I have never been much of a fan of tofu. This is not because I am an unflinching carnivore/omnivore, who believes every meal should center on a protein that once had a face. On the contrary, I could go days if not weeks without eating animal protein. The fact is, the vast majority of tofu available is horrendously bland, insubstantial, and lacking qualities or characteristics that lend itself to an enjoyable culinary experience. Sure, there is amazing tofu out there (most of which is being produced and consumed in Japan and east Asia) but Americans rarely see it or taste it, and therefore our expectations, when it comes to tofu, are pathetically low.
But I was recently reminded of an alternative to the ubiquitous meat alternative that is tofu – and that would be gluten. I am sure the word sends shivers down your GF spine, as a good portion of marketing in the last 5 years has been dedicated to promoting a gluten-free lifestyle and an overstated fear of gluten intolerance and celiac disease (Only between 0.5 and 1.0 percent of people in the United States are sensitive to gluten due to celiac disease). Entire sections of supermarkets are devoted to gluten-free breads, chips, cereals and alternatives, which that certain 1 percent understandably needs. But for the other 99 percent, those that could easily tolerate gluten-rich items, there is the humble and nutritious gluten.
The first problem, however, with gluten is likely the name: the word gluten most obviously comes from the word “glue” and sometimes can seem, texture speaking, a lot like its root word. In actuality gluten is a protein composite found in foods like rye, wheat and barley. Most notably, gluten is what gives bread structure and makes it elastic, providing it with that chewy texture it has when eaten. Without gluten, bread is often flat and unpleasantly dense. Writer Brian Palmer recently posted a love letter of sorts to gluten on Salon.com, stating that besides gluten being inherently delicious and able to more effectively take on the flavors of marinades than its more popular and beloved cousin tofu, gluten is more substantial, chewy, and pleasurable than nearly anything that passes as tofu these days.
The other problem with gluten is that it lacks that easy availability that tofu has, and most commercially produced gluten is largely disappointing. But rather than committing yourself to being gluten free, you could (not quite easily, but somewhat simply) make your own gluten. According to Palmer, “The good news it that there are only three ingredients: whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, and vegetable stock. Combine equal amounts of the two flours in a bowl. (I usually use four cups of each flour, which feeds about eight people.) Add enough water to make a dough, then turn it onto the counter and get ready to knead. After this point is when the difficult part comes – the kneading. About 20 minutes of hand kneading is required, which is a guaranteed work out for your arms and upper body, providing you put some elbow into it. You then have to cover your dough in water and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, it’s back to work. Cut the dough into softball-sized pieces, fill up your sink, and knead each one underwater. A few more water changes, and some more kneading, and a final 2 hours of boiling, and you have gluten ready to go. Easy? No, not really, but positively worth it for some of us that count ourselves as more intrepid and resourceful. The final result is something that holds up well to marinades and even on the grill.
While the majority of us will likely stick with our $3 tubs of tofu, gluten is worth some time and experimentation despite its bad name.