Soy ... What???

By Nancy Berkoff

Received this question from a reader: “ I’m still not clear on soy –    is it a bean or what? How can I include some soy-based foods on my menu?  How can I ‘sell’ it to my omnivore friends so I don’t have to prepare two menus for one meal?”

  Answer: There seem to be more and more soy products available in more and more markets. Soy products are created from soybeans, and soybeans belong to the legume family, the same as lentils and peas. Fresh green soybeans (edamame, in Japanese) can be steamed and eaten as a snack or used to add crunch to salads. Think edamame as a bar snack, as a fun appetizer or as a different side dish. Cooked soybeans are available canned, in green, black and yellow. Use them to make a fast chili or bean soup or add to salad bars or puree to form the base of a dip for chips and veggies. Check out your market’s frozen section for in-the-pod or shelled, frozen soybeans.

Soy has been around for at least 5,000 years. Amuse your family and friends with a little soy-history, such as since the 1400s, sailors and traders brought soybeans with them as they traveled around the world. The first commercial soy crop was grown in the US in 1829. During the Civil War, soldiers used soybeans as a substitute coffee, roasting and brewing soybeans rather than coffee beans.

 US farmers grow about 2 billion bushels of soybeans a year. Although there are no RDAs for soy, if someone asks, medical research suggests that 25 grams of soy protein a day may help to control cholesterol, slow bone-thinning and reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers.

 Soymilk can be used wherever dairy milk is used. Soymilk is available in different flavors, sweetened or unsweetened and “regular” or lower fat. Read labels to select a soymilk brand that offers calcium and Vitamin D.  Pour soymilk over hot or cold cereal, use it for creamy sauces and salad dressings and in cold smoothies or hot coffee beverages. A note about using soy milk in your morning brew: stir as you pour, as soy milk can “clump” when poured into hot beverages.

Tofu is available in different textures and flavors. Silken tofu is smooth and custardy, useful for smoothies, making into pie fillings, “cheese” cakes, custards and creamy soups. Soft tofu can be scrambled, like eggs, and used instead of eggs in baking recipes.  Extra-firm tofu  holds its shape and can be sliced, cold, into green or pasta salads or hot, into stir-fries, soups, pastas and as a pizza topping. Extra-firm tofu can be marinated, grilled, roasted and used where you might use chicken, turkey, hard-cooked eggs or stew meat. Smoked tofu is usually firm, and can be sliced for a TLT (tofu, lettuce, tomato) or club sandwich, or in dishes using smoked meat or fish or cubed and uses a no-tuna or no-chicken sandwich.

 Tempeh, fermented soy, is firm enough to grill or roast, and its smoky flavor makes it a good alternative to beef in sandwiches, chili, soups and casseroles. Create a flavorful marinade and create tempeh steaks to throw on the barbecue.

TVP (textured vegetable protein) can be formed into burgers, loaves and roasts or crumbled into sauces or soups and is the main ingredient in Hamburger Helper

This is a brief introduction to soy products. Good luck and think soy!

With numerous years in health care and education, Nancy Berkoff, RD, CCE, would love for readers to ask food and nutrition-related questions:


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