Two-part Expanding Meat

“Chef Enis!”

I cringe whenever my pastry chef, Pétard, shrieks my name. Pétard is a nervous, wiry boy who sneaks out of bed in the early morning to pilfer hummingbird feeders on his way into his 4am shift, where he re-ups with Red Bulls throughout the day. It’s hard not to stare at the burnt sienna hummingbird food stain around his lips when he’s talking. With the pale skin, he looks like some sort of vampire clown.

“It’s terrible! I just learned that our vegetarian ham isn’t vegetarian! At all!”

For those of you not familiar with the material, vegetarian ham is a spongy, ham-like, textured good that we use to placate vegans (despite a poor translation to “vegetarian”, the product is actually vegan). Usually parenthesized, the actual flavor varies, but it’s largely an afterthought and mostly unnecessary. At my restaurant, we buy Chicken Taste:

A loaf of vegetarian ham (chicken taste) in a supermarket freezer on top of other loaves in the background

And Stew Flavors:

A loaf of vegetarian ham (stew flavors) with a clove of garlic in the foreground and other packaged goods in the background

Buy? Yes, I said “buy”. We don’t bother serving fresh food to vegans. But I digress.

“Did you know that MEAT goes into vegetarian ham?!!?” Pétard was trembling—more than usual. My instincts were screaming, “Fire him! He’s weird and shrill! And the growing pile of empty feeders is overwhelming the busboys!” But I thought about his dreamy gougères and opted to hear and address his feedback.

Pétard, classically-trained, was unaware of innovations in protein preparations. He hears, “dead things are made into vegetarian ham” and immediately assumes it’s not safe for vegans. However, applying critical thought to the veganistic objection to the commoditization of sentient animals, one quickly realizes that the reclamation of castoff protein not only aligns with veganism, but reinforces it by differentiating life from lifelessness in a manner that maximizes natural resources and minimizes environmental damage. For, you see, only naturally dead and decaying animal material can be made into decent vegetarian ham. Rather than get too technical here, let’s look at how vegetarian ham is made.

Vegetarian Ham (no taste)

To make vegetarian ham, reclaim castoff protein with heavy gloves and a garbage bag.

A dead squirrel on a sidewalk

By the natural end of life, senescent cells have lost the majority of their telomeres, which resist denaturation. The low-telomere property of naturally dead and decaying animal material is optimal for the following step.

Place the castoff protein in a blender and add an equal amount of food-grade 2-mercaptoethanol to cleave disulfide bonds. Blend for 10 minutes or until well-integrated.

[photo omitted (okay, some taste)]

In a well-ventilated area, arrange the following ingredients:

  • Food-grade, edible polyurethane expanding foam, part A
  • Food-grade, edible polyurethane expanding foam, part B
  • Transglutaminase
  • Denatured protein (prepared as instructed above)
  • 500 ml graduated mixing beaker
  • Olive oil
Bottle of unknown substance labeled, 'A'; tin of olive oil; beaker labeled, 'denatured protein'; large empty beaker; bottle of unknown substance labeled, 'B', jar of 'Sticky Cow brand' transglutaminase

Wipe down the 500 ml mixing beaker with olive oil. Into the prepared beaker, pour 50 ml of the food-grade, edible polyurethane expanding foam, part A.

Bottle of unknown substance labeled, 'A' being poured into large beaker with other bottles/beakers nearby

Add 50 ml of food-grade, edible polyurethane expanding foam, part B.

Bottle of unknown substance labeled, 'B' being poured into large beaker with other bottles/beakers nearby

Add the denatured protein and at least enough transglutaminase to form a covalent bond between a free amine group and the gamma-carboxamide group of the protein-bound glutamine (to taste). Stir the mixture for 30-45 seconds, or until foaming begins.

Beaker of expanding foam beginning to expand; other bottles/beakers nearby

Foaming will complete in about 1-2 minutes.

A triptych where each panel shows a progression of expanding foam expansion in a glass beaker

Depending upon temperature and altitude, the protein mixture will expand to 25-30 times the unfoamed volume. A 500 ml beaker won’t even come close to containing over 100 ml of pre-expanded ham, so you should now start over and consider using a larger beaker.

A beaker of expanding foam that overflowed and hardened down the sides

You’ll find that any expanded ham overflow is significantly less dense than the core ham inside the beaker. Trim the overflow and soak it in bacon fat for chicharrónes. After trimming, loosen the core ham log with a firm rap and tug. Slice and plate.

Two slices of vegetarian ham on a plate with basil and artsy hot sauce dollops

The two-part expanding meat process yields a variety of identifiable foods, depending upon the input protein and expansion vessel. Try, for example, cuttlefish balls, crab stick, chicharrónes, salisbury steak, any “mousse” or “foam” from Thomas Keller, and more!

Vegetarian ham is closed-cell ham, so you can enjoy it in the event of a water landing.

P.S. Even after my restaurant stopped buying vegetarian ham and started making it fresh so that we could quality check the supply chain, Pétard insisted that reclaimed protein was still against veganism. We came to an agreement by trademarking Vegetarian Ham®. Our menu now features Vegetarian Ham®, and determining what that means is left as an exercise for the diner.

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