Ham hocks, the lower portion of a pork leg, are used in many traditional bean and vegetable dishes from Europe and the American South. They add richness, savor and a smoky flavor that complements legumes and greens especially well. Vegans and vegetarians, whose diets are high in both beans and greens, can enjoy those greens in a number of vegetarian substitutes that can replicate the effect of ham hocks in a dish.
One of the primary functions of a pork hock is to add richness to a dish. The bones, skin and connective tissue all contain natural gelatin, which adds body to broth or sauce and lends the beans or vegetables a pleasantly mouth-filling sensation. To compensate, use a flavorful vegetable broth in place of water as your cooking liquid. Caramelized onions or roasted garlic also add a rich and mellow flavor. If your dish includes a broth or sauce, replace the mouth-filling gelatin by mashing some of the beans or adding a small amount of cornstarch.
Seeking the Savory
Aside from the richness added by the gelatin in pork, its amino acids also contribute to the perception of savoriness in the dish, a characteristic called "umami" in Asian cooking. Fortunately, several vegetarian sources for similar amines can be effective, according to food science writer Harold McGee. Add diced or thinly sliced celery to the dish, or other amine-containing foods such as mushrooms, miso, soy sauce, crumbled sheets of nori or a yeast paste such as Vegemite or Marmite. Select one or more of these ingredients as appropriate for each dish.
Replacing the Smokiness
Pork hocks can be smoked or unsmoked, depending on the recipe used. Smoked hocks add a distinctive flavor note to any food they're cooked with, and any substitution has to address this. Liquid smoke is both vegetarian-friendly and widely available, but sometimes adds an unpleasantly chemical flavor. Many barbecue sauces add a suitably smoky flavor, though, like liquid smoke, they're less appealing to diners who avoid processed foods. A better alternative might be smoked paprika or chipotle peppers. Gourmet stores also carry many varieties of smoked salt, which adds a pleasantly ham-like flavor.
Replacing the Protein
The protein in pork hocks is usually a small part of the culinary equation, especially in dishes containing peas, beans or lentils. However, they're often added to rice-based dishes or greens, and in those instances, a protein supplement might be appropriate. Grilled or stir-fried tofu is a widely available choice, and seitan, or "wheat meat," can be found in many supermarkets and health food stores. Commercially prepared vegetarian sausage products can also be used to add protein and a suitable flavor.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- The Old World Kitchen: The Rich Tradition of European Peasant Cooking; Elizabeth Luard
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer who has written and blogged on food-related topics since 2007. Previously he sold computers, insurance and mutual funds. Decker was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.
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