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Vegan Cookbook Club: Many ways to try vegan bacon

Homemade vegan "alternative bacon" from top left: coconut bacon, tofu bacon, and tofu bacon bites. Photo by Emma Ambrosi

One of my favorite books of all time is "Charlotte's Web," E.B. White's touching and delightful story about true friendship. There's a scene in which an old sheep informs Wilbur the pig of the fate that awaits him — to be made into ham and bacon. This crisis prompts Charlotte the spider to intervene with a plan to save Wilbur's life.

"Charlotte's Web" was published in 1952 and set in the rural Midwest, a time and place in which many people were still familiar with pigs. Today, however, most of us don't know any pigs personally.

Wilbur the pig smiles in an illustration by Garth Williams in E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web." Photo by Emma AmbrosiIn his book "The Whole Hog," biologist and Johannesburg Zoo director Lyall Watson writes, "I know of no other animals (who) are more consistently curious, more willing to explore new experiences, more ready to meet the world with open-mouthed enthusiasm. Pigs, I have discovered, are incurable optimists and get a big kick out of just being."

If you're pausing to reconsider your breakfast bacon from factory-raised hogs confined in narrow metal cages, you're not alone. More and more people are opting out of the bacon culture. Among these bacon-free folk there are many imaginative cooks who have found ways to create plant-based foods that are a bit like bacon. There are several ready-to-eat bacon alternatives on the market. Here are two that I like:

Smart Bacon Meatless Veggie Bacon Strips by Lightlife. One slice provides 20 calories with 2 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat and zero cholesterol. The slices may look small in the package, but they don't shrink the way pork bacon does, and there's no messy grease to deal with. The strips cook up quickly and make a great vegan bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich — a VBLT.

Bac'Uns Vegetarian Bits by Frontier Co-op. One serving (a heaping tablespoon) contains 25 calories with 3 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat, 1 gram of dietary fiber and no cholesterol. I use these on lettuce salads and mixed vegetable salads.

Don't limit yourself to store-bought products — you can make your own alternative bacon. There are dozens of recipes out there, but here are three kitchen-tested favorites.

Tofu Bacon

Based on a recipe from Vegan Cookbook Club member Susan Alexander

Makes 12 slices

1 14-ounce package of extra-firm water-packed tofu, drained

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

sprinkling of coarsely-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

Slice tofu across narrow, long side of block into strips about ¼" thick.

Mix soy sauce, maple syrup, liquid smoke and black pepper in an oblong baking dish.

Add tofu slices, then flip so that both sides of the tofu have absorbed some marinade. Sprinkle one tablespoon of nutritional yeast over top surface of tofu.

Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from oven, flip tofu slices, sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of nutritional yeast, and return to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Tofu Bacon Bites

Inspired by Sam Turnbull's "Fuss-Free Vegan"

Makes 1½ cups

This recipe uses the Tofu Bacon marinade to make chewy, smoky pieces of tofu that are really yummy sprinkled on soups, salads, or vegetable-grain dishes.

Half of a 14-ounce package of extra-firm water-packed tofu, drained

2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 teaspoon liquid smoke

sprinkling of coarsely-ground black pepper

2 tablespoons nutritional yeast

Slice half-block of tofu into small, thin pieces. Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl. Stir in tofu pieces until the marinade is absorbed. Spread the pieces out on a lightly-oiled baking sheet and bake at 400o for 25 to 30 minutes, stirring twice so that they brown evenly. When cool, store in the refrigerator.

Coconut Bacon

From Sam Turnbull's "Fuss-Free Vegan"

Makes 2 cups

Sprinkle these crunchy treats onto just about anything, or eat them straight out of the bowl.

3 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons maple syrup

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

½ teaspoon liquid smoke

2 cups large-flake unsweetened coconut

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Combine soy sauce, maple syrup, paprika and liquid smoke in a large bowl. Add coconut and toss until all the sauce is coating all the coconut. Spread coconut flakes on baking sheet and bake for about 13 minutes, stirring once — don't let it burn.

The coconut bacon will crisp up as it cools. Once cool, store in an airtight container for up to 3 weeks.

Notes about tofu

Bac'Uns and Smart Bacon are vegan bacon products available from Whole Foods Co-op. Photo by Emma AmbrosiUse the style that comes packed in water in plastic tubs — not the Japanese style that is packed in aseptic cardboard boxes. Even then, tofu brands vary in how much moisture they have. Some super-firm, high-protein tofu is fairly dry; other brands are softer and more moist, and these will need longer baking time — or you could carefully press out some of the water. Also, oven temperatures vary, and so do personal taste and texture preferences. So with the tofu bacon and bacon bits, just keep an eye on them and bake until they are as soft or as chewy as you like.

Did you know?

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "The U.S. raises some 100 million pigs for food each year, the vast majority of them on industrial-scale farms. ... Pigs tend to be extremely curious and intelligent, so their barren surroundings cause them extreme frustration."