Guy Fieri Is a Stealth Vegan Master
The Mayor of Flavortown shared his secrets for the perfect vegan cheeseburger and amping up plant-based dishes at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.
"This is the last thing you were expecting from Guy Fieri, a totally vegan burger." The image of the chef, Food Network host, and philanthropist may be inextricably linked to big honkin' beef patties and Flintstonian rib racks, but close observers of his flagship show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives may have picked up on something: dude is a serious vegetable connoisseur with a deep appreciation of the meat-free—sometimes eschewing animal products all together. On the demo stage at the 38th Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, Fieri told the crowd, "I'm not preaching here, but at home, we don't always eat meat." Then he put his money where their slavering mouths were, making a rice, quinoa, mushroom, and vegetable-packed patty on a vegan bun, loaded up with shredded lettuce, onions, tomatoes, and pickles (that'd be "LTOP" in the parlance of Flavortown), as well as fried onions, his signature Donkey Sauce, and a healthy dollop of a cashew-based cheese sauce he'd made on the spot.
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In 2011, Fieri lost his younger sister Morgan to cancer. She'd first been diagnosed with metastatic melanoma as a child, survived the initial bout, and the disease re-emerged in her adulthood. While she was going through treatment, Morgan wearied of grilled vegetables and gave her chef brother a mandate: "Make me some real meals." Guy Fieri is not a man known for his half-assery of flavor (or really anything), so he went on a mission to maximize the enjoyment of every element of these dishes while maintaining their inherent excellence. No meat, eggs, or dairy required.
Get on the grain train.
For a great veggie burger, skip the store-bought ("Most veggie patties suck—that's a culinary term," Fieri joked.) and lean away from beans, which can make things a shade too soggy. For the body of the burger, he opted for brown rice which he cooked to a toothsome state to help maintain the patty's structure and nutritional benefits, and mixed that with quinoa, saying, "Quinoa is my baby—quinoa hot, quinoa cold. So nutty, has a little pop, I put it on top of salads for crunch." If the burgers are a too wet to maintain their shape while cooking (hot pan, olive oil), mix in some panko crumbs to firm them up.
Char like a star.
Peppers, corn, and plenty of other vegetables take on additional sweetness and complexity when they're allowed to feel the burn. If you can't fire up a grill, put the vegetables directly on top of a gas range. If all you've got is electric, Fieri says fret not. "Butane stoves are a gift if you live in an apartment, throw the veg right on the flame." He also swore by his cast-iron skillet, which he leaves out on the stovetop. "It's the most versatile thing you can ever have, let it heat and scream until it's white." Just keep a watchful eye, and don't over-char—especially red peppers, which can get mealy and acrid if left too long.
'Shroom for improvement.
Sure, you could wait around while your mushrooms release all their moisture, but don't you have more awesome things to do? Fieri's tip: wrap the mushrooms in plastic, and zap the pouch in the microwave until they've reached your ideal state. Then pour off all that flavorful liquid and use it to add oomph wherever you'd usually use water.
Sweat the veg stuff.
You'd think a guy who'd name a chain "Johnny Garlic's" might be hell-bent on putting the allium front and center, but he cautioned a curious attendee that when you're sweating vegetables, "If you want to do it wrong, do the garlic first. Always onion first. Garlic goes in last, as soon as it gets nutty caramel, add liquid." (Maybe even some of that umami-packed mushroom juice?) From there, add the other vegetables to the pan, along with olive oil as needed. Fieri likes carrots and zucchini for the color and sweetness they bring to the burger, but use what's in season and pleases you.
Later, gummy taters.
"Who here likes gummy wall-paste potatoes?" Fieri asked the crowd. To minimize the mush in your mash, he suggested passing skinned potatoes through a ricer to create a sort of potato "snow" that adds body to a veggie burger, or can be mixed with warm, herb-infused oil (or warm butter and cream if you're not keeping it vegan) for the most satisfying mashed potatoes of your life.
Neg the egg.
"The greatest hack to not using eggs—use flaxseed," said Fieri. Soaked in a 3:1 ratio of water to seeds, "Flaxseed creates a phlegm," the famously egg-phobic chef explained. "I tried to think of a better word. A fizz? A viscous liquid? It's the ultimate binder." (He eventually settled on the mildly less vile "flax glob" for the rest of the demo.)
The spice is right.
There are some folks—like Fieri—who can beast an economy-sized container of paprika or cayenne because they're constantly cooking for a massive crowd. The rest of us mere mortals should stick to the quantity we can use in six months. "That's the cutoff for spices, after that, chuck it," Fieri advised. "Spices die. Don't buy the monster one." And when you're adding several to a recipe, mix them up and send the whole shebang through a spice grinder, "so you don't get a pocket."
Cheesy does it.
In his restaurants, Fieri tops his burgers with a generous helping of SMC (that's yer "Super Melty Cheese"), but when he's kicking dairy to the curb, he goes a little nuts. Raw cashews, specifically, which he thoroughly soaks in soy milk and water, before adding onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, and turmeric to the mix for flavor and color. Then comes the "hippie dust." Fieri's parents, he'll have you know, were hippies, but, "not dope-smoking hippies," and they instilled in him a love for "nutty, cheesy, awesome" nutritional yeast—perfect on popcorn or any other foods that could use a soupcon of savoriness. He rounds out the flavor with lemon juice and zest, and shared his favorite technique, "Hold the zester, spin the lemon and get a consistent track around the peel. We don't wanna go gnarly gnarly gnarly to the pith—you'll pith me off," Fieri said. "I'll be here all week, try the veggies." Once all that's in the pot, puree it with a stick blender, then flip on the burner and reduce the sauce to the consistency you desire.
The famed Donkey Sauce is basically "amped-up aioli," he explained, and earned its name because, "If you don't put it on the burger, you're a jackass." This blend of garlic, mayonnaise, mustard, Worcestershire sauce (or in Flavortown, "wash-your-sister sauce"), salt, and pepper is "lifesaving" "food lube," per Fieri, and can easily be made vegan with the selection of an egg-free mayo and a fish-free Worcestershire.
Kiss my buns—and everything else.
Every element of the dish deserves some fuss, and while you can pick off the toppings you don't care for, Fieri believes they're essential. "You don't ask for Metallica with less Lars, it's that acid and tang and pickle." He cranked up the volume of each ingredient, dressing the shredded iceberg lettuce with red wine vinegar, frying the onions, slicing the tomatoes "so thin they only have one side," charring the vegetables, pickling whatever he could, and sneaking in a final ker-pow with a simple trick. "Cut off the tops of the garlic cloves, steam, then puree them with olive oil, and kiss both sides of the bun with it. Give it attention."