Ask Peter: Crackling for vegetarians
I’ve been vegetarian for the last 3 years and enjoying it, but one texture I really miss is pork crackling — not the flavour but the crack as you eat it. I made a cheese pasta with pumpkin seeds on it; they had a nice flavour but were quite brittle. Are there any other options?
I have to say, the one thing most converted-vegetarians say they miss more than anything is bacon or crackling so it’s good to have a few ideas up your sleeve.
I remember many years ago we served a vegetarian risotto at the Notting Hill Sugar Club in London. One disgruntled customer sent it back claiming it contained bacon, but what it actually contained was the delicious Spanish pimenton or what most would know as “smoked paprika”. It has absolutely no taste of pork or bacon, but the smokiness is something that many will think of as bacon — rather than smoked fish or similar.
Once I understood that, it made it much simpler creating meals that would keep both omnivores and vegetarians happy. I began to use smoked paprika in sauces made from pureed tofu, roast garlic and almonds — which went really well spooned over grilled broccoli. I’d add it to roast potatoes and chickpeas — lovely hearty crunchy textures that would be all the nicer if almost drowned in olive oil, sort of an imitation duck-fat-roastie-lardon dish.
So, what I’d suggest here is something that combines smokiness with a crunchy texture, and that could be a pimenton peanut toffee brittle.
For this, you need to have some roasted, unsalted peanuts — nice and golden and crisp. Golden caster sugar (unrefined) works really well as it has a lovely toffee flavour.
Manuka smoked salt will add some of the smokiness, but smoked-paprika will be the hero ingredient. There are three types of pimenton, although you’ll generally just find two: picante (spicy) and dulce (sweet). The third is agrodolce (sweet and sour) and it sits, as expected between the two.
For the brittle, however, I find using the dulce works best as you can use more than the picante to increase the smokiness, without it becoming too fiery.
Pimenton peanut toffee brittle
Mix 100g crushed roasted, unsalted peanuts with 1 teaspoon smoked paprika and ½ teaspoon smoked salt.
If the salt is coarse, crush it using pestle and mortar — don’t make it too fine. Line an oven tray with baking parchment or a silicone baking mat. In a saucepan over medium heat, cook ¾ cup sugar over medium heat. Once the sugar has more than half-melted, avoid stirring it as you could cause it to crystallise. Instead, shake the pan to move the melted sugar around. It will slowly turn into a syrup and then slowly it will become golden — and if you’re not quick enough it will go dark, burn and taste bitter. So keep an eye on it.
Once the syrup is golden and beginning to smell like toffee, add the nut mixture and stir over low heat for 20 seconds to coat the nuts evenly. Tip the mixture on your tray, then lay another sheet of baking parchment on top, and roll it 3-4mm thick with a rolling pin. Leave it to cool completely, then peel the top parchment off and break into pieces.
Store in an airtight container and it’ll keep in a cool place (not the fridge — it’s too cold) for up to two weeks. If you’re unable to eat peanuts, then pumpkin seeds work well in place of them.
Try toasting a mixture of ½ cup pumpkin seeds, ½ teaspoon smoked paprika, 1 tablespoon olive oil and some smoked salt in an oven at 160C until golden. They won’t have the crunch of crackling, but they’ll be pretty bacon-y all the same.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes here.