Sunday, July 08, 2007

Gravy Tasting

The Table is Set

We had a gravy tasting the other night.

As a vegetarian and gluten-free household, we don't eat normal, wheat-thickened, chicken-juice-based gravy. But gravy is good. Gravy is smooth and fatty and comforting. Gravy is biscuits and gravy at a two AM diner, gravy is that one Thanksgiving that actually felt like a Rockwell painting, gravy is birthday dinners and everything right with the world.

I grew up in a household where gravy was never from a can or jar or packet. This was not because my mom was some sort of anti-packaged-food zealot; it was just because gravy is idiotically easy to make. You take the the broth from under your turkey, you make a roux, you add the broth and some canned chicken broth. This was always done while the family was frantically carrying the last few dishes to the holdiay table, and while my dad was pouring ginger ale into our fancy glasses and my brother was lighting the candles. It was not a moment of stress. Gravy was just the last thing to get made.

But I was worried about making vegetarian gravy, actually. I was worried that using this method would never produce gravy that tasted like gravy; I was worried it would taste like vegetables instead. Not that I don't like vegetables...but that's not gravy. So I was in Whole Foods, and saw some instant gravy packets. I picked them up, went home, and announced to the family, "We're having a gravy tasting tonight."

"OK," they said.

The gravy tasting was held outside, because it was hot and sticky, and because I love nothing more than to grill things. We gathered around our new backyard table in our deck chairs that I trashpicked off the street.

The accompanying dishes were:
Grilled Snowpeas Grilled Broccolini, Small Potatoes, and Marinated Summer Squash

Snowpeas, cooked in tin foil on the grill
Grilled Broccolini
Grilled New Potatoes
Grilled Marinated Summer Squash (this one was a palate cleanser)

However, what you really care about is the gravy. I had four different varieties. All but one were vegan and cholesterol free; all of them were gluten-free, vegetarian, and a lot healthier for you than regular gravy. Here are the brands:

gravy brands

The brands are:
#1: Road's End Organics Golden Gravy Mix, purchased at Whole Foods Columbus Circle, makes one cup of gravy
#2: Road's End Organics Savory Herb Gravy Mix, purchased at Whole Foods Columbus Circle, makes one cup of gravy
#3: Orgran Natural Gravy Mix, purchased at Fairway in Red Hook, Brooklyn, makes a lot of servings
#4: Pacific Organic Mushroom Broth, purchased at the Park Slope Food Coop, makes 4 1-cup portions of gravy (or some mushroom soup).

Directions for the first three were identical: boil water, add powder, let thicken five minutes, serve. For the fourth, I melted butter in the pan, added an equal amount of cornstarch, let it cook for a moment, and then added a cup of mushroom broth. The thing to remember (and which I always forget) is that cornstarch roux has much less holding power than flour roux. This amount of broth probably could have handled 4 tbsp each of butter and cornstarch before it got too thick.

And here is what they looked like, cooked and in their bowls.

Numbers 1 and 2 Numbers 3 and 4
Number 1 on the right, #2 on the left Number 3 on top, #4 on bottom

Numbers 1 & 2 had started to congeal unpleasantly by the time they were served, about 5-10 minutes after cooking. When stirred, they became a good consistency again...until they set up again. Number 3 remained a good consistency throughout. Number 4 was quite runny, because I only used 2tbsp each of butter and cornstarch.

So, what was the verdict?

Very, very mixed. None of them were prima facie disgusting. Number one had the Boy, who grew up in the South, singing about how we needed to make biscuits and have biscuits and gravy RIGHT THEN. However, that was the closest we got to an endorsement of the bunch. Number 2 tasted just like #1, only with a bunch of store-bought "Italian Seasoning Blend" dumped in. Not bad, and decent with the broccolini...but not gravy. Number 3 tasted like precisely nothing; no bad aftertaste, but no substantive taste at all. Number 4 tasted like mushrooms; the Boy compared it to mushroom soup. However, even he (the biggest mushroom lover in the bunch) was dissastisfied with its gravy-potential.

Unfortunately, we cannot whole-heartedly endorse any of these. If you're a vegetarian who has been craving those biscuits and gravy of your childhood, Road's End Organics Golden Gravy Mix will make you feel like a meat-eating kid again. But, apart from that, there isn't much going on here.

However, I'm wondering about the Orgran mix. (Partially because I still have most of the bag in my cabinet, and I dislike throwing things away.) As I said, you need a lot of cornstarch roux to make a gravy come together, and rice flour can sometimes produce an unpleasant grittyness. But one tablespoon of the Orgran mix turned a cup of water into a thick, brown gel. Granted, it didn't taste like anything, but it definitely has thickening power. My next gravy experiment will probably be to take vegetable broth (Imagine's No-Chicken Broth is the store-bought house favorite, or I make my own) and thicken it with the Orgran mix. Maybe then I'll have found a gravy worth eating.


Blogger bazu said...

I totally concur. Last Thanksgiving, we gave in and bought powdered gravy mix. It tasted, literally, like nothing. I couldn't taste it. Which isn't to say it was bad, it was... nothing. It's easier to infuse flavor into homemade gravy, isn't it?

Now let's talk white gravy for veg. biscuits and gravy... mmmmmm, perfect with tempeh sausage, made from scratch because it's ridiculously easy.

9:20 PM  
Anonymous Angela said...

My mama has made gravy from nothing but butter, flour, salt and milk. It was quite yummy with biscuits, no meat at all. I don't eat this stuff anymore, but when I did, it was warm and cozy.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My gravy recipe, which my meat & gluten eating hubby loves more than regular gravy, is as follows (though I don't follow recipes...I used a Vegetarian Times veggie gravy recipe once about 15 years ago, and now I just make it):
Saute about 1/4 onion, finely diced
and a few mushrooms, finely diced, in butter or olive oil.
In a small pot, bring stock (homemade, veg-it, your favorite bullion) to a near boil. Lower heat and add some soy sauce (I use Bragg's), poultry seasoning, additional sage, a bay leaf, a small handful of peppercorns, whatever else you want to season it with.
Key step: Dissolve a hearty spoonful of Miso into the broth. Keep it at a low simmer, not a boil.
Thicken however you like (my family just used turkey juice, never floured, so I'm not so good at this...rice flour, potato starch, corn starch, arrowroot...) and add the mushroom/onion mixture to it right before it's thick enough to be done.

You may want to strain out the aromatics like the bay leaf and whole peppercorns, but I love the peppercorns in there...

See if you can fix this :) But it goes over wonderfully and is delish on mashed potatoes!


9:31 AM  
Blogger confessionalista said...

I like the orgran gravy my self
( actually its the only one of the 4 you tried, which is available here in Australia ). I add cream and brandy , and sometimes green ( mushed ) pepper corns , from a tin or jar .
I also add carrot water ( water that carrots have been cooked in ).
I think the other best gravy - booster is ... onion . Especially roasted onion . I noticed that ne$tle food service gravy is packed with onion , and that is what makes it good , methinks .
I like potato starch for rouxs ( don't ask me about proportions - its all intuitive. I've also used water off the potatoes , for extra body . And a dash of Massels "chicken-style" stock makes everything savoury, better .

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am really amazed at how little flavour the Orgran mix really has. My experience is the same as yours: beautiful colour and texture, but no taste (well except a little bitterness). I only use it mixed with another gravy mix (Massel - good flavour but very thin) or with lots of soy sauce, stock etc.

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