CHICAGO — After actor Stanley Tucci lost his sense of taste and smell following radiation treatment for oral cancer, he feared he would lose part of his heritage, having grown up in a traditional Southern Italian-American household outside New York City where everything revolved around food. Three years later, his sense of taste returned and he said it’s actually heightened. He is now focusing much of his energy on food, with a “foodie” television series based in Italy and a recently published memoir, aptly titled “Taste.”

Neither vegan nor vegetarian, Mr. Tucci is embracing the plant-based protein movement. The caveat, like for many other food enthusiasts, is he is incorporating more plant protein through whole foods and not through processed products formulated to look like hamburger or chicken nuggets.

Mr. Tucci does this in a spaghetti dish featuring a vegan ragu bolognese. Lentils are simmered in water until tender. After draining, the legumes are blended with chopped onions, carrots, celery and chunky tomato marinara and cooked until desired consistency.

Making it a complete protein

The challenge with lentils, like most plant proteins, is they are not complete proteins. This means they do not contain the nine essential amino acids in the ratio the body requires. While lentils contain a high amount of some essential amino acids, they lack methionine, as do most plant proteins. This makes methionine the limiting amino acid for lentils and why lentils are considered an incomplete source of protein.

For this dish to be a complete protein — something that should always be considered when formulating with plant proteins — it needs to contain other ingredients that have sufficient amounts of the limiting amino acid. Traditional semolina pasta is not a source of methionine; however, use of egg-based noodles along with the addition of some cheese should ensure the dish has a complete protein profile. If the dish must be vegan, then there are other specialty pastas that may be used. One of the best vegan sources of methionine is vital wheat gluten, which is only lacking in lysine.

Animal proteins are complete, as are quinoa, soy, most nuts and nutritional yeast. The latter is a deactivated yeast dried into a powder and commonly used as a flavoring in vegan meals, as it has a strong cheesy, nutty flavor profile and provides umami, a taste many plant-based foods lack.

To make a front-of-package claim, protein must be calculated as a complete protein. “Good” or “excellent” source of protein claims refer to the amount of complete protein in the product. This is 5 grams or 10 grams per serving for each respective claim. This is very important information for vegans who are at risk of being deficient in some essential amino acids. Deficiency may have a negative impact on muscle repair and growth, fluid balance and hormone production.

If the focus of plant-based is simply to develop dishes featuring more non-animal proteins, protein completeness is less of a factor. It’s assumed the consumer will be compensating for the missing amino acids in other foods throughout the day.

Various plants

Layering on flavor

One of the most common complementary protein duos is rice and beans. Rice protein is high in cysteine and methionine, but low in lysine. Bean protein is low in methionine but high in lysine. Another is peanut butter (low in methionine, high in lysine) with whole wheat bread (low in lysine, high in methionine). These whole food plant protein duos may serve as the base for culinary-inspired dishes, with or without the addition of other proteins.

Another approach is to include enough of a complete plant protein to ensure a balanced amino acid profile. For example, Nastasha McKeon, founder of the Choice Superfood Bar and Juicery vegan food chain headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif., and author of “Plant Food Is Medicine,” combines finely chopped walnuts with nutritional yeast, tomatoes and spices to make a savory taco filling. Seeds and nuts are a go-to for her for many recipes.

“Before going vegan, I used to love spicy tuna ceviche,” Ms. McKeon said. “My spicy suntuna pâté really hits the spot when that craving strikes.”

She combines sunflowers seeds — a source of complete protein — with cashews and soaks them until soft. They are formulated with chopped onion, olive oil and seasonings into a tuna salad-like consistency.

Quinoa, also a complete protein, may be prepared with seasonings and used as a complement to many plant-based dishes. Ms. McKeon, for example, cooks quinoa with turmeric and olive oil and uses it to fill collard green spring rolls. Compared to other leafy vegetables, collard greens are packed with nutrients, including protein, albeit incomplete.

“I love collard greens, so many nutrients and so few calories,” Ms. McKeon said. “Select large, fresh collard leaves. The bigger the collards, the easier to use for wraps. Wash and soak the collards in warm water with some lemon juice. This helps soften up the leaves and makes them pliable enough to roll.

“Place the washed collard greens on a cutting board and cut off the large stems at the base of the leaf. Then use a knife to thinly shave along the rib of the stem, starting at the base and moving up toward the top. After the collards are cleaned and soaked, and the stem and rib are removed, you are ready to roll.”

Oyster mushrooms are another of her favorite whole food (incomplete) plant proteins, as they may be prepared to resemble tender, seasoned strips of meat, such as carnitas.

“Oyster mushrooms are a rich source of protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants,” she said. “They are low in calories and fat free, cholesterol free, gluten free and very low in sodium.”

Oyster mushrooms provide only six of the nine essential amino acids in sufficient quantities. They are lacking in leucine, lysine and methionine. When served in a burrito or wrap application, the dish may become a complete protein when other proteins are added, for example, a chipotle cheese-style sauce.

Ms. McKeon likes to use cashews, also a source of incomplete protein, as a base in many of her “cheesy” sauces. She renders them complete proteins through the addition of nutritional yeast, which also provides desirable cheesy, umami flavor notes.

When it comes to making vegan sushi rolls, whole vegetables are used to simulate various types of fish. To make the rolls a complete source of protein, Ms. McKeon recommends using seasoned quinoa.

“People always ask me what I use to make ‘tuna’ and it’s way simpler than you think,” she said. “I hate to sell it short by saying ‘it’s just tomato’ but the truth is, ‘it’s just tomato.’ The magic comes from the preparation. The tomatoes need to be boiled, peeled, filleted and marinated for hours prior. This process is what gives the tomatoes a resemblance in taste and texture to its fishy counterpart, minus the fishy taste.”

She developed several flavorful salad toppers, with some serving as a way to provide a complete protein. The “parmesan” combines raw Brazil nuts, raw cashews, raw hemp seeds with nutritional yeast and a touch of salt and garlic powder. The mixture should be pulverized into a granular texture. Overprocessing will result in a nut butter consistency.

Chickpea croutons are made by seasoning then baking fully cooked garbanzo beans. She includes nutritional yeast with the herbs and spices. You won’t find any protein in her vegan “bacon” topper, but the liquid smoked-marinated and seasoned baked coconut flakes deliver flavor and crunch.


Don’t forget soy

Tofu is one of the original complete vegan proteins, and too often ignored by culinary professionals. Tofu is made from soybeans, which contains all nine essential amino acids in the right ratio. Tempeh and edamame, also forms of soybeans, are complete proteins, too.

A favorite menu item from Chicago-based Meez Meals, a meal kit delivery concept that provides prepped and ready-to-cook ingredients for healthy gourmet meals made at home, is the Himalayan red rice with Bangkok basil crunch. The rice bowl starts with an Asian-inspired basil crunch made from fresh basil, ginger, coconut and ground peanuts. It gets mixed with the cooked rice, baked organic tofu and roasted kale.

The Soyfoods Council, Des Moines, Iowa, and The Iowa Restaurant Association, likes to work with Iowa chefs to create consumer-friendly recipes using soy. Recently several chefs were charged with creating an original salad dressing featuring Mori-Nu Silken Soft Tofu as the base. Produced by Morinaga Nutritional Foods Inc., Torrance, Calif., the tofu is intended to be used as a low-fat, heart-healthy alternative to sour cream or mayonnaise. It is a source of complete vegetable protein to make dips, sauces and smoothies and needs no refrigeration until opened.

“Tofu-based items are very trendy,” said Chef Aaron Holt, a culinary consultant to Sysco Foods Iowa and owner of Doolittle Farms, both based in Ankeny, Iowa. “Tofu is so versatile. The firmer forms are great for searing or grilling as center-of-plate proteins.”

He created a green goddess-type dressing with the soft tofu as a base. Lots of green ingredients are central to this dressing, Mr. Holt said. He blended the silken tofu with avocados, basil, cilantro, roasted poblanos and charred green onions. Some chili-infused honey adds sweet heat, while apple cider vinegar gives it punch.

“You add some Dijon mustard for emulsification and lemon for acidity,” Mr. Holt said. “The lemon really brightens up the flavors.”

He used the dressing on mixed greens that were served as part of a deconstructed avocado toast platter. It included grilled toast points, sliced avocado with everything bagel seasoning (seeds are a source of complete plant protein), sliced tomatoes, sliced radishes, pickled onions and a whole grain blend of farro, quinoa and rice.

Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council, said tofu is a blank slate waiting to be infused with flavor.

“These soy salad dressings demonstrate how easy it is to incorporate plant protein into your diet,” Ms. Funk said.

Jessica Dunker, president and chief executive officer of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said, “Chefs are always looking for new ways to delight patrons with their creativity. Soft-silken tofu is a double win. It has a great texture and format to capture flavors and fantastic health benefits.”

Chef Kevin Scharpf, owner of Brazen Open Kitchen Dubuque, Iowa, created a vegan charred onion miso ranch dressing. The unique fusion of flavors complements everything from salad to sushi.

“You do not want to drain the tofu,” Mr. Scharpf said. “You want all the juice that comes with tofu to make the sauce smooth and silky.”

Morinaga is introducing tofu to appeal to the growing number of consumers interested in functional foods. The new Mori-Nu Plus Fortified Tofu is an extra creamy, smooth tofu with added nutrients, including an efficacious amount of prebiotics and the company’s proprietary postbiotic.

“Our mission has always remained the same: to facilitate an easy and delicious intake of nutrients while promoting a wholly nutritious lifestyle backed by evidence-based, scientific facts,” said Satoshi Endo, president and chief executive officer. “We are excited to introduce a new concept of tofu, which can be adapted to everyday recipes and is made for all healthy-living enthusiasts.”

Shelf-stable until opened, the company invested in recipe development to fuel interest in the nutrient dense soy product. One concept is to cube drained tofu, coat and fry it, followed by a slathering in Buffalo sauce. Another is to make a custard for soaking bread for French toast.

Chef Tsadakeeyah Emmanuel, co-owner of vegan restaurant Majani, operates three locations in Chicago. He is a fan of tofu and appreciates its versatility. His menu includes a boldly spiced “crab” cake tofu patty with vegan tartar sauce, and a jerk-infused tofu used in tacos, a sandwich and his signature dish: smoky jerk tofu, creamy mac and house-made soy cheese with collard greens and cane sugar sweet potatoes.