Friday, August 10, 2012

Fuel-up Fridays: Protein, the Building Blocks of Life

Here's an interesting thought experiment to start your weekend off right: close your eyes for a moment and think about the word protein.  What do you see?  Is it the third tier on the '90s food pyramid, a cartoonishly simplified array of chicken legs, whole dead fish, assorted nuts and legumes?  Is it a pumped-up beefcake sweaty from his lateral-raise reps and downing creatine?  Or maybe, if you've spent more time with your nose in a chemistry book than staring on the back of cereal boxes in your lifetime, it looks a little bit like a long chain of these babies:

And if you're really the hotshot labgeek, you might be thinking of something similar to this: 

Whoa there, easy with the ribbon there Ms. Raisman!

Whatever happens to come to mind when you think about protein, chances are that what you're envisioning is very real, in a tangible, comprehendible way.  Protein looks like a molecule, or a complex ribbon-y compound, or a bulging bicep, or the hunk of chicken in your sandwich.  Protein isn't just stuff; it's the stuff that helps make other stuff.  It's literally the building blocks of stuff, or at least alive stuff.  But funnily enough, the word protein existed far before anyone knew that it could actually be defined by a specific chemical formula. Coming form the Greek root protos-, meaning first, all 19th-century chemist Gerhard Johan Mulder really knew about the thing was that it was in some way essential to life - it was the initial ingredient necessary to help everything else build from the ground up.  Protein was part of every living thing in the observable world, so Mulder figured it must be something really special - at least, theoretically.  

And it is.  It so is.  Protein gives your body its shape and integrity, not to mention its ability to move, dance, pick up things, blink, drive, and just about everything else you do in the physical world.  Protein repairs your tissues when they're damaged.  Protein is a vital part of your immune system - it helps your immune cells divide and conquer dangerous microbial invaders.  And proteins help make the body's hormones, or chemical messengers, and enzymes, which provide the integral service of transforming some molecules in the body to other molecules that you need to function (like the ones that provide energy to your cells, or help you break down the food you eat, or perhaps most importantly, help process and correctly dispose of consumed alcohol).  

Needless to say, it's vitally important to get enough protein in your diet.  And while the omnivores among us tend to have a pretty easy time getting their daily recommended amount (about 56 grams a day for males and 46 grams daily for females - more if you're an extremely active athlete), vegetarians need to be super-conscious that every meal includes at least a decent amount of protein, on the order of 15-20 grams in or so, to keep bodily functioning at its prime.  The less processed sources of protein for vegetarians include nuts, legumes, dairy products, quinoa, and soybeans (edamame).  For foods a little higher from the ground, try vegetarian meat analogues like seitan, textured vegetable protein, and my personal favorite, tempeh.  Although moderate consumption of soy products can't hurt you, tempeh is especially great because the way it is fermented gets rid of the pseudo-estrogens that naturally occur in soy and may disrupt the hormone systems of those who are sensitive (and if anything's gonna make you more sensitive, its estrogen.  Am I right, ladies?  ...No?)

Enough of that.  Let's get down to business.  I present to you four scrumptious recipes that are sure to pack a vegetarian protein punch without laying on the calories or refined carbs.  Cheers all around!

Banilla Protein Pancakes
Serves 2 (about 3 medium pancakes each)
Adapted from Julie's recipe here


1 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup fat-free cottage cheese
1 very ripe banana
1/4 cup milk
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1 egg

Good to the very...

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend.  Heat up a skillet with 1 tbsp of your oil of choice, and pour batter onto griddle.  Cook for approximately 2 minutes per side.  Top with your choice of syrup, butter, or fresh fruits!

...last bite.

The low-down: 360 calories per serving (not including toppings), 50 net carbs, 8 g fiber, and 20 g protein (43% of recommended daily intake for women; 36% for men).

Totally Metal Power Biscuits
Makes 10 fist-sized rolls
Adapted from Kelly M's recipe here

6 eggs (or 3 tbsp egg replacer with 12tbsp water)
1/3 cup applesauce (I used Musselman's Lite, at only 50 calories per serving)
1 cup soy flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
several pinches of rosemary or herbs of choice

Preheat the oven to 400˚F.  Mix together all ingredients in a mixing bowl.  Divide the dough into ten pieces, and place on a lightly greased and floured cookie tray.  Bake the rolls for 17 minutes in the oven.  The results are dense, eggy, and really stick to your sides.  Enjoy with the next two delectable meals, or as part of a small protein-packed sandwich...  or on their own!

The low-down: 82 calories per roll, 3 net carbs, 2 grams fiber, and 9 grams protein.

Spaggity-Squash with Spicy Mockinara
Serves 2
Adapted from Carole Raymond's recipe in Student's Go Vegan Cookbook
1 cup textured vegetable protein (TVP) - I recommend Lightlife Smart Ground, which can be found in the vegetarian section of almost any supermarket.
2 tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 1/2 cups water
One 6oz can tomato paste
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 cup pitted, sliced black olives
1 medium spaghetti squash

Pre-heat your oven at 375˚F.  Take the squash and pierce it several times all around with a sharp knife.  Place in a glass baking dish that has been filled with about 1 inch of water.  Cover with aluminum foil, and bake for about an hour.
While the spaghetti squash is baking, take 1 tbsp olive oil and fry the onion and garlic in a saucepan until the onion is translucent.  Add to a large pot, along with water, tomato paste, soy sauce, oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes, and olives.  Bring the mixture slowly to a boil, and use the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil to fry up the TVP.  When the mock-meat is done, add it to the boiling sauce mixture.  Cook the sauce uncovered for 15 minutes at a steady boil, stirring occasionally.  Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook for 3 more minutes.  

While the sauce simmers down, take out your fully cooked spaghetti squash, being careful while it's piping hot, and cut with a sharp knife straight down the middle, navel to navel.  Gut the squash and take out the seeds.  Place each half of the spaghetti squash on a dinner plate, and cover with the delicious spicy sauce.  

The low-down for spaghetti alone/with two fist-sized power biscuits: 290/424 calories, 39/45 net carbs, 28g/32g fiber, and 23g/41g protein (50%-89% recommended daily intake for women; 41%-72% for men).

That's Some Sweet Pot...of Chili
Serves 3
Adapted from milkfreemom's recipe here

One 29oz can black beans
One 6oz tomato paste
1 cup vegetable broth
1 medium onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp chili powder
1 tsp oregano
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into bite-sized chunks
1 cup TVP crumbles

Heat the oil in a large pot over medium low heat.  Add onions and cook until they are translucent.  Add the garlic, and cook for another 2 minutes.  Add the tomato paste, chili powder, cumin, and oregano and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  Add the black beans, broth, and sweet potato chunks.  Cook for about 5 minutes.  While the sauce is beginning to cook, use the remaining tbsp of olive oil to cook the TVP in a frying pan.  Add the TVP to the chili and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft and the chili has thickened.

Metal Power Biscuits: everything they touch turns to rock.

The low-down for chili alone/with 2 fist-sized power biscuits: 337/500 calories, 37/43 net carbs, 14g/18g fiber, and 23g/41g protein (50%-90% of daily recommended intake for women; 41%-73% for men).

Keep on growing.

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