By now the message seems pretty clear: getting more soy into our diets can help improve our health. For a variety of reasons, soy has been connected to cancer prevention and may fight symptoms of menopause and osteoporosis. Because it is low in fat and high in protein, it is often used as a meat substitute by those who are watching their weight.
Still, we wander the supermarket aisles wondering. We stare as blankly at a package of tofu as it stares back at us. What do we do with it? And what about all of those other soy products? How do we use them? Unless you've grown up with soy, you're likely to be mystified.
But the clamor for increasing soy in the diet has grown. There is substantial evidence that consuming 25 grams of soy protein daily can lower total and LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. Easing soy into the diet may also reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, a claim the Food and Drug Administration has allowed to appear on labels since last fall.
It adds up to one great little package--if, of course, you know what to do with it.
First, there are simple ways to incorporate soy foods into your diet. One of the easiest is to use soy milk. Stir it into coffee; pour it over cereal; blend it with fruits for breakfast drinks; use it in place of milk for puddings and pie fillings; add it to mashed potatoes. It can take the place of regular milk in most cooking and baking.
Tofu can seem more intimidating because it comes in a variety of styles, with consistencies ranging from almost as firm as cheese to silken and nearly liquid, almost like yogurt or mayonnaise.
Firm tofu can be cubed or crumbled and added to stews, stir-fries, soups or spaghetti sauces. Slice it and cook it on the griddle, or use it in any dish for which it needs to hold up well in cooking. (Even firm tofu tends to be a bit delicate, though, so handle it carefully.)
Regular tofu is best as an ingredient in casseroles, soups and salads. The softer tofus--the softest is also called silken--can be cubed and stirred into dishes such as scrambled eggs, dips and dressings. Or use soft tofu as a substitute for mayonnaise.
Fresh tofu is often sold packed in water; it can be kept refrigerated, unopened, in its tub, though it's a good idea to cover it with fresh water daily and store it in an airtight container. Firm tofu will keep a week or so, silken tofu only three days. Check for an expiration date when you purchase it. Silken tofu sold in vacuum-packed cartons can be stored in the pantry several months; check for the expiration date.
Fresh tofu has little odor. If it smells sour and the water looks cloudy, discard it.
Miso, or soybean paste, is distinctive in soups, marinades and dressings. It is most commonly used as a seasoning in Asian cooking or to preserve fish and meat and pickle vegetables. It is very strong and salty, so a little goes a long way.
Soybeans themselves are becoming popular. Edamame, or soybeans in the shell, are showing up on appetizer menus. They're popular in Asian restaurants. Fun to eat, tasty and high in protein, edamame are available freshly cooked and frozen in specialty and health food stores and some grocery stores.
Fresh soybeans can be found in the produce section of supermarkets and farmers markets. They can be used in soups. Roasted until crunchy, they make a good high-protein snack in place of nuts. Or sprinkle them over salads. They're also available dried and canned.
If you're a sprouts fan, try soy sprouts. Look for them at farmers markets and some grocery stores. Use them in salads and sandwiches as you would other sprouts.
It's not too difficult to transform that plain soy product into something that tastes good. Experiment with each product and try incorporating soy into the foods you regularly cook. When you've done it well, it will come as a surprise that soy is suddenly part of your everyday diet.
Brown Rice Pudding
Active Work Time: 10 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour
This low-sugar, whole-grain rice pudding would be a comforting alternative to oatmeal on a cool January morning. Make it ahead; it tastes even better the second day.
1/2 cup brown basmati rice
2 cups water
6 green cardamom pods
1 quart low-fat soy milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick cinnamon
2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed, plus more for garnish
1/4 cup egg substitute
* Combine rice and water in saucepan and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Drain rice and set aside.
* Wrap cardamom pods in cheesecloth and tie with string. Place in large saucepan and add soy milk, rice, salt, cinnamon stick and 2 tablespoons brown sugar. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until rice is tender and liquid reduces until pudding-like, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove cinnamon stick and cardamom packet from saucepan. Blend a little of hot liquid into egg substitute, then stir all into hot pudding. Heat and stir just until thickened, about 1 minute. Let cool slightly, then serve in large shallow bowls and sprinkle with brown sugar.