PHILADELPHIA City Paper
June 22-28, 2006
Faking Us Out
by A.D. Amorosi
I’d say the cheesesteak has had a bad rap—what with the national attention it’s received for its primary proponent, Joe Vento—if it wasn’t the cheesesteak we were talking about. In terms of haute cuisine, it’s one step away from the scrapple hoagie. Still, it’s Philadelphia’s signature dish. And there have been attempts to uplift its profile—a la Barclay Prime and its $100 Kobe beef bite.
But on May 23’s edition of NBC’s Today Show, along with the Barclay beauty and cheesesteak spring rolls from The Four Seasons, another sandwich joined that pantheon in national debate on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Elizabeth Fiend’s vegetarian Philly Cheese Fake. There, Fiend, host/creator of the local Big Tea Party television show, presented her usual vision of craftiness and anarchy toward the right-minded ideal of healthy living.
It’s not the first time Fiend and her Cheese Fake have been publicized; she was featured on the Food Network. But since Philly’s no longer the “fattest city,” why shouldn’t the face of healthier living have been Fiend’s? “I did very well, had a lot of confidence, looked freaky but still very pretty, and gave credit to the Greater Philadelphia Department of Tourism for thinking outside the box and inviting me to be included with that impressive lineup of chefs,” says Fiend of her appearance.
But what about the food? Named by her husband, Allen, Elizabeth’s Cheese Fake features a vegetarian recipe based on “wheat meat” or seitan—an ancient food invented by Buddhist monks—served with lots of caramelized onions, and red and green bell peppers. “Other than the thin slicing, which is crucial to the taste, this sandwich is easy to make and yummy,” says Fiend. “When the Food Network filmed a segment in my kitchen last year, the producer bought a “real” steak from down the street to compare with my sandwich. They proclaimed my sandwich … had more flavor.”
You can buy seitan premade at any natural foods market, though creating a meat analog, from scratch, demystifies the concept for people new to meat-free foods—especially since “wheat meat” is little more than boiled bread dough, minus the yeast and starch, simmered in a flavored broth and then baked, fried, ground or otherwise made into vegetarian chicken, beef or pork.
And if you don’t feel like making Fiend’s recipe (you can find it below, a lot of places sell Fiend-friendly fakes. While my fave appears at Sabrina’s Cafe (910 Christian St.), Fiend mentions Gianna’s Grille (507 S. Sixth St.), which sells one popular with the pierced-and-tattooed crowd. “There are some dreadful ones at chain hoagie shops now too,” says Fiend. “Made by people who have no idea as to what to do with a meat analog.”
Recipe by Elizabeth Fiend
BiG TeA PaRtY
“OK, so there’s no steak and you don’t have to add cheese, but I do live in Philly,” says Fiend.
1 pound of wheat meat (rinsed in a colander) sliced really, really, thinly
1 large green bell pepper, sliced really, really, thinly
1 large red bell pepper, sliced really, really thinly
1 large onion –you guessed it—sliced really, really thinly
4 long sandwich rolls (whole wheat if you can get ’em)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons ketchup
6 cloves garlic (more if you like)
1 tablespoon sage
Dash or two of hot cayenne pepper powder
8 slices orange American cheese (or vegan cheese, or no cheese)
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with olive oil and throw the peppers, onion and wheat meat on it. Mix it up. Add the remaining ingredients (except bread and cheese). Mix it up. Bake for 15 minutes. Turn it all around (and do the hokey pokey). Bake another 15 minutes (or until vegetables are cooked to your liking). Shape the “meat” on the baking tray to the approximate size of your rolls. Melt the cheese on top. (Vegetarians: Use the cheapest, most orange American cheese you can find. Are you a vegan? Can you get vegan cheese? OK, add it now, melt just for a bit cuz it gets weird. If you can’t find vegan cheese, it’s OK, really. Just go cheeseless.) Lightly toast the rolls while the cheese is melting. Serve. The pros in Philly open the roll and use it to scoop up the steak (only wimps use a spatula). Makes 4 sandwiches.