Vegans and beyond: how to cook with vegan protein

Our chefs say you can get a lot of meaty effect in a dish by using seitan, tempeh, tofu and TVP. Or stay away from meat substitutes entirely and explore the naturally occurring protein in nuts and legumes

What's the best vegan protein, and how should I use it?

Rachel, Sheffield

Protein remains the part of the plant-based diet most non-vegans seem to doubt, although there are many good sources, from beans, quinoa, chia seeds and nuts to tempeh, and even some vegetables, such as broccoli and sprouts. As Richard Makin, AKA the School Night Vegan, says, there are “three levels” to consider: “You have the plants [beans, chickpeas, lentils], the lightly processed stuff like tofu and seitan, then really- properly process such things. as a substitute for vegetable meat.” I'm sure you've gotten the first level, Rachel, and you only need to visit the frozen aisle at the supermarket for level three, so let's take a look at the tofu, seitan, and tempeh of this world – after all, they make some interesting dishes.

To Max La Manna, author of You Can Cook This! (coming out in March), tofu is king: "There's a wide variety, covering everything from breakfast to pudding." Firm tofu is "probably the easiest to work with," says chef Alexis Gauthier, making it a good starting point. At his London restaurant 123V, Gauthier finely chops it "to create a 'crab' meaty texture for maki rolls". Makin, meanwhile, marinates the shaved tofu in dark soy sauce and spices, then grills it for the doner "meat". La Manna's goal is a buttery "chicken," which involves tossing shredded, pressed tofu in olive oil and cornstarch, and baking it at 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 for 15 minutes; For the sauce, she saut├ęs onions, ginger and garlic in vegan butter, adds spices (gara masala, curry leaves, coriander, paprika), coconut milk and tomato paste, and simmers for 10 minutes. Add the grilled tofu during the last few minutes, stir and serve with rice.

Silken tofu, as the name suggests, is milder and La Manna combines it for creamy sauces or desserts (think chocolate mousse). It's also ideal for scrambling; New Vegan columnist for the Guardian Meera Sodha writes: “Her mellow personality makes her the perfect vehicle for the more austere flavors of India.” And that's the thing about tofu, it's a blank canvas, so be bold with the flavors you prefer.

Then there's tempeh, or fermented soy cake. It's incredibly versatile and "has so much umami," says Makin, who chops it into mince or breaks it up and deep-fries the nuggets. La Manna marinates cubes of the ingredients "in the same way as animal protein," then bakes, grills, fries, or barbecues: "Tempe does it all." That said, you're more likely to find seitan at Makin's (it's made from wheat gluten, so not for the gluten intolerant). “Once cooked, you get this stringy imitation of meat,” says Makin, who uses it in place of your chicken – fajitas, perhaps. In terms of value for money, says Makin, “the best is the old favorite TVP [textured plant protein].” It's dehydrated and comes in a variety of forms (chopped, curls, chunks), so toss it in whatever liquid you like (e.g., flavorful broth), then treat it with the meat.

However, perhaps the bigger question is what you're looking for from your protein – do you want to mimic meat, or do you just need a new way of doing tofu? “There are as many opinions about vegan protein as there are vegans,” said Makin. "Some haven't eaten meat in so long that they can't imagine anything realistically appealing." Try embracing tofu, seitan, and tempeh in their own right (plus beans, nuts, seeds, etc.), and stay away from the idea of meat as the poster child of our plates. Oh, and if you do go the fake meat route, pay attention to how many (and what) ingredients it contains.

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