Meat Free Francesinha

About a month ago I met my first Francesinha and it was a wonderful exciting experience but it left me feeling a bit exhausted and dirty somehow.

I decided that while I did indeed love that Francesinha feeling I would like a kind of diluted version, one where I felt capable of actually moving afterwards, where I didn’t feel like I might have a heart attack at any moment.

When I wrote about my first time, I described the sandwich as a vegan’s nightmare and I will stand by that statement. Despite that, I set to work to create my own version, one that actually contained no meat at all and no eggs, although it is still pretty far from vegan with a massive amount of cheese. If you did want to be dairy free then I’m sure you could find some substitutes without too much effort.

For anyone who isn’t familiar with this amazing sandwich from Porto then firstly why haven’t you been reading regularly, and secondly it’s basically layers of different meats and cheese wrapped in a couple of slices of bread, usually with a fried egg on top, covered in yet more cheese, surrounded by chips and then drowned in a rich beer and tomato sauce.

In my version the bread, the cheeses, the fries (although they are now sweet potato) and the sauce, which is really what the whole dish is about, remain. Gone though are the layers of steak, ham and sausage which have been replaced with mushroom and spinach, seitan and smoked tofu.

How to build a sandwich

It all started out with a drawing, an incredibly bad sketch of layers of yummy stuff piled atop each other and sandwiched between a couple of slices of bread. Of course your layers don’t have to be the same as mine, which if I’m being honest were partially dictated by what was around. If I had portobello mushrooms and maybe an aubergine to hand then things might have been slightly different, but it all worked out brilliantly just like this.

If you do want to follow this example then your sandwich will consist of… a slice of goat’s cheese, followed by a mixture of fried mushrooms and spinach, then a slice of homemade seitan (we’ll come back to that in a minute) and finished off with some smoked tofu (we’ll get back to that one in two minutes).

About that sauce…

I really mean it when I say that the sauce is everything here, without it this is just a big sandwich served with a pile of chips, but with it it becomes something special. So, my mission to create my own veggie francesinha had to start with the sauce. A bit of research online will show you that there are many recipes, although the best ones are secret, and that there are some very different but also a few common ingredients. The base is always of tomato and beer, then bacon or other meat fat and beef or chicken stock  generally feature, a little bit of something spicy, and usually thickened with a combination of milk and flour or corn starch.

Obviously bacon fat and beef stock were not going to work here but I needed to find some way to inject a bit of umami and depth, which ended up being provided by some Worcestershire sauce and balsamic vinegar. 

This as an add and taste experiment. We bought ingredients that I didn’t use and used ingredients that we didn’t buy, but the final list looks like this…

  • Olive Oil
  • Butter
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Wheat beer
  • White wine
  • Tomato puree
  • Passata
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Dried chili 
  • Sweet paprika
  • Cayenne
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Vegetable stock powder
  • Milk 
  • Flour
  • Salt & black pepper

I haven’t written any quantities because all of the amounts above are flexible and the method is pretty simple. First sautee the onions and garlic in the oil and butter, add the tomato ingredients and bring to a boil, then throw in everything else and cook it for half an hour. Just add, taste and adjust until it all fits together harmoniously…

It might look a mess but it tastes amazing!

… and about that other stuff…

I have some issues with ‘fake meat’ which I’m going to try not to go into here, but…

It would be super easy to buy some fake ham, fake steak, fake sausage and fake chorizo and stick them all on top of each and call it a vegetarian francesinha. It would also be, in my humble opinion, quite crap.

So instead I choose to use layers of wonderful yummy things that are not fake anything but just being themselves. From the bottom upwards we have:

  1. A slice of lightly toasted white ‘sandwich’ bread. This is the kind of bread that I would usually buy, but it works here.
  2. A thin slice of hard cured goat’s cheese. Anything you like really, it just needs to be firm to not fall apart and stay as a layer when the sandwich is cut.
  3. A layer of sauteed mushrooms and spinach. Cooked with a little garlic, paprika and balsamic vinegar.
  4. A Thicker slice of seitan. We have recently started our journey of discovery into the world of seitan making, this was our second attempt and Rima managed to make it more flavorful and much lighter and less chewy than the first. For this dish, you really want to use seitan that is not tough and leathery and we will share our seitan secrets in an article coming soon. 
  5. A nice slice of smoked tofu. I am not generally a big fan of tofu, I think it’s overused, overrated and just a bit ‘meh’ but I do like firm smoked tofu, especially if after cutting you rub it with a bit of smoked paprika before gently frying.
  6. Another slice of goat’s cheese. The same as the one near the bottom.
  7. Another slice of toast. Yep, same bread.
  8. Enough sliced Flamengo cheese to cover. If you aren’t in Portugal then you probably won’t find flamengo, but a mild cheddar or edam will do the job perfectly. Cover the top and sides with enough slices to melt and form a cocoon of cheesy goodness. 

Then you take that whole pile of goodness and put it under a hot grill until the cheese gets nice and bubbly, surround it with chips, whether they are sweet potato or the normal variety, and cover the whole lot with plenty of that wonderful sauce. 

The only thing to do is to hope that yourself and whoever else you are serving it to are pretty hungry because this is definitely not a light snack and enjoy it with a nice cold beer or a nice glass of crisp white wine!

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