Remember the battle of the Chicken Sandwich? Now you don't have to miss out. This sandwich is totally vegan, easily converted to gluten-free, and uses fermented chili sauce!
Ah, the battle of the fried chicken sandwich. Simpler times, right? On the surface they certainly felt like it. Popeyes vs. Chik-fil-a. Before that point, Popeyes, a Louisiana-born Cajun fast food restaurant had never offered a fried chicken sandwich. This expansion was a no brainier for them. Once it was launched, social went wild, ya'll. There was so much free publicity from folks just sharing reviews and photos. It was brilliant and Popeyes couldn't keep their sandwich on the menu to meet demand. It was removed for a month or so while Popeyes worked behind the scenes to ready more.
At this point, my wheels started turning thinking about what that actually looks like. The behind-the-scenes. I didn't actually have to imagine much as my husband and I had just recently watched "Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!". Despite the inherent fatphobia behind this franchise and the fact that in the end ::SPOILER:: he didn't promote a plant-based diet despite everything he saw, it was a pretty eyeopening documentary on chicken based fast food chains, industry practices, the green washing of fast food, and the chicken farmers caught in the middle. The documentary frames itself as a response to "Big Chicken" - what Morgan Spurlock calls the chicken industry. In the film, Spurlock seeks to start his own small farm to raise and slaughter chickens for his very own "healthy" chicken fast food restaurant. Spurlock exposes the truth behind popular industry trigger words like: Free range, farm raised, hormone-free, and natural. While I felt like the film promoted informed consumerism, which is of the utmost importance, Spurlock makes no effort at all to explore vegetarian options in his chain "Holy Chicken". Rather, he uses the information gained as some sort of sarcastic gimmick that reveals the truth to customers in classic fast-food graphic design but offers the customer no alternative. Many of these chickens are so unhealthy from being bred into the large breasted and fast growing breed they are today that they suffer heart attacks when startled. Not the mention that Spurlock even accidentally steps on and kills a baby chick at one point. The experienced farmer with him assures him that it happens all the time and to just watch out.
While watching, I couldn't help but feel that after all we had learned about the industry - the climax of the documentary did very little to show that it, or Spurlock, had actually learned anything. The punchline to this big experimental joke was that not only did the customers not care - but neither did Spurlock. Not enough to offer an alternative at least. Simply put, Spurlock wanted to prove some edgelord-esk point that human beings just don't give AF and "look at all these awful people giving me money to continue to contribute to this awful industry even though the truth is right in front of them via wall decorations". It seems to me that if Spurlock was more interested in having a positive impact and less in shaming people for being brainwashed by corporations, he would have presented the truth along with an alternative to show folks that this doesn't have to be our reality. However, Spurlock isn't actually interested in that at all. In the end, it seems his only true interest is to position himself above others and feed his "know-it-all" ego.
Despite the inherent flaws and missed opportunities of the film, when the Popeyes Chicken Sandwich craze was at it's height and folks had to wait for Popeyes to "restock" - I now had a visual of what that looked like. The approx. 35 day old chickens being slaughtered and the farmers being taken advantage of by big corporations. Many fast food restaurant chains are failing just as Spurlock did by not offering their customers a plant-based alternative. With the rise and innovations in plant-based ground beef, many long time plant-based folks will tell you that chicken has been left behind in these advancements. While there are a few okay chicken alternatives out there, none quite match the quality in texture and mouth feel like the Impossible burgers do with ground beef. Many long-time plant-based folks will also tell you that it's not a surprise to see Burger King become a fast food pioneer in plant-based meat. For years, they were one of the only big name chains ( at least on the east coast) who offered a veggie burger. Sure, it wasn't the same quality but it was something!
In recent news, it looks like KFC has decided to partner with Beyond Meat to test out their own "chicken" in select stores around the US and Canada. While the "chicken" looks promising for those with less strict definitions of vegan & vegetarian, the "chicken" is deep fried in the same oil as actual chicken. While I doubt any of my gluten-free friends are running to KFC, it shouldn't be a shock to know that not only is the breading not gluten-free but the "chicken" isn't either. Vital Wheat Gluten is excellent in giving the mock fibrous layer-y texture of chicken but not awesome for folks with serious gluten allergy. It's just straight gluten. I enjoy seitan from time to time but try to avoid it on a day to day basis. When it comes to chicken alternatives options, we mainly have mushroom based, soy-based, pea-based, and gluten-based. The mushroom based are often the most nutritious but typically require hand harvested mushrooms. These can often be expensive and not readily available for everyone. With all the misguided soy fear mongering, it's no wonder even folks without soy allergies try to avoid this ingredient. Pea-based alternatives can prove a problem for folks allergic to legumes and gluten-based is pretty self explanatory.
It can be incredibly hard to satisfy everyone in each food camp with one single meat alternative. The truth remains though - we're still waiting on one to not only replicate chicken in a believable way but one that's also available to us at the grocery store. What I don't like is knowing that companies like Beyond, who sell their other products in store, are reserving a quality meat alternative for fast food chains. I'm sure there's some pretty wild contracts involved there but I don't like it. So what did I do? Ya girl developed her own. That's not to say that you can't use a grocery store alternative. I'm a fan of Gardein, myself. Even so, Gardein's Chick’n Scallopini leaves something to be desired. That something is texture. It's great if you're craving a "chicken" sandwich and don't have the time to make your own though!
The recipe for this "chicken" is totally gluten-free and uses my new favorite food - Soy Curls. Soy Curls are a magical ingredient that soak up flavor and create beautiful texture within this sandwich. The all-natural binders that we use here are Mung Bean powder and Tapioca starch. Mung bean helps to get structure to the adhesion and Tapioca lends a similar mouthfeel to the slightly slippery layers within chicken. A blend of spices and plain ol' h2o helps mimic the flavor in a way that doesn't feel like it's overcompensating. As for the sandwich, we bathe our "chicken" in a buttermilk bath seasoned with El Itis Fermented Chili Sauce and then top it with the same chili sauce mixed with a little agave nectar. El Itis Fermented Chili Sauce is a Black woman owned business based out of DC. Chef Malena Catherine has bottled up brilliance with her recipe that not only lends heat but also a TON of flavor. She takes orders through direct message on both instagram and facebook.
This recipe can be made completely vegan & gluten free by making simple swaps for the flour and buns. It's going to be important that you prep everything before you get started with your frying to make the process go smoothly. The "chicken" can be made days ahead of time and stored in the freezer. However, they are best day of. When it comes to frying the "chicken", its best to use a thermometer to make sure the oil is at a crispy 350 degrees.
Sweet Heat Fried "Chicken" Sandwich
Author: Megan Thompson Aston
Time: ~2 1/2 hrs
Servings: 4 Sandwiches
For the "Chicken" Marinade & Patties*
2 cups soy curls
2 cups warm water
1 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 tsp poultry seasoning
1 tsp apple cider vinegar
1 tsp agave
1/4 tsp dill (optional)
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4 cup mung bean powder
2 tsp tapioca starch
For Flour Dredge
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp nutritional yeast
2 tsp onion powder
2 tsp garlic powder
1 1/2 tsp cayenne
1/4 tsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp freshly cracked black pepper
For Buttermilk Batter
1 cup plant-milk (soy or oat are best)
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup flour dredge
For Sweet & Spicy Sauce
2 Tbsp agave nectar
For Assembly & Frying
Canola, avocado, or peanut oil
4 plant-based hamburger buns of your choice, undersides brushed with oil
Pickles or pickled banana peppers
For the "Chicken"
In a medium-sized bowl, mix together your dry seasonings - nutritional yeast, poultry seasoning, dill, garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper. Add the two cups of warm water, agave nectar, and apple cider vinegar to your seasonings and stir until you have a broth like liquid.
Add your soy curls. Give them a stir and push them down into the liquid. Allow them to sit in the marinade until they're completely hydrated. About an hour.
Set aside and prep your other elements of the dish while you wait.
For the Flour Dredge
In a medium bowl, thoroughly combine all your ingredients.
Transfer dry mix to a large shallow bowl that will allow your to easily cover your "chicken"
For the Buttermilk Batter
In a small bowl, combine all your wet ingredients first. You should notice the plant-milk thickening slightly. This is the buttermilk coming together.
Now add 1/4 cup of your dry flour mixture and mix until completely combined.
Pour mixture into a wide shallow bowl that will eventually fit all your "chicken" patties.
Take a couple tablespoons of your buttermilk batter and drizzle it into the dry flour dredge. Use a fork to toss into it. This is an optional step, but it will help create yummy crispy layers on your chicken.
Cover and set aside at room temp.
For the Sweet & Spicy Chili Sauce
In a small bowl, simply mix together both ingredients and set aside. Easy peasy.
Forming & Baking the "Chicken"
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a large piece of parchment paper. Cut out a second piece of equal size and set aside.
Once your chicken feels soft and hydrated, use your hands to push down and squeeze the "chicken" in the broth. Let go and watch as it soaks up the majority of the broth.
Without squeezing again, drain out the remainder of the liquid. Do not pressed the liquid of of the chicken. Once you've poured out the reminder, about a 1/4 cup may pool at the bottom still. This is what you want.
In the same bowl, add the mung bean powder and tapioca starch to your hydrated soy curls. Mix thoroughly. Your mixture will seem slightly wet.
Leaving room on the sides to create a pouch, take about 3/4 cup of the soy curl mixture and form into chicken breast shapes on your parchment lined baking sheet. Press them slightly into form. You will make 4 patties this way. Forming on the parchment paper is key. The mixture itself isn't sticky and will not form in your hands.
Once all four patties are formed, lay your other sheet of parchment paper on top of the patties and tightly fold in each side to create a steaming pouch.
Insert your baking sheet/pouch into the oven and allow it to bake for 45 minutes.
Once done, remove the "chicken" from the oven and cut open the pouch. They will firm up as they cool.
When the chicken is slightly cool to the touch, use your hands to press and compact each patty. Pressing it onto the baking sheet. Allow to cool until completely set. About 20 minutes.
Move the chicken into the buttermilk batter and allow it to sit there while you prep your frying station.
For Frying & Assembly
First, you'll want to set up a frying station complete with your buttermilk batter, dry flour dredge, chicken patties, hamburger buns brushes with oil, and a wire rack to transfer your fried chicken to.
You'll want to use a good frying pan with straight sides. This can be cast iron or not. Make sure it's deep enough to hold oil and prevent spillage. Place this pan on a main burner and fill pan with about 1/2 - 1 inch of oil.
You'll also want another pan on the stove for toasting your buns. If you aren't great at multitasking, toast your buns before you begin to fry.
Begin heating your oil on medium until a thermometer reads 350. If you don't have a thermometer, sprinkle a bit of your dry mixture into the oil. If it beings to fry instantly, you're oil is most likely ready. For the best results, use a thermometer.
While your oil is heating, begin coating all your "chicken". One by one, remove each "chicken" patty from the buttermilk batter, cover it in the dry mixture, move back to lightly cover with buttermilk batter, again back to cover with the dry mixture*, and then into the frying pan for 3-5 minutes on each side or until golden. *On the last transfer to the dry mixture for each patty - really press the dry mixture into the patty. This will help create that flaky crunchy effect.*
While your patties are frying, heat your other pan over medium-low and begin toasting your oiled buns until the edges are golden brown.
Once your chicken is fried and golden on each side, carefully use tongs to transfer them onto a wire rack and turn off your stove while you move on to assembly.
Spread the top of each toasted bun generously with plant-based mayo.
Move your fried "chicken" to the bottom bun, drizzle over with the El Etis Sweet & Spicy Chili Sauce, and top your pickles or pickled banana peppers.
Add your top bun and enjoy!
If using a pre-made chicken substitute, skip all the steps in preparing the actual patty itself.
The "chicken" patties can be pre-made and frozen for future use. They work well chopped up to top pizza, salads, and inside sandwich wraps!