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The Essential Vegetarian

By Katie Jeffreys

Features Editor

This week I would like to talk about soy. It is the versatile legume highly esteemed by vegetarians, yet meat-eaters often fear it, visualizing it poorly prepared, in a rubbery or slimy tofu state. Yet soy is far more ubiquitous than one might think.

Tofu is porous, allowing it to absorb the flavor of what it is cooked in. Typically, tofu contains between ten and fifteen percent protein and only five to nine percent fat. It can be blended into dips.

Tofu is a traditional soy product, along with soy milk, whole soy flour, whole dried soybeans, fresh green soybeans, and fermented foods such as tempeh, miso, and soy sauce.

Soy milk is becoming increasingly popular with health-conscious individuals, along with many people who experience lactose intolerance. Soy milk comes in several flavors, including chocolate and vanilla, and can be found in calcium or vitamin-enriched varieties. It also does not spoil as cow’s milk does, making it a reasonable staple.

Also available are other dairy replacements such as soy cheese, ice cream, and yogurt. While not as creamy as their cow milk cousins, these products provide a unique taste and dietary supplement.

The further from the bean, however, the less nutritional punch soy packs. Soy sauce, which is highly processed and salted, in not a meat substitute, for example. Fresh green soybeans can be used as any other legume, in stir fry or as a side dish.

Soy flour is frequently used in even the most common breads, pastries, and pastas. Using the full fat soy flour, low fat and textured varieties can be created. Textured soy flour (or textured vegetable protein) is used to create synthetic meat products such as “ground beef” crumbles, available in the supermarket. This flour is also used to extend the life of meat products and hold together ground meat in patties or sausages.

Soy is also a part of many other meat substitutes, including vegetarian hot dogs, burgers, sausage, bacon, and lunchmeat. Not all of these products contain much soy, however, as they are highly processed. They may also be high in fat and low in nutritional value. Reading labels insures a wholesome meat substitute.

Soy has several properties which make it very healthy. It has a high protein content, and soy fat is not the artery-clogging saturated fat of animal meat, but omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to protect against some chronic diseases. Soy is also rich in calcium, iron, zinc, several of the B vitamins, and fiber. Iron and B vitamins are especially important, as they are often found to be lacking in the average vegetarian diet. Furthermore, the calcium consumed from non-meat sources is absorbed more readily in the system.

Soy has been touted as a preventer of diseases, and recently the Food and Drug Administration agreed. Twenty years of research led the FDA to link the consumption of soy protein with a reduced risk of coronary heart disease. Now foods which contain 6.25 grams or more of soy protein per serving can carry a label touting the health benefits of soy. The FDA found that 25 grams of soy protein a day (four 6.25 gram servings) effectively reduce total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol levels.

All in all, soy is a versatile crop that is a very healthy alternative to meat, beans, and dairy. This week’s recipe provides an interesting alternative to tofu cubes, which appall so many omnivores. As always, please e-mail me at <> with any suggestions for the column.

Fettuccine with Silken Tofu Alfredo Sauce

Serves: 4 to 6

Pureed silken tofu has an ultra-creamy, custardy texture that is perfect for sauces such as this, or as a base for dips and salad dressings. Look for it in the produce section of any supermarket.

12-ounce package fettuccine (see note)

2 tablespoons light margarine

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1-pound tub or about 1 1/2 10-ounce aseptic packages silken tofu

1/2 cup low-fat milk or soy milk

1/2 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Extra Parmesan cheese, optional

Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Cook the noodles in rapidly simmering water until al dente, about 10 to 12 minutes, then drain.

In the meantime, heat the oil in a small skillet. Add the crushed garlic cloves and sautÉ over medium-low heat for two to three minutes, or until they are golden. Remove from the heat and discard the garlic cloves.

Combine the next four ingredients in a food processor and pour in the melted margarine from the skillet. Process until completely smooth and creamy. Combine the hot, drained noodles and the sauce in a large serving bowl and toss together. Season to taste with freshly ground pepper and toss again. May be topped with Parmesan cheese. Serve at once.

Note: A combination of green and white fettuccine makes this a very attractive dish.