Protein Ninja – Finding Protein in a Vegan Diet
First published April 2016
If you’ve been a vegan for a day, a year, or decades, you may be painfully aware of that old chestnut of a question, “But where do you get your protein?” After twenty-plus years of meatless living, I’m happy to report that this question may be slowly becoming extinct. It’s clear that long-term vegans are still vibrant and healthy, able to lift grocery bags, briefcases, and kettle bells as deftly as any omnivore.
I get plenty of protein, as do many other vegans I know. Whether they are vegan foodies, avid home cooks, or just eating for the sustenance – even if living on bowls of quinoa, kale, and beans simmered in kombu stock or synthesized vegan drumsticks slathered in buffalo sauce – it’s hard not to have their protein bases covered. Plant-based protein is plentiful if you feel like ripping open a package of veggie sausages or adding some chocolate powders to your smoothie. But, what if you like to play with your food and want to enrich your favorite homemade comfort foods with a dash or two of extra vegan protein?
Vegan food and cooking have changed for the better in my years as a recipe developer, and so have I. I’ve gone full circle from being a health-obsessed teen to a dessert-loving thirty-something to a weight-lifting, super-food craving, juice-guzzling forty-three-year-old. Truly, I’ve always had a fascination with wholesome fare: I was a strange teenager, drawn to reading ingredients and nutritional information on every package and baking with whole wheat flour, while most of my peers chugged soda and grazed off boxes of pizzas and donuts. Yet when I committed to creating vegan recipes in my late twenties, it was clear the vegan culinary world of brown rice and alfalfa sprouts was hungry for the sugar and white flour of their pre-vegan childhoods. The challenge was to bridge the gap between ancient vegan foods and modern comfort foods like brownies, cheesecakes, and lasagna — foods that both omnivores and vegans love. Isa Chandra Moskowitz and I did this with our book Veganomicon.
Since then, mainstream vegan cookbooks have followed suit to offer the home cook a vast array of recipes for decadent cookies, pies, cakes, waffles, breads, ice cream, puddings and, of course, cupcakes.
I’ve really enjoyed creating scores of vegan cupcakes and pies, and exploring my interests with ethnic fare, but as I stride into my mid-forties I find myself at the gym more and the cupcake counter far less. I now lift weights three times a week and make yoga a regular routine. I have also reconnected with my lifelong love of healthy cuisine, eating more vegetables, whole grains, and “superfoods” like cacao and goji, and consuming less sugar. Along with that, I take advantage of simple, unflavored protein powders divorced from whey (the old weight lifter’s standby) and replaced by clean-burning sources like brown rice, pea, and hemp.
I suggest embracing vegan protein powders with an open mind: they are far thirstier than whole grain flours (perhaps coconut flour comes close) and each has its own personality. Brown rice powder is slightly gritty but plays well in classic baked goods such as scones or sweet potato biscuits. Pea protein has a mellow quality that works both in sweet and savory dishes; I treat it a little like chickpea flour and love using it for “eggy” treats such as a baked vegan omelet loaded with roasted vegetables. Hearty, nutty hemp protein won me over with its earthy qualities and is my go-to for holding together tofu burger dough or adding an intriguing olive tone to raspberry muffins.
As with all my books, Protein Ninja was written to encourage readers to explore their own tastes and preferences. In a world where vegan cuisine has finally come of age, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the discoveries the everyday cook makes with a batch of Sunday morning waffles or Tuesday night barbecued tempeh burgers, exploring ways to mix nutrition and pleasure.