General Tso's Cauliflower: Veganizing an American Favorite

By Charleen - July 04, 2020

A year ago, I launched this blog with my General Tso's chicken recipe. It was a 10 year project, crossing the globe to re-create the best aspects of my son's favorite dish. A Chinese-American invention, originating in NY via Taiwan, General Tso's chicken fuses Hunan flavors with an American love for sauce-glazed fried nuggets. This vegan version of General Tso's was inspired by my daughter, who came home from college and challenged us to add more plant-based days to our diet. Achieving the perfect texture, flavor and color to rival my most requested recipe involved a bit of experimentation. But it was worth it. General Tso's cauliflower is a winner!  

Love2Chow General Tso's Cauliflower

On Independence Day a year ago, the Love2Chow blog began with these words "One of the most popular Chinese-American dishes, General Tso's chicken with its spicy, sweet-tart umami-laden bites is in many ways emblematic of the American experience." It somehow seems fitting to celebrate its 1 year birthday with a revised version. General Tso's cauliflower is just as satisfying as the spicy, sweet-tart original, but with added dimensions of texture -- crisp caramelizing edges melting into a creamy-soft interior.

Shortcut to the Love2Chow recipe.                    For the General Tso's Chicken recipe, click here.

General Tso's chicken is composed of three major elements: the nuggets, the aromatics and the sauce. 
The Love2Chow version of General Tso's Chicken

As with the original recipe, developing the ideal texture for the nuggets took the most time. The result exceeded our expectations. While similar in appearance to the chicken version, General Tso's Cauliflower offers sharper contrasts in texture and a flavor. Indeed, we can't decide which version we like better!
General Tso's Cauliflower sees the light of day...

The Nuggets.

Although it would seem straightforward to substitute fried pieces of boneless chicken thigh with pan-fried cubes of tofu or deep-fried cauliflower, this was not the case. My early attempts at making General Tso's tofu resulted in a nice looking, reasonably flavorful dish, but the sauce and tofu remained unwed instead of integrating into the perfect glazed bite.

Pan-fried tofu tossed with General Tso's sauce

Likewise, simply tossing cauliflower into the marinade and cornstarch prior to frying yielded a fine, but not particularly inspiring dish, despite the strong flavor notes sung by the sauce. Although vegetables are filled with water, the cauliflower appeared to lack the moisture imparted by the chicken to convert the cornstarch into a light coating. Also, the marinade failed to penetrate the cauliflower, burning in the oil instead. In hindsight, I attribute this to the rigid, impermeable cellulose walls of plant cells.

As my daughter loves vegetable fritters and tempura, one solution is to use a batter to coat and flavor the cauliflower. But tempura batter, while delectable, is too delicate to stand up to the glaze. Taking a cue from Indo-Chinese Gobi (cauliflower) Manchurian, I turned to a medium thickness flour/starch mixture, like pancake batter -- free flowing, but with the ability to cling.

To get the batter to cling, and to ensure maximal crispness, it is important to dry off all of the water from washing the cauliflower. Spread the cut cauliflower out on a clean dish towel. You can fold the top over and roll the pieces in the towel briefly. Then open it up for air-drying while you prep the other ingredients.

I found that while the initial 3-5 minutes of frying is sufficient to crisp up the coating, as the cauliflower cools, its internal moisture will soften the coating. One solution to this problem is to fry everything twice, as with french fried potatoes or Korean fried chicken. But there is a time-saving way to combine the first and "second" frying into one step.

As with making caramel with sugar, or a roux with fat and flour, the browning of fried foods will not generally occur until most of the water is driven out. But without the cooling effect of evaporation in play, the food can brown and even burn very quickly if not watched carefully.

How can you tell when the water is nearly cooked out? You wait for the bubbling to slow down, indicating that the cauliflower is no longer releasing as much water. When this happens, lower the heat and stir the cauliflower for another 1-2 minutes, removing the pieces as soon as they achieve a uniform amber-brown color. While this procedure takes a bit more attention, it really beats having to fry and drain everything twice. 

After cooling on a dish cloth or wire rack to drain the excess oil, the cauliflower will stay crisp for hours. More importantly, some of the crunch will be maintained through a light glaze of sauce.

Finishing the Dish.

Although preparing the nuggets takes a bit of time, General Tso's is great for company. Not only is the flavor a reliable crowd pleaser, but also the nuggets can be deep fried a few hours in advance. When it is time to serve, the dish comes together in just a few minutes as the nuggets are tossed into a rich, complex glaze. 

The aromatics for this dish consists of dried red chili peppers, garlic, ginger and scallions. While the traditional chili used is the fragrant, moderately hot "facing heaven" Tien Tsin chile, dried whole cayenne peppers, thai chiles or chiles de arbol can also be used. Or substitute 1-2 tsp of the crushed red pepper used to top pizzas.

Shortly before serving, the dried chiles, garlic and ginger are tossed into a bit of hot oil.

Once the fragrances are released, the sweet, vinegary, salty sauce is poured in. It should quickly come to a boil and begin to thicken.

At this point, the fried cauliflower is added back to the pan, and tossed along with the sauce, dragging some of the sauce partway up the sides of the wok to aid in its evaporation. Once the nuggets are glazed and there is very little visible sauce left in the bottom of the pan, the dish is done!

Serve hot with something green, like steamed broccoli, and some rice. 

And reflect on the cultural exchange that allowed these delicious flavors and textures to emerge in America, and then sweep the world in popularity. This fantastic blend of spicy, sweet and tangy flavors would never have developed if not for refugees fleeing oppression and coming to a new land. You can read more about the origins of this dish, and my 10 year quest to perfect my own recipe in the original post, As American as General Tso's Chicken. 


Happy Fourth of July!

Love2Chow Vegan General Tso's Cauliflower 

Ingredients.

1 lb of fresh cauliflower florets (from ~1 lb 3 oz head, or half a 2 lb 5 oz head)

½ cup flour

4.5 Tbs sweet potato or corn starch

¼-½ tsp cayenne chile powder

¼-½ tsp ground black pepper

Water, up to ~3/4 cup

Oil for deep-frying

 

6-10 dried Tien Tsin red chili peppers (or  1-2 tsp red chili flakes)

¾ inch knob of ginger

2-3 medium cloves of garlic

1-2 stalks of scallions

 

Sauce:

3 Tbs. sugar

1 Tbs. red wine vinegar

1 Tbs. Chinkiang black rice vinegar

2 Tbs. Shaoshing rice wine or dry sherry

  2 Tbs. light soy sauce

1.     Separate cauliflower into 1-inch florets. Cut the tender stalks into 1-inch pieces. Reserve the better-looking leaves for stir-fry or garnish. Freeze tough stalks for stock or compost. Spread on a clean dish towel to remove moisture.

2.     Meanwhile, mix the flour, cornstarch and spices in a bowl.  Mix in 1/2 cup of water. Stir in additional water, 1 Tbs at a time, to make a medium thick, free-flowing batter. 

3.     Heat oil for deep frying at medium heat to 360°F. Add 1/4 of the florets to the batter. Shake off excess batter & transfer one at a time to the oil. Fry for 4-5 minutes until the bubbles are largely diminished. Turn heat to medium-low and continue to fry, stirring continuously, for another 1-2 minutes until golden brown. Drain on a dishtowel or wire rack.  Repeat until all the cauliflower is fried.

4.     Meanwhile, cut chiles into 2-3 segments. Keep the seeds, just use fewer if you don’t want it too hot.

5.     Scrape off ginger peel with a teaspoon, trim off dried tough parts, and mince. You should have 2-3 tsp. Peel and mince garlic and add to ginger. Wash and slice scallions, and set aside separately from the other aromatics.

6.     Mix the sauce ingredients--sugar, vinegars, rice wine, soy sauce--in a small bowl.

7.     Heat wok until drop of water evaporates in ~ 1 sec. Add 1 Tbs. oil. Add chili’s and stirfry 5 seconds. Add garlic and ginger and stirfry about 10 sec.

8.     Stir sauce well, immediately before pouring around edges of wok. Scrape in any undissolved sugar. Bring to a boil.

9.     Once the sauce is bubbling rapidly, return cauliflower to wok and toss to coat several minutes, until sauce is mostly absorbed. Remove from heat and garnish with green onions.

Click here for the printer formatted Love2Chow recipe.

Tips: 
🐾 It is important to break up the deep frying of the cauliflower into batches. Overcrowding the oil will result in soggy, rather than crisp, beautiful nuggets. Swish each piece in the hot oil before adding the next, and stir occasionally to keep the pieces separate.

🍃 In the spirit of minimizing single-use disposable items, I have found that dish towels work admirably for blotting meats and vegetables dry, draining fried foods or cheese curds, or straining stocks. Unlike paper towels that are easily saturated and prone to tearing, dish towels absorb far more fluid. And they clean up nicely in the washing machine!  

I use plain, white flour sack dish towels for most of my food contact needs, except that darker towels are better for oily tasks as the white towels stain easily.  Deep fried foods can also be drained on a wire rack with a 1 cm mesh set in a shallow pan.

🍃 Cauliflower leaves are fully edible. They taste great sliced thinly and stir-fried with onions and mushrooms.


DID YOU TRY THIS RECIPE?

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