By Guest Columnist Rachel Harkham
Since visiting Kosherfest this past November, I've been thinking about seitan. It was there that I sampled the seitan gyros that Taft Foods was demonstrating and dispatching to a steady flow of visitors. After experiencing delicious bites of grilled seasoned seitan slices slathered in herbaceous tzatziki yogurt sauce and wrapped neatly in laffa bread, the recipe possibilities of this vegetarian protein began simmering away in my overfed imagination.
Seitan is made from wheat gluten. It offers a chewy, dense, and dare I say "meatier" texture than tofu, plus has more protein, less calories and fat per serving. Seitan for the most part is a blank-canvas food, meaning it takes on the taste of whatever spices and flavoring it is prepared with. But due to its texture it is more palatable to non-vegetarians, and can be prepared in a way with flavor that mimics meat or chicken. For kosher-keepers it translates as a parve protein or as the Japanese call it wheat-meat. For the health conscious it provides a versatile and healthier alternative to meat. For both reasons I was excited to play around with this product.
I met Jessica Taft at a health food store in Manhattan. She began our conversation by taking me to the fridges in the back of the store where she grabbed a couple packages of her seasoned seitan (gyro and sausage) to use as visual aids. She then told me about a food memory that has been a guiding inspiration for her life; it was at an outdoor rock concert in California sometime in the mid-eighties. She does not remember the band, but remembers what she ate... a vegetarian gyro. And that's when she realized that "you don't have to be a vegetarian to eat like one". And so in her quest to recreate the perfect vegetarian gyro she enrolled in the Natural Foods Culinary School in NYC, where she worked on seitan gyro recipes that would appeal to vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.
While she was telling me about the stringent kosher certification her seitan features, the woman at the next table broke into the conversation. She studied the packages on the table, asked a few questions about how the product should be prepared or served (in pasta, on a pizza, with an omelet...). "This will be perfect for my daughter, she is very healthy...it's easy-to-prepare, different, and parve!"
Back in my kitchen the objective was clear: putting plain seitan to the Carnivore Test. Could it stand in for pastrami, turkey, chicken? The Deli Maven in the house would surely have something to say. Steeping seitan strips overnight in a brew of borscht, pickle juice, and a blend of spices, yielded a pastrami-hued substance. After coarsely chopping the seitan then lightly sautéing it so it was crispy around the edges, it was heaped on top of a saucy layer of Russian dressing, with a scoop or two of sauerkraut, and then blanketed in melted Swiss cheese. The deli lover was both surprised and pleased with the result.
Then because Big Game Sunday was just a football toss away, throwing a Buffalo chicken-style dish into the mix made sense. Chopping up seitan purchased at my local health food store, and dousing it in hot sauce and then baking it in piquant blue cheese dressing and cream cheese presented a substantial and irresistible vegetarian dip. Which kind of sums up my seitan cooking experiment in general.
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For more seitan recipes/information, visit Taft Food Masters.