What Do Vegetarians Eat?
Open a vegetarian cookbook and you'll find recipes that use many familiar ingredients. Beans, cheese, eggs, summer and winter vegetables are all items that appear on almost every table, vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.
But you'll also find a number of less familiar ingredients like nutritional yeast, tempeh, and seitan. Here's a quick guide to some staples of the vegetarian table:
The Take on Tofu
This simple soy product is the food non-vegetarians love to hate. If someone's going to make a disparaging remark about vegetarian food, they usually bring up tofu. Truthfully, they have a point.
In its raw state, tofu is about as unappetizing as it gets because it has little or not taste. That's also the best thing about it!
Tofu is amazingly versatile, comes in many different forms and textures, and can be used as everything from a cottage cheese substitute to a chewy piece of barbeque straight from the grill. The tofu you choose depends on your recipe:
- Silken tofu has a thick and creamy texture. Use it in salad dressings and puddings. Usually a recipe will tell you specifically to use silken tofu. It's usually packaged in aseptic packages that don't require refrigeration. Many vegetarians keep a few boxes as emergency pantry staples. Silken tofu can substitute for firm in recipes, but the texture will be different.
- Soft tofu is soft and crumbly. It easily mimics cottage cheese in recipes – especially if you mix one part cottage cheese to 2 parts soft tofu. It's also good sliced and added to Asian soups.
- Firm or Extra Firm tofu is used mainly for stir-frying, grilling, or any other recipe where the tofu needs to maintain its shape.
Tofu can be crumbled, fried, baked, pureed, or grilled. It's the all-purpose vegetarian staple.
Seitan is also known as "wheat meat" or "wheat gluten." You'll often find the canned variety in stores as "vegetarian chicken" or as other vegetarian versions of favorite meat dishes. It's most famous incarnation is the fake turkey known as "tofurky."
It's made from wheat, but the similarities to bread stops there. The wheat gluten is what's left over when the starch is rinsed out of bread dough. What remains is surprisingly chewy and meat-like. Seitan can be sliced, chopped, grilled, and used instead of meat.
You can buy prepared seitan packaged in water like tofu or canned as a ready-to-eat product, but it's much cheaper and healthier to make your own.
Even though the description "fermented soybeans pressed into a cake" doesn't sound very appetizing, tempeh is a food of many surprised. Tempeh has a stronger flavor than tofu and a firmer texture than even the extra firm variety of tofu.
Cooked tempeh can be eaten as a dish by itself, incorporated into stir-fries, sandwiches, and soups. Its spicy, meaty taste makes tempeh ideal as a breakfast meat alternative to sausage.
Because it's made from the complete soybean, tempeh has more fiber than tofu and is a good source of Vitamin B-12. Tempeh is also lower in fat than tofu.
Tales of Textured Vegetable Protein
Usually called by its abbreviation, TVP, textured vegetable protein is a versatile ingredient made from soy flour. You'll find it as a chief ingredient in many so-called "vegetarian meats" like veggie burgers and vegetarian ground beef crumbles.
TVP's texture is so much like meat – especially ground meat - that you can safely include it in sauces, chilis, soups, tacos, and other dishes. Your meat-eating guests will leave happy. It's available in a variety of forms, from large, flavored chunks, to crumbles.
Nuggets of Nutritional Yeast
This is a nutritional supplement with a cheesy flavor. You can find it in natural foods stores in flake format. It's a staple of many vegan diets because it's a reliable source of Vitamin B-12.
If you tried nutritional yeast 20 years ago and thought it tasted horrible, well, you were right! Except that you were eating brewer's yeast, not nutritional. It was bitter and tasted awful. Fortunately, since then food researchers developed a yeast that's much more palatable: nutritional yeast has a great flavor.
Sprinkle it on popcorn; add it to soups and stocks, and to breading mixtures. It adds a cheesy, savory flavor that goes particularly well with winter vegetables and pan-fried dishes.