Alternative proteins made with soy and other plants provide an excellent source of high-quality protein and vitamins. That is one reason several operators have turned to these proteins to improve vegetarian and vegan options. Proteins such as tofu, tempeh and seitan also are very low in fat and are a good source of dietary fiber. They can be procured in many different forms and shapes such as bricks, patties, links, slices or chopped like ground beef. And they all can be incorporated into traditional meat dishes in a variety of ways.
Tofu: What is sometimes called Asian cheese, tofu is technically curdled soy milk, which is known for its nutritional benefits as well as its versatility. The process to make tofu starts with soaked soybeans that are puréed, cooked and filtered through cloth. The resulting soy milk is curdled with a coagulant. The curds formed from this process are pressed into soft cakes, allowing the whey to drain off.
Tofu is high in protein, low in salt and calories and has no cholesterol. To counteract its blandness, it is usually marinated, as it easily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients.
Northwestern University, in Evan-ston, Ill., features tofu in some of its Asian dishes.
“We do a tofu stir-fry,” says John Ferraro, operations manager for Sodexo at the university. “We also make a Thai green curry with tofu.”
At Brigham Young University, Hawaii, in Laie, Spencer Tan, executive chef at the university, says he uses tofu in a signature salad.
“We make a Sumida watercress salad that features tofu, molasses, vinegar and soy sauce,” Tan says.
Tofu is offered as an option in hot Asian dishes at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, says Caesar Desiato, executive chef/location manager for Aramark at the hospital.
“[We offer] a portion of baked tofu served on fresh vegetable fried rice, with a side of teriyaki or spicy General Tso sauce just for a kick,” says Desiato.
Desiato is also the creator of a vegetarian Reuben sandwich, which he calls the un-Reuben.
“One bite of a properly created pastrami or corned beef sandwich encompasses almost every flavor profile one mouth can take; unfortunately, it also encompasses more calories and fat than one body should tolerate. Then along came tofu,” Desiato says. “Put a teaspoon each of salt, pepper, garlic, brown sugar, coriander seeds and dry mustard into a spice grinder to make a powdered mixture. Drain the tofu and cut into slices about a half-inch thick. Sprinkle each slice with the pastrami cure and cook in a nonstick pan over medium heat until there’s a mahogany color on both sides.”
At the University of Oregon, in Eugene, Tom Driscoll, director of food services, says the majority of UO students describe themselves as health conscious eaters. He thinks this drives students’ acceptance of dishes using tofu or an alternative like tempeh. Among the non-meat dishes found at the university are tamale cups with firm tofu, chipotle tofu and tofu mushroom patties.
“Some of our recipes are adaptations of more traditional items such as tofu jambalaya or barbecued tempeh pizza,” Driscoll says. “Others are authentic ethnic recipes such as okonomiyaki or mapo doufu that use tofu [or another protein] as an ingredient.”
Tempeh: Originally from Indonesia, tempeh is a soy product that binds soybeans into a cake-like form. It has different nutritional characteristics and textural qualities than tofu because it uses the whole bean and retains a higher content of protein.
“Vegetarians and vegans find the texture and protein content [of tempeh] interesting,” says Lisa Kurth, executive chef for Bon Appétit at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY in Los Angeles. “Tempeh is firm with a nutty earthy taste. Normally tempeh is sliced and fried until the surface is crisp and golden brown. It also can be used as an ingredient in soups, spreads, salads and sandwiches.”
Gerardo Guzman, chef for Bon Appétit at the account, thinks tempeh has great texture and is very versatile. The account offers a tempeh tikka masala dish that features a yogurt, ginger, garlic, cumin and curry marinade and a tomato-based gravy.
Seitan: Seitan is the gluten that is extracted from wheat, which when cooked becomes very similar to the look and texture of meat. The University of Kansas, in Lawrence, recently started using seitan in catering and retail for items such as vegetarian meatloaf, stuffed peppers and taco meat.
“It’s a lot of fun to work with,” says Janna Traver, assistant director for KU Dining Services. “I read a lot about seitan in a cookbook about a year and a half ago. It was slow to hit mainstream, and we had to change some descriptions when it was first introduced. We now call it vegetarian protein. It’s a nice alternative to tofu. Seitan is very flexible. Carnivores say it looks like meat, so they’ll eat it. It has a unique flavor that you don’t need to mask.”
Northwestern University offers hearty meals such as seitan tacos and vegetarian barbecue riblet sandwiches. Bringing in seitan has opened up a lot of opportunities, according to Steve Mangan, district manager for Sodexo at the account. “I had a seitan dish and was pleasantly surprised,” says Mangan. “It has given us a multitude of ideas for vegetarian offerings.”
At Washington State University, in Pullman, dining services offers dishes such as seitan marsala and stroganoff. All these dishes come from the presumed necessity to mimic traditional dishes for the vegetarian and meat eater alike.
At SUNY Purchase, in New York, a Chartwells account, dining services offers savory dishes using seitan that are popular, according to Kyle Pleva, marketing director.
“We offer seitan chimichurri and Sri Lankan curried seitan,” says Pleva. “[These dishes have] an ethnic tang that can tantalize the palates of both vegans and vegetarians alike.”