Where’s the Beef?: Meaty Vegetarian Protein Ideas

Mark Rifkin holds a Master’s Degree in health education and is a Registered Dietitian. He focuses on plant-based diets to enhance healthy lifestyles and reduce eco-footprints, particularly for women, seniors, minority populations, and vegetarians. Learn more at Preventitive Nutrition Services.

Feedback to a similar article suggests that a vegetarian diet using legumes as a primary protein source just won’t cut the, ahh, mustard.  Some are looking for a bit more to gnaw on, and a lentil is not quite equipped for the job. However, there are plenty of options for those accustomed to meatier protein foods.

Tofu is the first obvious choice, but many tofu consumers are not educated on the nuances of the white cube of stuff sitting in a plastic tub of water. Gee, what’s not to like?

Tofu is all about texture, and is available in various styles ranging from extra firm to very soft. One would not select a very soft tofu for a stir-fry, casserole, kabobs, or stew – it might be edible, but it won’t be very palatable. For these dishes, start with the firmest tofu you can find (I like Trader Joe’s in the red label), and freeze it—right in the package—until rock solid.  Thaw it in the refrigerator, then squeeze out as much water as possible. Slice about 1/4″ thick, and pan-grill until browned on both sides. (Oil is optional; I find an oil spray works well.) You now have a sponge looking for flavor – think plain cooked chicken breast.

In fact, anywhere plain chicken breast works, you can use tofu—BBQ tofu, on a green salad with a flavorful dressing, Thai tofu in coconut curry, grilled tofu kabobs with pineapple-mustard sauce, etc.

Seitan (pronounced say-tan, and not related to the guy down below) is wheat protein, minus the carbs and fiber. What’s left is nearly 100% protein, and is usually sold as large, randomly-formed pieces in a light broth. Seitan has plenty of chewability and is also great in place of chicken or steak, in many of the same types of dishes as tofu. Try it with Chinese orange sauce – wow!

Of course, vegetarian versions of sausage (both dinner and breakfast), burgers, hot dogs, chicken strips, chicken nuggets, steak strips, etc. are also available. Ingredients and flavors vary, so experiment and find the ones you like (and also meet any other values you choose to apply, such as free from GMO soy). The people that make the famous Tofurkey also make excellent dinner sausages (kielbasa, bratwurst, Italian) that will work on any grill. Lightlife makes a great roll sausage (GimmeLean) that crumbles just like the more famous brand.

Legumes are a great source of protein, but other good choices are out there. So please don’t ask, “Where’s the Beef?”

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