Could it Be... Seitan?

By John DiGilio in Food on Jan 18, 2011 5:40PM

2011_1_DiGilio_Seitan.jpgVegetarians cannot live by carrot sticks alone. There must be more to a diet than grazing on greens for it to be healthy and satisfying. We want foods that are good for us, full of flavor, and similar to what we see our friends eating. Vegetarians may be adventurous eaters some of the time. But other times we want things to have a taste and texture that is familiar. After all, we are not adverse to the flavors of meat. We just do not like from where it comes. Ironic, you say? Maybe. But it is amazing what one can do with a little time and some kitchen magic. When you need to satisfy that craving for something that looks and tastes like meat, but isn't, slice up a little seitan.

Seitan, sometimes called wheat gluten, is a meat alternative that is gaining popularity for its versatility and taste. From beef to chicken to cold cuts, it can be made to take on the texture and flavor of almost any meat. The fact that it is high in protein makes it an ideal addition to almost any vegetarian diet (unless, of course, you have a gluten allergy) and it is easily made vegan-friendly. Seitan has long been a staple in the vegetarian offerings of Chinese eateries. Now it is turning up in all kinds of restaurants and even grocery stores. Common, store-bought meat alternatives such as those from Gardein and Morning Star Farms contain it. So does the popular Tofurky line of turkey substitutes. If you are dining out in Chicago, Earwax Cafe's Ruben sandwich with its slices of marinated seitan, sauerkraut, swiss cheese and thousand island dressing is a tasty treat. Equally as delicious is the Chicago Diner's Philly Cheeze Steak which replaces the steak with strips of wheat gluten.

For all of its commercial and restaurant availability these days, we still find that the best seitan is the kind you make at home. It is more economical that way and much healthier. Store brands can get pricey and are usually high in sodium. Luckily, it is quite easy to make, requiring surprisingly few ingredients and just a bit of time. Our preferred recipe is the Baked Seitan Loaf featured in Robin Robertson's Vegan on the Cheap. It is really easy to make and tastes great. But you can find other great versions at VegWeb and Frontier Co-Op. Each of these recipes makes a sizable loaf that can be used for several meals.

Almost anything that can be done with meat can be done with seitan. Slice it, cube it, cut it into strips - there is no one correct way to serve it up. In our home, we bake it, fry it, and even grill it. Some of our favorite uses include: seitan gyros, seitan steaks with mushroom gravy and barbecued seitan slices with slaw. We have even enjoyed seitan meatballs with our spaghetti. Going vegetarian did not mean giving up the tastes and textures we remembered from our days as omnivores. It simply meant that we had to get a little more creative. With the addition of seitan to our diets and our culinary repertoire, we've become full and happy kitchen wizards.

Photo by Mac & Cheese Review.