When I first became a vegetarian, one of the few things I missed was my mother’s fried chicken dinner. And it wasn’t so much the star of the meal I longed for—although her chicken was great. What I craved was the milk gravy she’d make from the pan drippings to ladle over the mashed potatoes and biscuits she always made to accompany the chicken.
This vegetarian version of her gravy is one of the first recipes I figured out mostly on my own. Instead of relying on the pan drippings and scrapings from some kind of cooked meat, I start by frying some cracker crumbs and spices, roughly based on what my mom used to bread chicken. That provides a flavorful base for the gravy and a little bit of texture, just like pan scrapings. I add milk and simmer for a few minutes, and then thicken it with a corn starch slurry. It’s essentially just a savory milk pudding, and you can flavor it however you like. The only constants in mine are nutritional yeast, black pepper, and onion powder (or crushed fried shallots), but I often add a pinch of sage and rosemary, a little bit of bouillon, and just a shake or two of paprika and cayenne.
When I was vegan, I found that it adapted to vegan fats and milks quite well. Since returning to an omnivorous diet, I’ve made a number of gravies and pan sauces with actual pan drippings or sausage—Mexican chorizo in particular seems designed to be a gravy base—but honestly, I still like this version better. The combination of onion and nutritional yeast is so savory and umami and the gravy itself is creamy and satisfying, but just not as overwhelming as meat-based gravies. As far as I’m concerned, chorizo gravy, as delicious as it is, can only ever be a side dish. This gravy, I can eat as a meal. Also, it’s simple and quick enough to be thrown together in the 10-12 minutes it takes to bake a batch of biscuits, which makes it perfect for an easy weekend brunch. No fried chicken required.
Recipe: Buttermilk Biscuits (adapted from The Joy of Cooking)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour (or 2 1/4 cups cake flour)
- 2 1/2 t. baking powder
- 1/2 t. baking soda
- 1 t. salt
- 6 T. butter (or lard or shortening)
- 3/4 cup buttermilk (or milk soured with 2 t. lemon juice)*
*If you want to substitute a non-sour milk, leave out the baking soda and increase the baking powder to 3 t. Baking soda is alkaline so you need an acid to counter it. The baking powder-only version may be a tiny bit less fluffy because baking soda has more rising power than baking powder, but it shouldn’t be noticeably so.
1. Preheat the oven to 450F.
2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together.
3. Cut the butter or other solid fat into the dry ingredients with a pastry cutter, two crisscrossing knives, or a few pulses in a food processor, just until the largest pieces of fat are the size of peas.
4. Add the buttermilk and stir just until most of the flour is moistened and it begins to come together and form a dough.
5. Press the floury scraps together with your hands a few times—like a cursory kneading, just to make it coherent, you don’t want a lot of gluten to form—and then scrape it onto a lightly-floured surface. Press into a disc between 3/4” and 1” thick, and cut into squares or triangles with a knife or into rounds with a cookie-cutter or the mouth of an empty jar or drinking glass about 2” in diameter.
6. Place the biscuits on an ungreased pan. If you want the tops to brown more, brush with milk or beaten egg.
7. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until browning on the top and bottom.
Recipe: Vegetarian Milk Gravy (adapted from my mom)
- 2 T. butter
- 6-8 saltine crackers
- 1 (heaping) T. fried shallot, crumbled slightly or 2 t. onion powder
- 1/2 t. black pepper, ground
- 2-3 T. nutritional yeast (optional, but delicious)
- 1/2 t. paprika—sweet, hot, or smoked, or chili powder or cayenne (optional)
- a pinch or two of ground sage, dried rosemary, thyme, and/or parsley (optional)
- 2 cups + 2 T. milk
- 1/2 cube or 1 t. vegetable bouillon (optional)
- 2-3 T. cornstarch
- salt to taste
1. Melt the butter in a large skillet.
3. Add the shallot or onion powder, pepper, and any other spices you’re using. Stir until golden and fragrant.
4. Add the milk (except for the 2 T.) and the bouillon if using and stir well, scraping up the cracker crumbs and spices into the liquid. Simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning to the bottom of the pan.
5. Make a slurry of the cornstarch and the remaining 2 T. milk. Make sure the mixture is smooth and then add to the gravy, stirring constantly. It will immediately begin to thicken. Cook for another 1-2 minutes and then remove from heat.
6. Salt and taste for seasoning.