Recent estimates indicate that 16 to 20 percent, or approximately one out of every five people, in this country are vegetarians. Vegetarianism is an area that chefs and industry leaders can no longer ignore without closing the door to a significant percentage of the population. The failure rate among restaurants is high; therefore it is unwise to ignore any segment of the population. Chefs today have an obligation to serve the same quality of food to their customers whether it is a meat entrée or a vegetarian entrée. You are only limited by your imagination!
There are many different reasons why people choose to become vegetarians and they differ from person to person. The most popular reasons include religious, moral & ethical concerns as well as health concerns. There are also many different degrees of vegetarianism. Vegans are the most restrictive type. Vegans eat no meat or meat by-products including dairy such as cheese, milk and eggs. The most prevailing type of vegetarian is lacto ovo. Their diet does not include meat, but does incorporate dairy products. Other types of vegetarians include poultry and seafood in their diets, while others eat all meats except red meat.
The major health concern for vegans is the potential for deficiency in Vitamin B-12, which is only found naturally in meats. A person having a vegetarian diet must be careful to get an adequate amount of this, other vitamins, and protein. To help a vegetarian do so, I've listed a few excellent ingredients that can help one get all the nutrients he/she needs:
Quinoa is a grain that was discovered in the Andes Mountains five hundred years ago and has been dubbed the 'mother grain' as it is ever-bearing and self-perpetuating. It is a yellow seed that resembles a cross between mullet and mustard seed and has a slightly grassy scent that disappears when cooked. Quinoa is full of lysine and other amino acids that make it the only grain in the world that is a complete protein. It is also calcium-rich; one cup of cooked quinoa contains the same amount of calcium as one quart of milk. It is also high in phosphorus, iron and Vitamins B and E.
There are three main varieties of quinoa. The first is Altiplano, which is the best variety on the market today. It is imported from Bolivia, and is cultivated approximately 12,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains. Valley variety is also mountain-raised at approximately 7,000 feet above sea level in Peru, Equador and Colombia. It is yellowish in color and tends to be inconsistent in quality. The third variety of quinoa is Sea Level as it is grown in Chile at sea level. It is dark tan in color and tends to be bittersweet in flavor and is of the lowest quality available. All quinoa is presoaked and laboriously scrubbed before being dried and packaged. It is naturally coated in saponin, a slightly sticky substance that is not pleasant to the tongue; it is recommended to rinse again before using.
Quinoa is extremely rich in plant fat at 6.9 mg per half pound, which makes it prime for spoilage. Even under the best conditions, quinoa's shelf life is only about one month. It should be stored in a dry area below 65 degrees. When conditions are hot and muggy outside, it should be stored in the refrigerator. Quinoa is an easy product to prepare and may be used in any way rice is used. It requires only 12-15 minutes of cooking time, but toasting it before cooking adds a more full-bodied flavor. Quinoa will take on the flavor of whatever you choose to cook it with.
Tofu is made from soy bean curd, has a custard-like texture and is iron-rich. The bean curds are drained and pressed in a manner similar to the cheese-making process; its firmness depending on how much whey is pressed out. Tofu has a nutty flavor, but also has the ability of absorbing the flavors of other ingredients it is cooked with. Tofu can be kept up to one week in the refrigerator and up to three months in the freezer. Tofu is a very versatile product; however, freezing it will tend to make it a little chewy.
Tempeh is a fermented soy cake originating from Indonesia. It has a firmer, meatier texture than tofu. Tempeh has a high protein content and a yeasty, nutty flavor. Like tofu, it is a very versatile product and may be stored in the cooler or freezer. Its firm texture makes it ideal for marinating and grilling.
Legumes are a main staple in the vegetarian diet as they are high in protein, Vitamin B, carbohydrates and iron. There are many varieties of legumes including beans, lentils, peanuts, peas and soybeans. Legumes are slowly being transferred from being thought of as a peasant's food to a culinary delight. They are inexpensive, versatile sources of incomplete protein. Legumes help to fight certain types of cancers, heart disease and gastronomical problems as well as adding complex carbohydrates, iron, foliate, calcium and other vitamins and minerals to the diet. The main concern associated with legumes is their reputation for causing intestinal discomfort. This can be easily remedied by presoaking for 24 hours prior to cooking (except for lentils and split peas). The presoaking breaks down carbohydrates to a more digestible form of starch and leeches out the complex sugars.
Legumes can be processed into other products rather than serving them whole as in Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. This renders them easier to digest while still retaining and possibly concentrating their nutritional benefits. Some examples of this are soybeans being rendered into tofu, tempeh or miso. Chinese reds are pureed and sweetened for ice creams or steamed dessert buns. Mung beans are made into sprouts or translucent cellophane noodles. Hummus and other bean pastes can be used as a flavoring agent. Always remember that legumes are an incomplete source of protein and must be combined with other protein sources to ensure a well balanced diet.
Seitan is yet another high protein, low fat product. Seitan is a form of wheat gluten, which is brown in color and made from whole wheat flour mixed with water and kneaded. It then goes through a process of rinsing and mixing to remove the starch and bran until gluten is obtained. After boiling in water, this glutinous dough is called kofu. It may then be processed in several different ways including simmering the kofu in stock made of tamari soy sauce, water and Kombu Sea Vegetable which results in Seitan. It can be used in sandwiches, Salisbury's, stews and stir-fry.
There are also many ways to change traditional recipes to make them vegetarian. Most cream soups and sauces are classically made with chicken stock, but can be made with a good vegetable stock with no adverse effect to the finished dish. There are also some substitutions available for vegans. One egg can be replaced with one banana in baking cakes; this especially adds flavor to pancakes. Some other quick substitutions include 2 TBSP cornstarch or arrowroot in place of one egg; 1/4 cup tofu instead of one egg (blend until smooth with liquid ingredients before adding to dry ingredients). There are also many replacements for cow's milk including soy, nut and rice milks as well as soy margarines and yogurts.
The previously mentioned products are all becoming staples in the vegetarian diet, but there are many more including bulghur, kasha, and textured vegetable protein. The options are endless and as previously stated, chefs are only limited by their imaginations.
Chef Steve Walk