The Protein Question

August 19, 2008

I recently joined Facebook. Just as I was late to enter the world of blogging, I was late to enter the world of online social networking. And what a trip it is! Nearly everyday, I get an invite from a “friend” and some long lost (to me) person is back in my life – however superficially. One of the best was reconnecting with Victoria, my college roommate. In an email exchange, she mentioned to me that our mutual friend Meg was going to be in town from Connecticut and, thanks to Vic, I was able to meet up with her.

The boys and I picked her up on Sunday and we made a mad dash to the West Seattle Farmer’s Market. I have to say, of all the markets here in town (and sometimes we go to four a week), West Seattle is my favorite. It is small, all food, not too crowded, and seems to have the best farmers. I wanted to show her the bounty on offer here in this part of the country – and I needed some things for dinner.

Meg mentioned to me, as so many people have, that she is eating way less meat these days and is really interested in eating vegetarian a few times a week. The thing that she finds most difficult, she said, is making sure she gets enough protein. This is perhaps, oh – maybe the 1000th – time I have heard this dilemma from wanna-be semi-vegetarians. And people, I am here to tell you, you don’t have to work that hard. I have been a vegetarian for 22 years now, through two pregnancies and nursing two babies, and I have never had an issue with protein or lack thereof.

When you eat meat, the protein becomes the focus of the meal. Watching shows like “Top Chef”, I am always amazed by how the dish a cook is making shapes up based on what the protein is – they even call it “protein” not meat. We vegetarians don’t look at our plate the same way. I’ve mentioned this before here, but our eating lives don’t revolve around the protein, starch, vegetable trio. Sometimes dinner is a one dish wonder with the protein, starch, and vegetable all living together in perfect harmony. Sometimes, there is no protein, or not an obvious one. Pasta has protein but no one would ever mistake it for steak.

This is a big shift in thinking. If you have cooked (or eaten) one way your whole life (and had it drilled into you that you need protein), it may seem scary to be able to eat a lovely summer stew filled with seasonal organic vegetables and whole grains…with no trace of “protein” in sight. I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a nutritionist. I can just tell you what I know from personal experience – you will be just fine if you don’t worry about it too much. Sometimes I will realize that several days have gone by and I’ve eaten a lot of vegetables and a lot of starch but not much protein, so I will make something Asian and add a lot of tofu. Or I will make a bean dish. Or I will throw a bunch of chickpeas into the salad for the night.

Now, I’ve never tried to run a marathon and I’ve never wanted to become a power lifter, but I did teach intense Ashtanga Yoga for two years with a vigorous practice of my own, and never needed to eat any differently than I do now. I say none of this to judge what anyone else is eating – hell, my own husband eats meat. I just put it out there for those of you who have asked me, those who are interested in going veg a few times a week, how I get my protein. And the answer is, it all works out in the end. And truthfully, if you are eating meat or chicken or fish a few times a week, then you really don’t need to worry about it.

This is a recipe for a Black Bean Salad that I created today to serve with Cold Avocado Soup (photo above) and Rice with Leeks and Poblano Chiles. It isn’t lovely, but it is really tasty. Beans are a great way to keep protein in you diet – they are cheap, easy to use, and nutritious.

Black Bean Salad with Corn and Cotija Cheese
Serves 4

If you are unable to find Cotija cheese, you can substitute Queso Fresco, or even Feta Cheese. You want all your vegetables and cheese about the same size as the black beans.

2 cans black beans, drained
1 red bell pepper, diced

1 small or
1/2 large red onion, diced
1 small can mild green chiles, drained

1 ear yellow or white corn, husked and corn cut from the cob

1 small avocado, diced

1-2 limes

-1 tsp. ground cumin

cup cotija cheese, cut into small dice
cup chopped cilantro

In a large bowl, combine the beans, bell pepper, chiles, corn, and avocado, stirring gently. Add the juice of one lime and 1/2 tsp. of salt and cumin. Stir again gently and taste adding more lime juice, salt, and cumin as needed. Keep in mind that the cotija is salty. Add the cotija and cilantro and stir again. (Can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before serving.)

1 Comment »

  1. I love this. I’m one of those aspiring vegetarians, or at least someone who hates cooking meat and therefore feels I should probably stop eating it (or at least, eat it less often). My meals for my son are always pastas and rices with veggies, cheese and/or beans mixed in. I’m all about the ‘one dish wonder.’

    Comment by Naomi — November 23, 2010 @ 6:09 am

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