A Frank Message for Vegetarians and Vegans

By Betsy Bradford

I am that rarest of species: the omnivore that enjoys vegetable protein. Most meat eaters cherish the mistaken belief that tofu is icky and strictly reserved for tree-huggers. That's so sad! I love the robust flavor of seitan, the sweet chewiness of bean curd, and the nutty crunch of tempeh. When I go to my favorite burger restaurant, I always order the veggie burger because I love the taste and textures of the fresh vegetables they use. These supposed meat substitutes are both delicious and healthy, and I wish more people would enjoy them.

But here's where we come to the heart of the matter. Note that I said "supposed meat substitutes." This is a very intentional word choice on my part, because the simple fact of the matter is this: meat substitutes do not taste like meat! To all of you vegetarians and vegans out there hoping to win converts, you're doomed to failure as long as you keep trying to convince people that a soy chicken cutlet is just as good as the real thing.

Let’s take an example. A few months ago, I decided to make a vegetarian chili using seitan. I adore seitan. It's delicious, it's healthy, and it's firm enough to hold up to long cooking processes. However, when I got it home and read the package, I saw some interesting "facts." According to the manufacturer, seitan has the same taste and mouth-feel as chicken and beef. Say what? First of all, and most simply, chicken and beef don't taste the same! Seitan can be used as a substitute for either of them, but it doesn't taste the same as either of them. And then there's the matter of mouth-feel. Let's ignore for a second the fact that chicken and beef don't have the same mouth-feel, and that seitan doesn't have the same mouth-feel as either, because it's a moot point. Frankly, I could care less. Even if a plant protein does effectively mimic the mouth-feel of meat, it's not going to convince anyone that it's a perfect substitute, because people don't like steak because of the chewing experience.

So, what would I recommend? Personally, I advocate marketing your products for what you actually have. Don't try to convince people that they can enjoy grilled tofu like fillet mignon, but educate them on what makes tofu secretly awesome. I eat tofu because it's a great vehicle for your dish. Cubes of fried tofu in a vegetable stir fry soak up sauce better than any cut of meat, making a beautifully integrated dish. I use seitan in stews because it imparts a delicious earthy flavor that's both stronger than chicken and milder than beef. These foods need to be shared with the world, not as meat substitutes, but as their own delicious selves. So, omnivores, give tofu a chance! And to all you vegetarians, I charge you to go forth armed with a few great recipes (like my tempeh chili below) and prove that vegetable proteins are a simple and delicious way to spice up any diet.

Tempeh Chili for Anyone

This recipe is designed to please vegetarians, vegans, and meat-eaters alike (provided, of course, that the meat-eater likes vegetables). If you can't find harissa, replace it with sriracha or your favorite brand of hot sauce.

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. When warm, add the onions and 1 tablespoon salt. Cook until brown and softened, about 7-8 minutes. Add garlic and chili powder and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  2. Stir in green peppers and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook three additional minutes. Add additional olive oil if the pan starts to look dry.
  3. Stir in both kinds of beans and tempeh and cook about two minutes. Add tomatoes, harissa, and soy sauce. Adjust seasoning as needed. Bring chili up to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered until thickened, about 30 minutes. Serve with your favorite grain, like rice, couscous, or quinoa.