You want to eat less meat—you really do. But nothing else seems to give you such satisfying flavor, especially at dinner when you crave a warm and hearty meal.

There is a surprisingly tasty alternative to meat. It’s called seitan (pronounced SAY-tahn), a high-protein food popular in Asia that is sold in natural-food stores and featured at many vegetarian restaurants. (At some of these restaurants, seitan is the most popular entrée on the menu—and boy, is it tasty!) What’s amazing about seitan: Its chewy texture is so similar to that of chicken and beef that ominivores may not even suspect that it isn’t meat. Just imagine all the meaty dishes that will be at your fingertips—stir-fries, Sloppy Joes, roasts, even seitan bourguignon.

To find out more about seitan and how to cook with it (recipes included!), we turned to Nava Atlas, author of a dozen vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, including Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons (Clarkson Potter). Here is her advice….

THE WHEAT MEAT

It is believed that Buddhist monks created seitan and that it has been used in Japanese, Chinese and other Asian cooking for centuries. Many people are surprised to find that seitan actually is wheat gluten, the protein part of wheat.

We hear so much these days about staying away from gluten that it’s interesting to focus on a gluten-rich food for those who are not sensitive. (Of course, people with celiac disease or with a gluten sensitivity need to stay away from seitan.) If you generally shy away from eating wheat and wheat products because of their carbohydrate content (even carbohydrates made of whole wheat are known to increase blood sugar), you can rest assured that seitan is first and foremost a protein that is low in carbohydrates—made by taking away most of the carbohydrates until all that is left is protein in the form of vital wheat gluten.

In fact, seitan is loaded with protein. Three ounces of seitan provide between 13 and 21 grams of protein, depending on the brand you buy. If you make seitan from scratch, the amount of protein is determined by the amount in the vital wheat gluten. To compare, three ounces of tofu contains just six grams of protein, while the same amount of chicken contains about 20 grams of protein. Seitan also contains lots of iron, phosphorus and selenium…and it is cholesterol-free and fat-free.

USING SEITAN

You can buy packaged seitan or make it yourself. Seitan is made by combining vital wheat gluten, a powder that looks like flour, with water to form a spongy dough. (It’s important to note that vital wheat gluten is not the same as gluten flour. Gluten flour is a wheat flour that contains a lot of gluten and is good for making bread.) The bland-tasting dough is then cooked/simmered in a tasty broth that firms it to a meatlike consistency and gives it a savory flavor.

Sold at natural-food markets in the refrigerated section, seitan comes in several forms, including whole chunks, ground, strips and cubes. One brand to try: Westsoy. You also may find excellent seitan made locally in your area.

Most seitan (whether packaged or made from scratch) is seasoned with soy sauce and has a subtle Asian flavor. But once you cook seitan, it actually takes on the flavor of whatever broth it’s cooked in. For example, adding cumin and chiles to the broth gives it a Mexican flavor, while a broth with red wine and oregano gives it an Italian taste.

People on a low-sodium diet may want to avoid seitan since it contains a lot of sodium from soy sauce. Read the labels of the seitan you are buying—some have less sodium than others. What’s good about making seitan from scratch: You can control the sodium content, reducing it if you are on a sodium-restricted diet.

NAVA ATLAS’S RECIPES

Roasted Seitan, Peppers and Portabella Mushrooms (Serves 4)

This roasted dish makes a great everyday meal or can be served at a festive dinner party.

1 pound seitan, cut into bite-sized chunks

1 medium red bell pepper, cut into wide strips

1 medium yellow bell pepper, cut into wide strips

1 small zucchini, sliced ½ inch thick

4-5 ounces (½ package) baby portabella mushrooms, stemmed and sliced

2 Tablespoons olive oil

¼ cup teriyaki marinade (store-bought or homemade—see recipe below)

2 scallions, thinly sliced

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Dried hot red pepper flakes to taste, optional

2 Tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Preheat oven to 400º F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the seitan, bell peppers, zucchini, olive oil and teriyaki marinade. Stir together. Transfer to a roasting pan.

Roast in the oven for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the scallions, then roast for five to 10 minutes longer, or until the seitan and vegetables have some charred spots.

Transfer the mixture to a serving container. Season to taste with pepper and optional dried hot red pepper flakes. Sprinkle with parsley and keep covered until serving.

Teriyaki Marinade (Makes about ¾ cup)

This marinade adds rich flavor to seitan.

? cup reduced-sodium soy sauce

2 Tablespoons olive oil

1 Tablespoon dark sesame oil

3 Tablespoons agave nectar

3 Tablespoons rice vinegar (make sure it’s not sweetened) or white wine vinegar

1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced, optional

1 to 2 teaspoons grated fresh or jarred ginger

Combine all the ingredients in a small container and whisk together. If brushing on foods, swirl the mixture often to keep combined.

Adapted from Vegan Holiday Kitchen by Nava Atlas

And, if you want to try making your own seitan, here’s how…

Seitan From Scratch (Yields about two pounds)

Dough:

2 Tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce

2 ¼ cups vital wheat gluten

1 cup water

Broth:

2 vegetable bouillon cubes

2 Tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce

3 to 4 slices fresh ginger

For the dough, combine the soy sauce with one cup of water in a small mixing bowl. Place the gluten powder in a medium mixing bowl. Gradually add the liquid to the gluten powder. Stir with a spoon at first and then work with your hands to form it into a stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board and knead 30 times. Return the dough to the bowl, cover with a clean tea towel and let rest for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring 10 cups water to a simmer in a large soup pot. Add the bouillon cubes and ginger. Once the water is close to a simmer, divide the dough into two pieces and pull into long, narrow loaves the shape of miniature French breads. With a sharp, serrated knife, cut each section of dough crosswise into approximately half-inch sections. When the water comes to a simmer, insert each slice. Simmer gently and steadily for 30 minutes. Drain and let cool. (You can save the tasty drained stock for use in soup and other dishes.) Use in recipes calling for seitan.

Low-sodium variation: To reduce the sodium content of this recipe, eliminate the soy sauce and replace it with two tablespoons water. In the broth, make sure to use salt-free or low-sodium bouillon cubes. To make up for the flavor lost from eliminating the soy sauce, you can replace four of the 10 cups of water with a 32-ounce package of reduced-sodium vegetable broth.