, and soda water to nibbles such as apple-smoked almonds, dried and smoked mushrooms (which taste amazingly similar to bacon), and coconut milk-based ice cream. “A no-meat meal sometimes calls for simplicity and attention to small—a Zen palate, if you will,” says Sellers, who once led the kitchen at Laughing Seed Café.
For those ready for culinary exploration, Sellers offers this delicious menu of perfect-for-summer flavors that doesn’t lack a thing.
FIRST COURSE: Watermelon-Tomato Gazpacho
Sellers suggests a starter of watermelon and tomato gazpacho. “This soup should be made in celebration of its seasonality,” Sellers notes. “The ratios should be left to the cook. Once melded, the delicious partnership of watermelon and tomato is hard to obscure.” Sweet and tangy, the soup holds a spicy kick, which is complemented by the toasted nuttiness of the pepitos.
MAIN COURSE: Peppercorn-Crusted Seitan
In place of a meat protein, Sellers enjoys seitan, a wheat gluten of Asian origin. “Frying it just elevates it, and for our purposes, we’re browning it,” he says. “You can add ground pepper to make it pop also.” The seitan, which has the mouthfeel of steak, is accompanied by grilled vegetables. Sellers piles the components of the main dish into a pretty stack, noting how easily a dinner becomes spectacular with just a bit of effort in the presentation.
COCKTAIL: Sake Spear with Cucumber Ice
“The art of cocktail-making,” says Sellers, “is in hiding the overt flavors of certain types of alcohol, while enhancing the more subtle ones.” For a truly refreshing summer beverage, he suggests a gingery sip made with high-quality cold sake and cucumber ice cubes.
DESSERT: Lemon Cream Tart
“Make the tarts the day before your guests arrive,” suggests Sellers. “Chilling in the refrigerator will improve its texture.” Fresh strawberries garnish this velvety smooth, lemon-laced treat.
3-4 large tomatoes, peeled & roasted
1/2 large, seedless watermelon
1 Tbs. garlic, minced
1/4 cup high-quality virgin olive oil
2 tsp. sea salt
Cayenne pepper, to taste
To peel tomatoes, cut a shallow X through the stem and blossom ends and submerge in boiling water for one minute. Remove, allow to cool, and peel skins by beginning at the X. (For a bolder, slightly darker gazpacho, roast skinless tomatoes on a sheet pan in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes, or until peaks darken and juice concentrates.) Scoop watermelon from its rind in large chunks. Combine tomatoes, watermelon, garlic, olive oil, salt, and cayenne pepper in a blender on medium speed until uniform, allowing a little texture to remain. Add more salt or cayenne to taste, then chill. To serve, stir to reincorporate and garnish with pepitos.
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds
2 Tbs. tamari
1/2 tsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. safflower oil
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place pumpkin seeds in a mixing bowl. Add tamari, and toss to coat. Sprinkle sugar over seeds. Add oil, and toss. Spread seeds in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast about 25 minutes, checking often, until they turn light brown and tamari darkens. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
14½ cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup tamari
1 large piece kombu (sea kelp available at whole food grocery stores)
5 cups all-purpose white flour, plus extra
5 cups whole wheat bread flour
4 Tbs. safflower oil
Cracked peppercorn and salt, to taste
Put 10 cups of stock, tamari, and kombu in a large pot (at least 10 quarts). Cover and bring to a boil. In a large bowl, combine flours with hands. In a separate container, mix four and a half cups of stock and one tablespoon of safflower oil. Add the mixture to the flour slowly. Knead gently to form a dough ball. Let stand for about 15 minutes. Divide into two balls. Rinse under cold water, kneading until the starchy water runs almost clear.
Once stock reaches a boil, reduce heat, and add dough. Simmer covered for about two hours, turning balls occasionally. Cook until a tender but firm texture is achieved. Cool and refrigerate any excess dough in the broth.
Remove dough from liquid, and slice to desired cutlet size and thickness (typically three-by-four-inches and a quarter-inch thick). Dredge cutlets in a mixture of flour, cracked peppercorn, and a pinch of salt. Heat three tablespoons of safflower oil in a large pan over medium heat, and fry cutlets for two minutes on each side, until crispy and brown. Remove cutlets from pan and serve warm with grilled vegetables.
1 cup Earth Balance buttery spread, frozen & cubed
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbs. sugar
1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
6-8 Tbs. ice-cold water
12 oz. block silken tofu
1/4 cup Earth Balance buttery spread
1 cup powdered sugar
Zest & juice from 2-4 lemons,
to desired tartness
1/2 tsp. vanilla
Sea salt, to taste
Agave syrup & mint sprigs, to garnish
Pastry: Cut buttery spread into half-inch cubes, and freeze. Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine flour, baking powder, and sugar in a food processor, pulsing several times to mix. Add cubed spread and pulse until clumps are just smaller than peas. Add apple cider vinegar, then water a tablespoon at a time, continuing to pulse until just before a ball forms. The dough should appear dry, but should stay together when pressed; it should not be sticky. Divide dough into four equal balls, roll each out slightly to flatten, and gently press each into three-and-a-half-inch fluted tart pans with removable bottoms. Press the crust up the sides and into the grooves of the pans, removing excess dough from edges. Refrigerate until cold. Bake on a sheet pan for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown flakes are visible. Remove tarts from oven and allow to cool. Carefully remove each shell from its pan.
Lemon Cream: In food processor, combine all ingredients, except strawberries, agave, and mint, and blend until smooth, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Chill for several hours. Spoon cream into each shell to just below the top edge. Fan sliced strawberries over the surface and finish with a drizzle of agave syrup and sprig of mint.
2 cucumbers, peeled & seeded
2 cups warm water
3 oz. medium-dry ginjo-style sake (Momokawa Diamond recommended)
5 oz. ginger beer or ginger ale
3 oz. club soda
Cucumber spears & lemon slices, to garnish
Ice: Several hours in advance, combine cucumbers and water in a blender on high until smooth. Strain mixture a little at a time through a fine strainer, pressing the pulp of each batch with the back of a large spoon until all the water is extracted. The water should appear light green. Pour into ice cube trays and freeze.
Cocktail:Fill four 14-ounce highball glasses halfway with cucumber ice. Pour sake, ginger beer or ale, and club soda over cucumber ice, and stir. Slice a cucumber lengthwise into spears, and garnish along with a lemon slice.