CONCORD, N.H. — The vegetarian love affair with tofu has done as much harm as good for the reputation of the rather mild-mannered soy bean.
Though it certainly has publicized the health benefits and versatility of this legume, the emphasis on tofu has left many people with the impression it is the only, or best, source of soy protein.
Not the case. And that's good news for those whose stomachs turn at the sight of the gelatinous white blocks.
The shelves of natural food stores, and increasingly mainstream grocers, are stacked with great sources of soy — some cleverly disguised, others good in their own right.
Miso is one such source. Best known as the primary ingredient in Japanese soups, miso is a salty paste made from fermented soy beans and other ingredients.
Like cheese, miso is aged. The longer it ages, the darker its color and stronger its taste. First-time miso buyers should stick with white or yellow, which has a sweet, tangy taste. When dark misos are used in soups they can taste like beef broth to vegetarian tastebuds.
Miso soup is easy to make. Bring water and vegetables to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender. Add miso during the final 3 minutes, as cooking intensifies its flavor. Use 1 teaspoon miso per 1 cup of liquid.
But soup is just the beginning. Miso can make a great marinade for vegetables, seafood and even meats. It also is popular whipped into scrambled eggs, omelets and mashed potatoes, and spread like butter on corn-on-the-cob.
Shish kebabs are a great way to introduce people to the taste of miso. Try this recipe for kebabs with miso sauce from William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi's "The Book of Miso," an exhaustive treatment of miso and its many uses.
Those who eat seafood can substitute giant scallops for the tofu. Vegetarians trying to cut fat could use baked, seasoned tofu instead of deep-fried.
SHISH KEBABS WITH MISO SAUCE
(Preparation 1 hour 15 minutes)
6 tablespoons red, barley or Hatcho miso (see note)
3 teaspoons toasted sesame seed oil
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
3/4 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1 1/2 cloves garlic, crushed
6 tablespoons water
5 ounces deep-fried tofu, cut into bite-sized cubes
4 green peppers, cut into large chunks
8 white button mushrooms
1 apple, cut into bite-sized chunks
8 chunks firm pineapple
4 small blanched onions (pickled onions are a nice variation)
4 small firm tomatoes
1 celery stalk, cut into small chunks
To make the marinade, combine miso, oil, honey, ginger, garlic and water in a blender and puree until smooth.
Arrange remaining ingredients in a shallow bowl and cover with marinade. Refrigerate for 1 hour, turning ingredients occasionally to coat with sauce.
While ingredients marinate, soak 8 wooden skewers in water. Soaking the skewers prevents them from burning.
Skewer the ingredients, then arrange on a baking sheet. Broil for 3 or 4 minutes, or until vegetables are just tender or begin to crisp at the edges. Use any marinade remaining in the bowl to baste once during broiling. Makes 4 servings.
Note: Red, barley and Hatcho misos, along with other dark or medium misos, are readily available where miso is sold, and are usually clearly labeled.
Shish Kebabs With Miso Sauce is taken from William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi's "The Books of Miso," Ten Speed Press, 2001, $19.95
Tempeh is another fermented soy bean product, though it bears no resemblance to miso. It is made from crushed soy beans, comes in 1/2-inch thick slabs and has a meaty texture. Several companies use tempeh to make bacon-like products.
Because tempeh is firmer than tofu, it can be easier to stir-fry. Though edible right from the package, tempeh is best when marinated and cooked. Raw tempeh can have a bitter taste.
For a great "meat" sauce for pasta or lasagna, crumble tempeh in a skillet with a bit of olive oil and soy sauce. Saute until the tempeh bits brown, about 5 minutes. Add this to any prepared pasta sauce.
Here are some other great ways to enjoy soy, minus the tofu:
— Toasted and salted soy nuts can be purchased at most grocers and make a great addition to any bowl of mixed nuts. They also can be sprinkled over pasta dishes, much like peanuts are in many Thai noodle dishes.
— Soy milks have come a long way in recent years, and many varieties now are available in the refrigerated sections alongside dairy milk. For drinking or on cereals, use vanilla-flavored for the creamiest taste. Soy milk also is good for baking.
— Speaking of cereals, soy has been added to or turned into numerous breakfast cereals, from hearty granolas to corn flake-like crunches. There also are several hot oatmeal-like versions.
— Soy flours are an easy way to slip the bean into baked goods such as cookies and cakes. The soy flour won't change the flavor. Substitute up to 1/2 cup of wheat flour with soy.
— Soy protein powders are great for people who drink fruit smoothies. One scoop will give the drink a creamy, thick consistency without altering its taste.
— Many breads now are being baked using soy flours. Don't just think sandwich. Brush the slices with olive oil, then toast in a 350 F oven until dry and crisp. Cut into chunks for croutons, or pulverize in a food processor for bread crumbs.
— Edamame, often served in Asian restaurants, are fresh soy beans still in the pods. Most grocers sell them frozen. Steam the beans for 5 minutes. To serve, toss them in a bowl with a generous sprinkling of salt. To eat, hold a pod by one end, and place the other end in your mouth. Suck the beans out of the pod, licking the salt off the outside in the process.