Vegetable Proteins

Looking for enough protein in a vegetarian lifestyle can be a challenge. While it's easy to get the required nutrients when eating animal proteins, vegetable proteins are harder to understand. However, operators can still satisfy vegetarians by providing plenty of veggie-friendly proteins such as nuts, beans, legumes and soy products.

Concerns about vegetarian and vegan diets usually center around the amount of protein, iron, calcium and B12 found in them. Protein is easy. If people eat a varied diet, including nuts, nut butter, beans, legumes and soy products, with an adequate amount of calories, there is probably an adequate daily protein intake.

Up until several years ago, protein planning or protein-combining was thought to be essential. Amino acids, found in proteins, are necessary for growth and repair of tissues and muscles, and for the formation and maintenance of a healthy immune system. Animal proteins contain all the essential amino acids while plant proteins each contain some of them.

New thinking: It was once thought that one had to combine plant foods, such as rice and beans or lentils and pasta, in order to guarantee the intake of complete proteins. We now know that as long as customers eat lots of different foods each day, they’ll have the proper protein intake.

So, don’t just offer apples and broccoli on the menu; throw in some soy milk, hummus or a bean burrito. Soy is an almost-complete protein food. For the days when your customers are just not going to be able to vary their diet, try to have soy milk, edamame (soy beans), tofu or soy burgers available.

Some customers new to vegan cuisine may be afraid that they will not obtain enough protein from their meals. They should have no cause for fear. The days of steamed vegetable plates with a side of plain rice should be over. Vegan entrees can measure up to their meat counterparts when it comes to customers’ protein requirements.

Consider this example: In past semesters, the Garden Wok at the University of California-Davis has offered a completely vegan menu, Monday through Friday. Choices include a selection of vegetables, vegetable protein (nuts, tofu, tempheh, beans), sauces (citrus, teriyaki, sweet and sour), spices, sides (tortilla shells, rices, pita, humus), and a vegan soup du jour, vegetable entrée du jour and potatoes du jour.

Weekly vegan specials have included kung pao vegetable and tofu lo mein; curried bean saute; chipotle vegetable and bean stir-fry; and almond tofu saute. Vegan desserts have included chocolate and peanut butter tofu pie, peanut butter squares, peach pecan crisp, walnut brownies and oat raisin cookies.

Menu consistency: Depending on your clientele and your kitchen, you may want to keep your vegan offerings as similar to non-vegan offerings as possible. For example:

  • A vegan “steak” and potatoes platter can consist of a portobello steak marinated in a soymilk-herb dressing, grilled on a char-broiler and served with au gratin potatoes prepared with soy cheese.
    n Other “steak” options include grilled or baked seitan or tofu “steaks,” soy “ground round” formed into a Salisbury steak, or fake meats grilled and seasoned with black and white pepper, chopped onions and garlic.
  • The same can be done with sandwiches. Instead of a roast beef dip, offer a tempeh or mushroom dip with mushroom or onion gravy. Keep the crusty rolls and the side salad the same. Hot fake turkey sandwiches can be served on whole-wheat bread with a scoop of stuffing, mushroom or vegetable gravy and a side order of cranberry sauce or cranberry chutney.

You can prepare or purchase firm tofu with Southwestern or teriyaki flavoring. Southwestern tofu can be baked or grilled and served with rice, black beans and tortillas. Teriyaki tofu can be served with rice, stir-fried vegetables and vegan spring rolls (steamed rice paper wrappers filled with minced vegetables). Sliced flavored tofus can be offered to top pasta instead of chicken or turkey breast.

Beans: Beans are easy to cook and easy to serve. A three- (or four- or five-) bean chili, served over cornbread with a side of brown rice, will please hearty eaters. If you’re cooking for the small fry or for people with milder palates, leave out the chili powder and create a bean stew. Another suggestion: make a bean stew with a combination of white and kidney beans, flavored with mild onions, a small amount of black pepper and a smidgen of garlic powder.

Bean chili can be made into a tamale pie by covering a baking dish of prepared chili with uncooked cornbread batter and baking until the cornbread is set. Covering a baking pan of bean stew with prepared mashed potatoes and baking until heated through can produce a vegan version of shepherd’s pie.

Get creative: Some vegetarian proteins are mild or bland in flavor—which allows for culinary creativity. One day, firm tofu can pass for poultry; another day, marinated seitan can pass for roast beef. Other products are produced to taste like beef, pork, chicken or fish.

Stumped for no-fish tuna salad? Look for a vegan product packed in a traditional canned tuna container, with a flavor and texture approximating cooked tuna. Use this or similar products to create fish-less chowders, croquettes, burgers and old-fashioned casseroles. If these are not available, flavor extra-firm tofu with a small amount of liquid smoke and ground nori or seaweed powder.

There are vegan proteins for both the creative and the sedate cook. Tofu can be purchased in several textures. Extra-firm tofu can be cut and grilled, baked or barbecued just like meat. The same goes for seitan and tempeh. Tofu is bland and seitan and tempeh have a mild flavor. All three need some assistance in the “sizzle” area, so experiment with seasonings and marinade.

Marinate firm tofu, tempeh or seitan in oil and vinegar dressing for 20 minutes. Broil for quick “steaks.” Or place in a baking pan, cover with savory marinara sauce and bake.

TVP time: Textured vegetable or soy protein (TVP or TSP) is the most prominent of meat alternates. TVP is a dry product usually made with proteins isolated from soy flour. Over the years, it has been used as an ingredient in processed entrees and side dishes. TVP is an ingredient in many prepared vegetarian products, such as veggie dogs, chilies and sausage.

You can purchase TVP fine or crumbled, flavored or plain. Use TVP, which needs rehydration, wherever you would use ground beef.  A general rule of thumb is 1 cup of TVP to 3/4- to 1 cup of boiling water, allowing 10 minutes for rehydration. Once TVP is rehydrated, use the fine texture in sauces, soups, casseroles, and chili.