Meatless Monday: Biscuits and vegetarian red eye gravy

Adapted from 'The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook,' this red eye gravy gets its umami-rich, sausage-like flavor and texture from mushrooms, herbs and spices. Paired with easy-to-make drop biscuits, it creates an iconic Southern breakfast. 

Blue Kitchen
This biscuit and gravy recipes uses portobello mushrooms instead of sausage, perfect for a vegetarian breakfast.

At dinner with friends the other night, one of the diners at our table exclaimed over a vegetarian entrée on the menu. I realized at that moment that I will never willingly become a vegetarian. If there are meat or seafood options on a menu, I can’t get excited about vegetarian choices. Or as I put it to our companions, “It would take a death threat from my doctor to make me turn vegetarian.”

That said, we are trying to eat less meat these days. So when I was offered a review copy of "The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook: 100 Down-Home Recipes for the Modern Table," I said yes, please. Traditional Southern cuisine relies heavily on meat – bacon, ham hocks, ribs … even pie crusts are made better and flakier with lard. I was curious to see how classic recipes would work without meat. Based on this one, the answer is deliciously.

"The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook" is the work of husband-and-wife team Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence, creators of The Chubby Vegetarian food blog. They turn the meat-centric view of Southern cooking on its head, recasting garden bounty as the star of the plate.

And that garden bounty makes up much of the ingredient list in the recipes in this book, supported by an impressive mix of flavor-boosting herbs and spices. Refreshingly, beans, cheeses, and eggs deliver much of the protein, not vegetarian food products. Seitan and tempeh each appear in a single recipe, tofu in only a few.

The cookbook covers everything from breakfast and brunch to appetizers, salads, soups, sandwiches, main courses, desserts, and even drinks. It also has basic recipes for sauces, stocks and other building blocks, as well as helpful tips on stocking a vegetarian pantry. Justin’s beautiful photographs not only show you how each finished dish should look (a big plus to me with any cookbook), they whet the appetites of even staunch carnivores like me.

Biscuits and gravy are perhaps the iconic Southern breakfast food. I grew up in St. Louis, either the southernmost Northern city or the northernmost Southern city, depending on who’s doing the telling. So I grew up eating biscuits and gravy. A lot. Even now, when I find them on the breakfast menu in some diner or cafe, I usually give in to temptation. Sadly, I’m usually disappointed. Typically, the biscuits aren’t the problem – for biscuits and gravy, even passable biscuits will do. It’s the gravy that has to be right.

Most often, that gravy is some kind of sausage gravy – pork sausage browned in a skillet, flour browned in the rendered fat as a thickening agent, milk, salt and pepper. If no meat is available, the flour is often browned in lard. True red eye gravy is simply the rendered fat from fried ham and coffee cooked together. None of these sounds appetizing as words on a page. As actual gravy on biscuits, they are sublime – elemental cooking at its best (and unhealthiest). In corner-cutting commercial kitchens, unfortunately, the gravy can become a bland, pasty affair, tasting mostly of undercooked flour.

Justin and Amy’s robust vegetarian recipe owes more to sausage gravy than it does red eye. At its “meaty” heart is that meatiest of mushrooms, the portobello. Diced, it cooks down into satisfying, chewy little bites of umami goodness. A shot of espresso or coffee creates a hint of red eye and deepens the gravy’s flavor.

For their version, Justin and Amy used a little liquid smoke to add to the meatiness. I opted instead for herbs and spices used in sausage making. Specifically, fennel seed, thyme, salt, and lots of black pepper. We both used crushed red pepper flakes to add the touch of heat the best biscuits and gravy always seem to have.

How was it? Marion and I have a term for when dishes turn out exceptionally well. If something is good enough that we’d be happy if it had been served to us in a restaurant and we were paying for it, we call it restaurant good. This dish was in a subset of that – diner good.

It was also startlingly meaty. I had cooked this dish. I knew what was (and more important, wasn’t) in it. But I still was convinced that I was biting into bits of sausage as I ate it.

Drop biscuits and vegetarian red eye gravy
Breakfast for 4 when served with fried, scrambled or poached eggs

You can make the gravy first and let it sit on the stove while you make the biscuits, gently reheating it while they bake. Regarding the biscuits, my recipe is simple and delicious, but make whatever biscuits you like, including canned.

For the gravy

3-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1-1/2 cups diced portobello mushrooms (see Kitchen Notes)

1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (see Kitchen Notes)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup strong black coffee

1-1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

For the biscuits
Makes 8 to 9 biscuits (this recipe owes a great deal to America’s Test Kitchen)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

1. Make the gravy. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add diced mushrooms and toss to coat with butter. Add fennel seeds, thyme and red pepper flakes. Season with salt and black pepper, being generous with the pepper. Toss to combine and cook mushrooms, stirring frequently, until browned, tender and slightly cooked down in volume, about 5 minutes. Add coffee and cook until almost evaporated, stirring frequently, 1 to 2 minutes.

2. Transfer mushroom mixture to bowl and set aside. Do NOT wipe skillet. Melt remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons of butter in skillet and sprinkle in flour. Cook, whisking continuously, until flour and butter combine and flour browns slightly, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Stir in milk and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook until gravy thickens, stirring occasionally, 5 to 10 minutes. A skin will occasionally form on the top of the gravy as it thickens; just stir it back into the gravy. Taste and adjust seasonings. You want the gravy on the salty side and with plenty of pepper, so don’t skimp here. When biscuits are ready, split one (or more) open on each plate and spoon gravy over.

4. Make the biscuits. Preheat oven to 475 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or else lightly grease a baking sheet). Melt butter in a small saucepan, then transfer to a small bowl to cool slightly. Mix dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

5. Pour chilled buttermilk into a 2-cup measuring cup. Add melted butter and stir until clumps form. Stir buttermilk mixture into flour mixture with a rubber spatula just until the ingredients are incorporated. At first, it may seem as if you need more liquid. You don’t. Just keep scraping the bottom of the bowl until you’ve worked all the flour into the dough.

6. Using a greased 1/3-cup measure, scoop mounds of dough and drop them onto baking sheet, spacing about 1-1/2 inches apart. Press on them with your fingers to slightly flatten and form into a biscuit shape. Bake biscuits until the tops are golden brown, 10 to 14 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest on the baking sheet for a few minutes.

Kitchen Notes

Meaty mushrooms. Portobellos really are a great choice here. You’ll need two decent-sized ones to get the 1-1/2 cups diced mushrooms needed for this recipe. If the stems are fresh and tender, by all means use them as well. If they’re on the tough side, freeze them for use in making a stock later, vegetarian or otherwise. If you can’t get portobellos, button mushrooms will also work.

Heat it up. I almost listed the crushed red pepper flakes as optional for this recipe, but they really aren’t. A good sausage gravy needs a little heat. The 1/4 teaspoon of pepper flakes I used gave the gravy a nice kick. You can back it off to 1/8 teaspoon if you’re truly heat averse. And if you absolutely must, you can leave the pepper flakes out altogether. But it won’t be as good and I don’t want to hear about it if you do.

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