I've passed on meat for a good two decades now, but that doesn't mean I don't covertly swoon at the scent of a Sunday roast.
As a portly young thing, I used to love me some good T-bone steaks, ribs, sausages, burgers, KFC - you name it, I ate it. Then my stomach stopped accepting it, and not long after, I watched a film about a chicken factory. That was the end of that.
But I've never given up my love of meat imposters - you know, the fakers that look, taste and feel sort of like meat. Pass on animal protein and you avoid the carbon footprint bloat (beef produces 13 times the emissions of lentils), the animal rights fiasco and the heavy-duty water-polluting impacts of factory farming.
And since even certified organic meat is often slaughtered in conventional abatoirs (just under different standards), vegetarian protein is ultimately the only way to dine without guilt gnawing at your leg.
The people who do fake meat best, flavour-wise, are the Buddhist vegetarians. I lived in Taiwan after my undergrad studies and discovered the joys of mock duck, mock chicken, mock, well, everything. Saunter into a T.O. Asian vegetarian joint like Café 668, Simon's Wok or Buddha's Vegetarian Kitchen and order the satay veggie beef or sweet and sour veggie chicken and what you're getting is marinated wheat gluten, aka seitan. Mighty tasty and high in protein, but the gluten-intolerant will run the other way.
To up the sustainability factor, look for the organic kind in health stores. Green Cuisine sells seitan wheat cutlets made from organic wheat.
My very first foray into fake meats, however, involved textured vegetable protein (TVP). I'd buy it dry from the health store, then cook it up, assured it was the greatest invention since yeast-free spelt bread. But if you think this protein is totally counter-culture, think again. Turns out agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland patented the term TVP. It's mostly made from soy protein, but can also be made from other conventional crops like GMO-heavy cotton seeds, wheat or oats.
Speaking of GMO-heavy crops, soy protein is the most common meat replacement in North America. I've written about the pitfalls of soy protein isolate in veggie burgers before, but really, anything made with soy protein isolate, be it veggie dogs or salami, is not only often derived from GMO seeds but also processed with polluting neurotoxic hexane.
As I said at the time, soy protein producers like Dupont's Solae (maker of the soy protein that goes into Yves and Gardenburger products) are among the largest hexane polluters in North America. Hexane is used to process TVP, too. Best to look for brands using whole organic soybeans or organic tofu.
Ying Ying Soy Food and Green Cuisine both use Canadian-grown organic soy. Tofurkey uses hexane-free combinations of organic tofu, organic soy protein, soy flour and/or wheat gluten for its hot dogs, ground "beef" and deli slices. Really, though, the healthiest soy is the fermented kind, like tempeh and miso; get it certified organic and you'll be on top of the green pyramid.
If you're looking for a soy-free ground meat substitute in your cooking, my mom has switched to whole-grain high-fibre bulgur to make French-Canadian tourtière ("meat" pie) and stuffed peppers. It's delish. Wheat-avoiders, note that this is hulled wheat grain. Higher-protein grains include amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa. Locavores can even score Canadian-grown organic quinoa from the Northern Quinoa Corp. Sprinkle on pumpkin, squash or hemp seeds for an extra protein boost (all three being way more local than chia).
Beyond that, let's not sidestep the protein choice of vegetarians the world over: beans. Soak 'em yourself and they're also seriously cheap.
Raw foodies skip all of the above and opt for nuts, seeds and sprouted beans as their main source of protein in the most creative combinations imaginable. Crack open a copy of Douglas McNish's Eat Raw, Eat Well for delicious, inspired recipes.
The raw cashew moussaka will convince anyone that veg proteins rock.
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