Monday, February 23, 2009

But where do you get your proteins - part 1

"But where do you get your proteins?" is often the first question that troubles the concerned omnivore when you say you are vegetarian. I initially wanted to put together a short list but as I've been working on this, its grown considerably. Thus I've decided to put together a fairly extensive, yet non scientific list of plant based proteins, grouping them by source. Although I am not a nutritionist, make sure you cross check my claims before taking this as gospel please!

Most of the images used in this post are from Wikipedia and Stock.Exchng and my research was conducted online with Wikipedia and knowledge I've learned in living a vegetarian lifestyle.

This first part will focus on legumes: beans, peas and lentils. Part 2 will focus on grain proteins, part 3 will focus on nut proteins and part 4 on other plant based proteins.

So what's the deal with proteins anyways?

Proteins are molecules composed of long chains of amino acids. There are 20 different types of standard amino acids that form proteins, 8 of which are considered essential amino acids that the human body cannot produce on its own. Most animals consumed by omnivores obtain their own proteins from plants as they are herbivores by nature. They make them the same way us humans can make our own proteins.

List of Amino Acids (from Wikipedia)
Essential Nonessential
Isoleucine Alanine
Leucine Asparagine
Lysine Aspartate
Methionine Cysteine*
Phenylalanine Glutamate
Threonine Glutamine*
Tryptophan Glycine*
Valine Proline*




*Essential in certain cases.

The Legumes

Although most beans, peas and lentils do not offer a complete protein on their own, they can amalgamate with other proteins to complete the chain and create a complete high quality protein. Unlike the old vegetarian adage, you don't need to combine these with a grain at the same time to reap the benefits. You simply need to eat a variety of beans and grains to make sure your body has a steady supply of the 8 essential aminos to build strong muscles and stay healthy!

One fun fact to keep in mind with beans is that they are one of the Three Sisters in Amerindian agriculture and the base of the diet along with corn and squash.

Peas - including split peas - Peas are often forgotten in the protein list as it's often regarded as a vegetable worthy of pot pies and meat & potato concoctions. I love these in samosas, rices and soups. If you are feeling adventurous, you could add them to pasta sauces, rice and ground them up and use them as a complement to a flour based dish.

Kidney beans - These lovely red delights are very popular in chilies and three-bean salads. Kidney beans are also a fundamental part of Northern Indian cuisine. They have a creamy texture and tend to disintegrate when cooked for a long time.

Lentils - There are literally dozens of types of lentils including red lentils (hulled lentils) that puree when cooked through. There is also the popular Puy lentils which retains is shape when cooked, and green and brown lentils popular in Lebanese and Palestenian cuisine, combined in a great rice dish with roasted onions.

Lima Beans - Also known as butter beans, these large white beans are creamy in texture and flavor. They are great in salads with a dill cumin dressing, or also pureed hummus style. I've also enjoyed them in a chili, lending itself as a thickening agent.

Black Beans - Secretly one of my favorite beans, I like to make burgers with these. They hold their shape well and have a meaty flavor that's unique. They are also popular in stews and soups. Like the Pinto bean, they make for surprisingly delicious refried beans. If you soak dried black beans, the resulting liquid is always a gorgeous deep purple color.

Black Eyed Peas - Not only a popular band (har har), the black eyed pea is considered soul food and is part of African, and South American diets, being an integral part of dirty rice (kidney beans are used in the Haitian version of dirty rice), hopin' john and rice and peas. It is also often added to stews and Brazillian Feijoas. It's nutritional value and high nitrogen content makes it a farmer's friend too.

Chickpeas - chickpeas are an unusual bean as it has a round shape instead of the traditional bean shape. They are pale beige in color and are used in Mediterranean and Indian cuisine. Whether its a pureed in a hummus, pocketed in a samosa, sauced in a chana, or stewed, they make for great flavor and texture while packing a protein punch! They can be ground into a flour and be used in baking like muffins and donuts.

The Noble Soy Bean

The bean that can boast offering a complete protein! Some how along the way, this plant has been vilified as being the cause of many ailments. I'm a great supporter of soy but use caution. Variety is the spice of life. Don't just rely on soy as your legume protein source! One way I try to keep variety is I'll drink a non-soy plant milk like rice, oat or hemp. If I take soy milk, more than another serving of soy during the day. You'd probably get sick if you only drank cow milk and ate cow cheese all day every day too....

Edamame: Baby soybeans that haven't been dried into the well known white soybean. Usually eaten in stir frys or served in the pod to be eaten with a salty dipping sauce. A source of high quality complete proteins.

Tofu Firm/Silken - Source: Soybean curds. Tofu is made from curdling soy milk and pressing the curds into blocks. Tofu doesn't have its own distinct flavor but will take on whatever accompanying flavor the prepared dish has. It can be cut into cutlets or cubes as it or be marinated and pan fried for flavor. It can be crumbled to resemble "ground beef", scrambled to resemble scrambled eggs, or for silken style tofu, it can be blended to have a smooth texture. Try a vegan chocolate mousse! You won't believe it's tofu.

Tempeh - is made by a natural culture and controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form. Tempeh's fermentation process and its retention of the whole bean give it a higher content of protein, dietary fiber and vitamins compared to tofu, as well as firmer texture and stronger flavor. (directly copied from wikipedia!) I like to make "Reubens" with tempeh and when pan fried in roasted sesame oil, is a worthy component of any stir-fry dish.

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) - These are soy protein flakes that can be used to replace any type of ground meat in chilis, spaghetti sauces and other recipes. They are easy to prepare, just by soaking 1 cup of TVP in 7/8ths of a cup of boiling hot vegetable stock for 10 minutes. Simply add into the recipe as directed.

Stay tuned for the next post on grain based protein sources!

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