Vegetarian cooking is all the rage these days and I’m all for it. In addition to the environmental benefits, research shows cutting back on meat may have a host of health benefits, which is appealing to me too, including improved blood pressure, decreased risk of heart disease, lowered cholesterol and better weight control. But to the uninitiated, vegetarian cooking can be a little intimidating. Just replacing meat with starchy refined carbs and cheese may be “eating vegetarian”—but it’s not eating healthfully, and it’s certainly not satisfying.
In general, women need roughly 46 grams of protein per day and men need 56 grams per day. Women who are pregnant or lactating need an additional 25 grams of protein per day. So how do you get enough protein in your diet when you're not eating meat? I love trying out recipes with meatless alternatives, such as tofu, because they can be a good source of plant-based protein. The trick is getting to know the ingredients and the best way to prepare them so they taste great every time. Have you ever stood in front of the many packages of vegetarian proteins at the grocery store, confounded by all the choices and what to do with them? Tempeh-what?? Yes? That makes two of us. The cooks in the EatingWell Test Kitchen have been perfecting meatless recipes for years and I talked with them about how to make meatless taste great. Here, just in time for Vegetarian Awareness Month in October, are the basics you should know:
- Why it’s good: Tofu has grown in popularity among vegetarians and meat-eaters alike—and for good reason. It has a mild flavor and is endlessly versatile.
- Why it’s good for you: Tofu is a great source of plant-based protein. Some varieties, made with the coagulant calcium sulfate, have extra calcium; check the label. A 2.8-ounce serving of firm tofu has 70 calories, 3 g fat, 7 g protein.
- Shopping tips: Tofu is available at natural-foods stores and most large supermarkets. 91 percent of U.S.-grown soy is genetically modified. If you’re concerned about GMOs, buy certified organic tofu.
- Cooking tips: One way to get great tofu texture without deep-frying is to toss the tofu in cornstarch before stir-frying. Let it cook for several minutes without stirring to help it develop a little crust. Extra-firm tofu is ideal for stir-fries, sautés and grilling, while the soft variety makes a good substitute for ricotta in Italian dishes. Silken tofu can be added to smoothies in place of yogurt.
- Why it’s good: Seitan is processed wheat gluten. Its meaty texture and taste make it a perfect vegetarian stir-fry ingredient (often substituted for chicken or duck in restaurant meals) that even nonvegetarians will love.
- Why it’s good for you: A 3.2-ounce serving of seitan has 90 calories, 1 g fat, 18 g protein.
- Shopping tips: You can find it in natural-foods stores or large supermarkets near the tofu. The actual weight of the seitan in a package varies depending on whether water weight is included. Look for the “drained weight” on the label.
- Cooking tip: Use it instead of meat in stir-fries with a flavorful sauce.
- Why it’s good: If you’re keen to explore new vegetarian options, try tempeh, a chewy, nutty, fermented soybean loaf.
- Why it’s good for you: A 3-ounce serving of tempeh has 130 calories, 3 g fat, 11 g protein, some calcium and iron.
- Shopping tip: Find it (plain or with added grains) near refrigerated tofu in natural-foods stores and many large supermarkets. After opening, wrap and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
- Cooking tips: Crumble a little into scrambled eggs, slice and sauté to make a decent veggie burger or use like meat in stir-fries, stews or tomato sauce. Tempeh has a somewhat bitter flavor—you can balance that out with sweet honey and toasty sesame seeds, as in this recipe for Sesame-Honey Tempeh & Quinoa Bowl (pictured).
Penelope is Senior Digital Editor for EatingWell.