Textured Vegetable Protein. Have I ever spoken those words inside this house? I don’t think so. But that didn’t stop me from cooking it, feeding it to my children, and marveling over the fact that they all ate it without batting an eye. Now, if I had said those three words aloud, if I’d named what they were actually eating, who can say if the events would have played out any differently, but just to be safe I kept quiet on the true identity of the ingredient to see what would happen if the only variable in the situation were the ingredient itself, divorced from the knowledge that it was something with a strange name that they’d never had.
The origins of this story actually date back to a childhood anecdote in which my mother famously served us what she said was chicken for dinner, only coming clean about the fact that it was really tofu after we’d expressed displeasure over the meal. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be hoodwinked into ingesting more than the initial bite of the stuff; whatever way she’d prepared the tofu hadn’t rendered it chicken-like enough to inspire a psychosomatic response in which blind faith could coerce our taste and texture receptors to countenance the imposter vegetable in meat’s clothing. I wasn’t willing to run the risk of inviting my kids’ suspicion every time I served them something that was slightly different than usual, so I didn’t want to try to fool them the way my mom had done the night that tofu literally didn’t go down, so I thought I’d try preparing the vegetable protein in a way that would disguise it enough that no questions would even be asked.
As a way to stretch my dollar without compromising the protein content of the meal, recently I’d cooked some quinoa in beef consommé and mixed a cup of it into a pound of ground beef to make hamburgers, and no one rejected it, so I was cautiously hopeful about this next experiment. I finally settled on making a faux Bolognese sauce to serve with tortellini, thinking that if I turned the vegetable protein into as close a rendering of burger meat as possible, perhaps the experiment would succeed. So I took a page from my dad’s canonical cookbook and, after rehydrating the protein using some of that magical hot beef consommé (Campbell’s, condensed, without adding water) in place of water or vegetable broth as Bob’s Red Mill suggests, I seasoned it with a few shakes of Worcestershire, a few shakes of onion power, a few shakes of garlic powder, and a few shakes of pepper. After adding a jar of pasta sauce, there it was: Fauxlognese sauce, ready to go in two shakes of a cow’s tail. And no one asked a single question or suspected a bait-and-switch operation had even taken place in the kitchen that day.
Emboldened by this little victory, I thought I’d really push the envelope and infiltrate that most sacrosanct of menu options, the holy ace-in-a-hole, knee-jerk crowd-pleaser, the crown jewel go-to dinner for many a parent. That’s right; I went there. I stormed Castle Pizza but with stealth, sending my protein-packed troops in disguise, a Trojan Horse of nutrition right into the thick of things, hidden not under cover of darkness but of cheese. The extra Faulognese from earlier that week, repurposed surreptitiously as pizza sauce, once again raised no questions or complaints. Feeling dangerous, I told the kids I was calling their dinner TVPizza, to which one of them queried, “Why? Are we going to eat it while we watch TV?” Sure, kid. Tonight we’re showing “Crouching Protein, Hidden Leftovers”. I’ll make the popcorn, which may or may not be laced with a few shakes of nutritional yeast.