When people think Kansas City barbecue, those thoughts naturally are filled with images of glistening brisket or succulent spare ribs.
This is to be expected, with our well-documented history as a cow town and home to a number of iconic barbecue restaurants.
There are purists who would argue that only certain ingredients merit the official barbecue moniker, and most likely those ingredients would all be some form of meat.
The truth is that there are a wealth of options to explore employing the ideas and methodology of barbecue, and some of the most fascinating of those come into view when gazing through a meatless lens.
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The beauty of barbecue is that it is a word that has come to mean something more than a single dish or sauce. It is a cuisine, a cooking type, a philosophy — studied and debated throughout the country as its boundaries are pushed by new technologies and ingredients.
And while there are few words that conjure the magic of summer quite like barbecue does, in Kansas City, barbecue season doesn’t close when the pools and drive-ins shutter. It is a year round endeavor.
Smoke is one of the most prominent aspects of barbecue, both in cooking and in flavor. So when adapting these principles to vegetable or meatless methods, smoke can lend that bit of familiarity that ties an unconventional ingredient, like tofu, back to the root of the cuisine. This can be achieved with hot or cold smoking techniques and, when combined with other barbecue hallmarks like a dry rub, will bring multiple layers of flavors to a dish much in the same way it does with classic meats like brisket or pork.
Just as with those traditional meats, part of unlocking an ingredient’s full potential is in understanding its composition and choosing a cooking technique that will help enhance its inherent traits.
When developing these vegan burnt ends, I looked at the high volume of water in tofu like I would the collagen and connective tissues of a meat like brisket, using low and slow heat to draw the moisture out, thus gradually infusing the tofu with weaving layers of flavor and texture from the dry rub and smoking process.
As it slowly smokes, the tofu gets basted with a sauce that will caramelize as it cooks down, creating the delicious “barbecue bark” effect that is unique to burnt ends. For meatless cooking, getting this texture is one of the keys to achieving the wholly satisfying, meaty succulence of classic barbecue that is lacking in many vegan and vegetarian preparations.
Whether you’re cooking for a crowd of vegetarians and carnivores, or just want a healthier alternative to the traditional fattier fare, try using the classic ideas and methods of barbecue to cook up something healthy and new. You may be surprised at just how deliciously indulgent a meatless meal can be.
Smoked Tofu Vegan Burnt Ends
These tofu burnt ends are cooked twice to evaporate the water in the tofu, concentrate flavor and add layers of texture. If you don’t want to pre-roast the tofu in the oven, add an additional 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time on the smoker/grill, watching to make sure they don’t stick.
Makes 4 servings
1 pound firm tofu, drained and cut into 1-inch-by-1-inch cubes
1 tablespoon grape seed or canola oil
3 tablespoons barbecue rub, store bought or homemade (recipe follows)
1/2 cup barbecue sauce, your favorite Kansas City sauce (Gates, Jack Stack, LC’s etc.)
Thoroughly drain the tofu on paper towels for 20 minutes or until most surface moisture is gone. Place drained tofu in a large mixing bowl, add 1 tablespoon of oil, sprinkle with barbecue seasoning and toss gently but thoroughly to coat evenly.
Put tofu on a nonstick or oiled baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes.
Set up a smoker or a grill for indirect grilling with soaked wood chips to add to fire. Add tofu to smoker/grill grates, spread evenly with space in between, and cook 20 minutes, checking halfway through and turning if needed. At this point, begin basting tofu with barbecue sauce and cooking an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until a nice crust forms and texture is firm and meaty.
To serve, try these vegan burnt ends on a toasted roll with a selection of pickled condiments and sauce, or simply serve with a side of fries and an ice cold Boulevard Beer.
Basic Kansas City BBQ Rub
2 tablespoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper, freshly cracked
1 tablespoon coriander, ground
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cumin, ground
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon cayenne or Ancho pepper, ground
Mix all ingredients together in a mixing bowl to distribute evenly.
Tyler Fox is a personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes a “nose to tail” cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local-farm-to-table foods.