V for Veg: Keen on quinoa

Posted: August 11, 2011

"THE QUESTION" has been around for a while. Back in the mid-'80s, I must have been vegetarian for a good 72 hours before I first heard it.

You know the one: "Where do you get your protein?"

I guess the logical equation for meat-eaters is that, since meat is rich in protein, a diet without it must be deficient in this essential nutrient, unless there's some secret, quasi-magical source veggie folks have for procuring it. Well, folks, yes, there is indeed a secret, quasi-magical source of veggie protein, and I'm going to break the code of silence and share it with you. Ready?

It's quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah). Used as a grain but actually the seed of a flowering plant, quinoa is packed with protein. It's a good source of iron - and it's gluten-free. It can be used in place of rice or as the main ingredient in pasta. And suddenly, it's everywhere.

Philly-area eateries such as Green Eggs Cafe, Alma de Cuba, Fork, La Copine and Pure Fare are putting their signature spin on quinoa dishes. A friend reports a delicious quinoa tabbouleh at Seasons 52 in King of Prussia. There are also an increasing number of prepackaged quinoa products in trendy supermarkets.

But you don't need a special package to make it at home. Dynise Balcavage's The Urban Vegan cookbook ($16.95, Three Forks) has a couple of quinoa recipes, and its author told me, "I often keep a pot of cooked quinoa in my fridge to add heft to salads and soups, or to use as a quick, nutritious side.

"Try cooking quinoa in vegetable or mushroom broth instead of water," she added. "It's a quick way to infuse it with loads of flavor."

Dynise provided a recipe for Tri-Color Quinoa, which "reminds me of a Mexican or Italian flag, with bits of kale and carrot adding texture, flavor and color." (Find it online here.)

Now that we gave quinoa its "superfood" props, here's the real secret: We don't need a special superfood. There are tons of other solid sources of veg protein, including tofu, beans, seitan, tempeh, soymilk, peanut butter, sunflower seeds - heck, even a bagel has 9 grams of protein.

Truth is, protein is available in many foods, and Americans eat way more than we need. Pro athletes and pregnant women need more, but many of us are already consuming pregnant-athlete portions. And forget about "combining" proteins: If you eat a variety of whole foods each day (i.e. not soda and corn chips), they'll add up to provide the whole set of amino acids that are found in meat.

Also, since it's now proven (sorry, Dr. Atkins) that weight management is all about calorie intake, it makes sense to get as much protein as you can for the smallest number of calories. And per calorie, spinach and broccoli are more of a protein powerhouse than porterhouse. So yeah: That's where.

VEA CULPA: In my last column, I misnamed the variety of veggie dogs served by Hot Diggity: They're Worthington "Linketts."

V-NEWS TO USE: Public Eye: Artists for Animals' 2nd annual Vegan Spirituality Retreat is Aug. 20 at Saunders Woods in Gladwyne, featuring Derek Goodwin of Vegan Radio, yoga, food, discussion, nature walks and more. Info: 215-620-2130 or lisa@publiceyephilly.org.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 10-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles the growing trend of plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. Send your veg tips to VforVeg@phillynews.com and follow @V4Veg on Twitter.

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