Ga-ga over gluten

In a stir-fry, seitan texture and taste resembles beef. (Photo by Lisa Sorg)

Although it sounds like 'satan,' seitan is very, very good

"Do I have to skin this thing before I cook it?" asked my dining companion, skeptically eyeing a vacuum-sealed package of brown lumps.

The DC, a carnivore who prepares all our home-cooked meals requiring heat or patience (I'm on cereal detail), dumped the hunk of seitan (say-TAHN) on the cutting board, sliced it as if gliding his knife through a pot roast, then scraped it into a hot wok with a heap of vegetables and brown rice.

Macrobiotic advocate George Ohsawa coined the name "seitan" in the early 1960s in Japan; the traditional Japanese word for seitan is "fu." Made from pressed wheat gluten, seitan provides a low-fat, high-protein alternative to beef, pork, or chicken: A serving contains 22 grams of protein, 100 calories, and one gram of fat. For those of you malingering on the passé Atkins diet (Atkins is to food trends what Lollapalooza is to music concerts), you'll be relieved to know seitan has only two grams of carbohydrates. Enough nutritional information, let's eat.

I once ate seitan as a stand-alone dish. Perhaps I failed to look at the expiration date, but I cannot recommend devouring a mound of seitan, as it induced a digestive maelstrom several hours later. However, the seitan purchased for the veggie stir-fry had been pre-marinated in seasoned soy sauce (and did not expire until March) and meshed perfectly with sauteéd broccoli, carrots, rice, and black sesame seeds. Chewy and dense, seitan is texturally more satisfying than tofu, which can turn spongy. With your eyes closed, it's hard to distinguish seitan from fajita meat.

You can sauté seitan with onion and green pepper and wrap it in a tortilla for veggie fajitas, or top a similar sandwich with mozzarella for a reasonable facsimile of a Phillie cheese steak. It also works well in Asian dishes, spaghetti, and even in German cuisine.

Besides the "original" flavor, which, like tofu, absorbs the taste of whatever it is cooked with, White Wave also carries a "chicken" version, a ubiquitous description that has been applied to foods as varied as frog legs, or, according to Ugandan President Idi Amin, human flesh. No faux chicken, faux frog, or faux flesh for me. Instead, try this stir-fry recipe. It's not fancy, but it's quick and nutritious and makes enough for the next day's lunch.

1 c rice
2 c water
2 T peanut oil
1 8-oz. package of seitan
2 c broccoli, chopped
2 c carrots, julienned
1/2 green pepper, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
Sprinkling of black sesame seeds

Bring water to boil and stir in rice. Reduce to a simmer until rice is chewy. Remove from heat. Heat wok; add oil, vegetables, and seitan. Cook on high until vegetables are crunchy, yet tender, and seitan is sizzling. Stir in rice and cook for about one minute. Turn off heat and fold mixture, blending in black sesame seeds.

Although shepherd's pie is traditionally meat-heavy, here is an alternative and much-lauded recipe from the site that uses seitan; it's so tasty you won't miss the pieces of shepherd.

3 lbs brown russet potatoes
6 c diced veggies: corn, lima beans, green beans, and peas
2 c mushrooms, sliced
1 large onion, diced
1 large leek, diced
5 cloves garlic (or to taste) crushed
1/3 c soy sauce, red wine, or red wine vinegar
4 c seitan
2 c cheese (optional), shredded

Quarter the potatoes and put them in a large pot of boiling water. When they're cooked but still firm, drain the potatoes and mash them, using a little milk.

Slice mushrooms, onions, leeks, and garlic and fry them in a little oil in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add your chosen potion - red wine, soy sauce, or rice wine vinegar - trying to retain any liquid in the pan. This will become "gravy" for the pie. When the onions are translucent and the mushrooms are brown around the edges, turn off the heat.

Brown the seitan, then combine it with onions/mushrooms and diced veggies. Add cheese.

Spread the mixture on the bottom of a 9-by-13 (lasagna-sized) baking pan. Top with the potatoes, smoothing them out at the top. Cover with cheese if desired. Bake at 375 degrees for 30-45 minutes or until cheese on top turns a golden brown. Serves a herd of 10 hungry shepherds.

By Lisa Sorg