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Juicy and Tender, Seitan Is Quite Possibly the Best Fake Meat -- But There Is a Downside

Seitan is all the rage in vegan kitchens for its versatility and uncanny meatishness, but the bad news for some is that it's made of wheat gluten.

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The baby was stillborn. Several years and several miscarriages later, she carried a baby into its sixth month but again experienced severe diarrhea. She was put on bed rest, and at 33 weeks delivered a two-pound baby — alive and destined to survive, but small enough to fit into the palm of Bast's hand. Although celiac disease is known to cause fertility problems in both women and men, it is still seldom tagged as the culprit. Bast was diagnosed only after the birth of her premature baby, when a veterinarian friend suggested she get tested for food sensitivities. The gastroenterologist who finally provided Bast's diagnosis was the 23rd doctor she had consulted since her symptoms began.

"Because there's been no drug to treat gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, there's still not a lot of research into those fields, even though the prevalence of celiac disease has quadrupled since 1950," Bast says. She wonders whether this rise might spring from the increased quantities of processed foods in the standard American diet. As far as diagnosis and treatment are concerned, "the physicians are scrambling. Sure, there's a term: gluten sensitivity. But that term only describes how people feel," rather than the science behind it or its wide-ranging effects.

Even for those who suspect they have celiac disease, "it still just seems too hard to get tested," Bast says. "You have to ask the doctor to test you, and most doctors don't know which tests to run." Some celiac-disease sufferers experience no obvious symptoms, she adds, yet the damage is slowly and silently being done.

"These people think they don't have digestive issues, but they have neurological and psychological issues. They too should get tested." But when confronting a medical community that lacks a standard celiac-disease protocol and medications, "they have to advocate for themselves."

No one in my house has digestive or neurological issues. As for my psychological issues, I know for sure what caused them and it isn't anything that grows in fields. Having been a vegetarian for 20 years, a hypochondriac for 30, and a cheapskate for more, I decided to try making seitan at home. Having always been lazy as well, I picked the easy route, buying vital wheat gluten in bulk and mixing it in a bowl with water, ginger, pepper, garlic and soy sauce. Some recipes say to add paprika for color but I was afraid the result would taste like Chinese goulash. Five minutes of easy kneading yielded a dough log, which I sliced into cutlet shapes. Slipped into barely-boiling broth, the slices simmered for an hour. Watching them bounce and bonk against each other heartily, nearly doubling in size as they absorbed liquid, solidifying as they cooked, I marveled through the steam. After that hour, they bathed in the broth, in the fridge, all night.

And lo. Now they were firmer still, looking for all the world like little steaks. I poked them stoutly, yet my finger did not penetrate. I dropped one from a height onto a cutting board. It did not break. It bounced. Bite me, it said. I did. Savory juices rushed into my mouth. (Next time I might add that paprika after all, or cumin or allspice or liquid smoke.) Bitten, the newborn seitan put up a bit of a fight: ever so slightly fluffy, yet requiring the use of molars. Yes. Within the week it would be curried "lamb"; it would be sweet-and-sour "pork"; on Kaiser rolls it would be "hamburgers." It cost only about a buck. I can keep doing this. My life was transformed overnight. It's like having unearthed the esoteric secret of the universe, a treasure that will vanquish hunger, an alchemy for all but the gluten-sensitive: the code.

Just add water.

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