Watermelon ham. Radish prosciutto. Jerky sticks made from burdock root.
It would be easy to view these recent inventions simply as fresh evidence of the veganizing of the American diet. But each is the work of a chef with a decidedly carnivorous bent.
The first two were created by Will Horowitz, the omnivorously curious chef and co-owner of Ducks Eatery, in Manhattan — better known these days for the smoked goat neck and St. Louis-style pork ribs served at its outdoor taco stand. The burdock-root jerky comes from the master meat curer Jeremy Umansky, a chef and co-owner of Larder, in Cleveland, where it shares the menu (now just takeout) with house-cured pancetta, pastrami and coppa ham.
Like those traditional salumi, these new foods are cured, smoked and served as charcuterie — yet they’re made without meat.
Plant-based charcuterie may sound like an oxymoron. After all, “charcuterie” derives from the French words chair, which translates as flesh, and cuite, which means cooked. Here, though, the flesh arrives from the garden, not from the butcher. And fruit and vegetable charcuterie offers the allure of bright colors, intriguing textures, and flavors that are simultaneously familiar and delectably different.
“We use the same ancient techniques of meat charcuterie — salting, curing, drying, fermenting and smoking,” Mr. Horowitz said. “The trick is finding the right cocktail for each vegetable.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Horowitz supplied the fast-food vegan restaurant chain By Chloe with smoked carrot “hot dogs.” (“They bite, snap, and taste like a hot dog,” Mr. Horowitz said. “We’ve sold more than 20,000 to date.”) These join a sustainable kelp jerky his company, Cured, developed for Akua Sea Greens in New York City, and a plant jerky he is working on for Country Archer Provisions, a grass-fed beef snack company in San Bernardino, Calif.
Mr. Umansky is in talks with a Japanese koji manufacturer to form an American-based company that would sell his signature brand of koji-cured vegetable charcuterie.
That’s not to say that carnivores have a monopoly on these new smoked and cured foods.
When the chef Rich Landau and his wife, the pastry chef Kate Jacoby, opened the upscale vegan restaurant Fancy Radish in Washington, D.C., in 2018, they made a painterly vegetable charcuterie board one of their signature dishes. Waiters would bear handsome trenchers piled with crispy smoked shiitakes, pastrami-spiced carrots, deviled kohlrabi and fire-charred Chioggia beets through the dining room — back when people sat in dining rooms.
“They don’t look so appetizing piled in a to-go box,” Mr. Landau said ruefully, so he now uses the individual components on the toasts and salads served on the newly pared-down menus at Fancy Radish and its sister restaurant, Vedge, in Philadelphia.
Mr. Landau dislikes meat-evoking names like mushroom “bacon” and tofu “ham,” but his shiitakes certainly crunch like crisp bacon, releasing rich flavors of fat and wood smoke. He serves them with heirloom tomatoes on toast — a vegan BLT. The tofu goes on roasted-beet toasts, the ensemble perfumed with the haunting scent of wood smoke.
“Our goal is not to replicate meat, but to give vegetables some of the flavors that carnivores love,” Mr. Landau said. “Our menus may be vegan, but 95 percent of our clientele are omnivores.”
One of the challenges of making fruit and vegetable charcuterie is how profoundly it differs from the meat-based version.
Meat consists largely of protein, which provides texture, flavor and a sense of satiation, and fat, which contributes richness and a luxurious mouthfeel. As a result, you don’t need to do much to it. Prosciutto calls for only pork and salt — as well as the time and air circulation needed to dry and cure it. (The same goes for Italian bresaola and the Swiss cured dried beef known as bündnerfleisch.) Tennessee country ham, Tyrolean speck and German Black Forest ham require only pork, salt and wood smoke.
Contrast that with Mr. Horowitz’s watermelon ham, a dish that become an internet sensation after he introduced it two years ago at Ducks Eatery.
It starts with a seedless watermelon, the rind meticulously pared off. Then it’s cured for four days in a brine flavored with tamari, oregano and garlic to give it the salty umami flavor of ham. Wood ash from the smoker is added to the brine — a primitive source of lye, which helps firm up the melon’s exterior. (Its high alkalinity helps form a skin.)
The melon is put in the refrigerator, uncovered, for several hours to air-dry, then smoked low and slow, like a pork shoulder. The surface is scored in a crosshatch pattern like an Easter ham, before the fruit is smoked hot and fast to darken the crust. Mr. Horowitz went so far as to serve his watermelon ham with pan gravy — made with the watermelon drippings, flavored with garlic and rosemary and thickened with buckwheat flour.
The result bore an uncanny resemblance to ham: the surface dark, the interior incarnadine, the flesh easy to cut into meaty slices. Who cares if it doesn’t really taste like ham? (It tastes like briny smoked watermelon.)
Thanks to the dish, Mr. Horowitz became a social media star almost overnight. Diners came from as far away as Australia and Japan to sample the watermelon, lining up in such droves that Mr. Horowitz finally took it off the menu.
“We didn’t want to become a one-trick pony,” he said. Its successor, a cantaloupe “burger,” uses similar curing and smoking techniques. So does the smoked cantaloupe yakitori now served at his taco stand.
Mr. Umansky, the Cleveland chef, looks to Asia, specifically Japan, for his vegetable charcuterie, including the jerky sticks made from burdock root. He smokes the root at 190 degrees over shagbark hickory in a commercial smoker for one hour — “just long enough to remove the rawness, but briefly enough to leave it al dente.”
Next, he cures it for a week with pastrami spices, which in addition to the usual pepper, coriander, garlic and onion include umami-rich mushroom powder, cocoa and coffee. “Now the fun part,” Mr. Umansky said. By “fun,” he means dusting the burdock with koji spores and letting it ripen in a warm, moist curing chamber for 36 hours.
(Mr. Umansky is a self-described mold geek. He once delivered an entire TED Talk on koji, and in May published a book called “Koji Alchemy: Rediscovering the Magic of Mold-Based Fermentation,” about the mold spore used to transform rice into sake and soybeans into miso and soy sauce. The book, seemingly aimed at a niche audience, has sold more than 10,000 copies.)
But the burdock doesn’t become a meat stick until it is hung in a food dehydrator for three to five days, losing half of its original weight.
The end product looks like the sort of naturally fermented sausage you’d find at a European farmers’ market: Its shriveled skin has a delicate dusting of white mold; the casing is snappy, and the interior softly crunchy. The flavor is spicy, peppery, smoky and meaty — a bold reimagining of German landjäger.
“Vegetable charcuterie is complicated,” Mr. Umansky said. “To get the cure to penetrate the vegetable, first you have to soften it by smoking. But soften the cell structure too much, and the vegetable collapses. Smoke it too hot or too long, and you close the pores and dry it out. The texture definitely affects the flavor.”
This brings us to the one essential ingredient in virtually all plant-based charcuterie: wood smoke.
“How do you become a vegetarian when you love the flavor of meat?” asked Mr. Landau, reflecting on his own dietary journey. “Wood smoke goes a long way toward satisfying my carnivorous palate.”
But smoke most vegetables raw, and you wind up with what he calls the ashtray effect — a bitter smoke flavor. Mr. Landau avoids this by using a two-step process: an initial smoke at a low temperature to gently infuse the vegetable with a smoke flavor, and a hot smoke at the end to form a crust.
To make his smoky Chioggia beets, for example, he simmers the beets whole in vegetable stock flavored with Montreal steak seasoning (which supplies the meaty flavor). Once they are peeled and sliced, he smokes them over a mixture of mesquite, apple and cherry wood, working over low heat to “keep the vegetable pores open.”
But it’s not until he applies sherry vinegar (“to sharpen the smoke flavor”) and olive oil (“for sheen”), letting the beets cool in the resulting vinaigrette, that the Chioggias became more than the sum of their parts. That’s the goal of charcuterie everywhere — a transformation of a food into an entirely new one.
Each of these chefs has a deeply personal motivation for creating plant-based charcuterie.
“I gave up meat for ethical reasons,” said Mr. Landau, who became a vegetarian at age 16 and never looked back. “I hated how the animals are treated. And the meat industry wreaks havoc on the environment.
“I didn’t want to become a widow-maker,” he added, citing the health risks of many Americans’ meat-heavy diets. “But I still crave those deep smoky flavors to satisfy my meat-loving palate.”
For Mr. Umansky, who owns Larder with his wife, Allie La Valle-Umansky, and Kenny Scott, the meatless-charcuterie moment came five years ago with the birth of the Umanskys’ daughter, Emilia Morchella Louise. (A morchella is a morel mushroom.)
“Climate change and sustainability are the most important issues facing humanity,” Mr. Umansky said. “I don’t want my daughter to grow up and resent my generation for not doing anything about it.”
He also appreciates how plant-based charcuterie brings all kinds of diners to his delicatessen. “We want everyone — meat eaters, vegetarians and vegans — to enjoy the delicatessen experience,” he said.
Mr. Horowitz echoes these sentiments in “Salt Smoke Time,” the 2019 book he wrote with Marisa Dobson and his sister, Julie Horowitz, a co-owner of Ducks Eatery. “I believe that a sustainable future relies not necessarily on the absence of meat altogether, but on a drastic reduction, along with diversifying our diet and becoming more reliant on local foods.”
For the moment, most vegetable charcuterie remains restaurant food — way too time-consuming and complex for most of us to prepare. But I’m including three recipes here that home cooks can execute with readily available ingredients and a simple charcoal grill or stovetop smoker.
One is Mr. Landau’s crispy smoked shiitakes, made by deep-frying thinly sliced mushrooms, then lightly smoking them on the grill. (Indoors, you could use a stovetop smoker or hand-held smoker.) If one goal of vegetable charcuterie is to mimic its meat counterpart, this dish succeeds admirably.
Another is Mr. Umansky’s smoked carrots with baker’s yeast. You smoke the carrots just long enough to make them pliant, but leave most of the raw crunch intact. The sauce — sweet with maple syrup, malty and gritty (but in a good way) with yeast — has an otherworldly quality. This is vegetable charcuterie that makes no pretense of imitating meat. I guarantee you’ve never tasted a carrot quite like it.
The last is the famous watermelon ham, adapted from Mr. Horowitz’s book. It looks like ham. With a little imagination, it smells like ham. And if it doesn’t really taste like ham — no matter how many craft cocktails you drink — well, on Instagram, it’s just perfect.
And to Drink …
Fruit and vegetable charcuterie may vary in texture and juiciness from the meat versions, but the signature smoke, spice and umami flavors will still show through. For that reason, I’d select wines that would also go with their more conventional cousins. Cool fino or manzanilla sherry, for example, is wonderful with ham and other smoked treats. It would be delicious with these dishes, too. Or you could try a sparkling wine, Champagne or cava in particular, which would also go really well with these savory flavors. Dry rosés would be a fine choice, as would sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley. If you prefer a red, I would opt for something on the lighter side, like a Beaujolais, inexpensive cabernet franc from the Loire or a Ribeira Sacra from the Galicia region of Spain. ERIC ASIMOV