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Plant-based Proteins

Plant-based proteins are the way forward to help our planet but unlike meat, fish and dairy, plant-based ones are not ‘complete’ proteins. This means each vegetable protein does not contain all the essential amino acids our body needs for growth and repair. Therefore, we need to get a mixture of different ones every day.  Just remember, variety is the key.

What are the plant-based proteins?

The most obvious plant-based sources are pulses, that is dried peas, beans and lentils, but fresh peas, beans and sweetcorn are also useful sources. Nuts and seeds are great choices (in their natural form or in products like nut butters, nut milks, yogurts and ‘cheese’) as are soya-based products (tofu, milk, yogurt, dried mince and chunks). Quorn can be a useful substitute too. (Not all Quorn is vegan as the original products contain egg white so check which is right for you). There are, of course, the mind-blowing, much newer, innovative meatless ‘meat’ products that look and attempt to taste just like their meat brothers (some are really good, others not so much and I do wonder about all the dubious things they do to them to make them look and behave like meat!).

Get that mix of plant-based proteins

All I mean is don’t have the same vegetable protein for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ring the changes. Try to have a mixture of as many types as possible to keep your body in tip top condition. Make sure that you have some protein at every meal too and more than one type in a dish is even better. I do worry that even top chefs don’t always seem to get this. The vegan/veggie options on many menus are often seriously lacking in protein.  I chose a butternut squash and wild mushroom risotto the other day, which was very well made and delicious, but it didn’t even have grated Parmesan (or vegan equivalent) scattered on the top!

It’s not just about proteins – you need a balanced diet

I bang on about it every day, but even when not eating meat or fish (or dairy if you are vegan), you must ensure you get not only plant-based proteins but some starchy carbs (from bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and so on), a rainbow of fruit and vegetables for all those vitamins, minerals and fibre you need, and a little fat (such as olive, nut or seed oil). The NHS website has the Eat Well Guide, which shows you what you need to eat every day (ignore the meat and fish pics but focus on the other plant-based alternatives in the illustration). Don’t forget that all-important water intake too!

Pulses rate high in plant-based proteins!

I love pulses. You can get so many different varieties in tins (with no added salt), which makes them super-quick and easy to use and they are very inexpensive. They not only fill you up but give you great flavours and textures too. You can, of course, buy them dried, soak them and boil (or cook in a pressure cooker). My tip is to soak and cook loads in one go (saves fuel). Then, when drained, divide up and freeze for future use. (100g dried beans is the equivalent of a 400g tin). Quick note here, red lentils do not require soaking so are particularly useful as a nutritious thickener in soups and stews or for a quick dhal. Making the Most of Your Pressure Cooker will tell you how to cook them from scratch plus there are whole sections on soups (many are veggie), vegetarian dishes and sides.

Natural plant-based proteins are wonderful

Let’s celebrate our puses, nuts, seeds and so on for being delicious-tasting, simple foods that are so versatile! No need to keep buying the expensive I-look-like-meat vegan alternatives unless you really want to. If you get a (now really cheap, used copy) of my The More Veg Cookbook you can get many innovative, great-tasting vegetarian meals (that can also be vegan). I will share one of my go-to favourites below. I never make cottage pie with mince now! First, here are some tips to make your plant-based proteins taste great.

Natural flavour enhancers can make your dish!

If you have a few great essentials in your storecupboard, you can add richness and bags of flavour to many plant-based protein dishes. My top favourites are:

  • Concentrated vegetable stock
  • Tomato purée
  • Mushroom ketchup (or vegan Worcester sauce)
  • Soy sauce
  • Fresh bay leaves
  • Dried mixed herbs and oregano
  • Dried chilli flakes
  • Chipotle chilli paste
  • Sweet spices, like cinnamon, star anise, ginger, nutmeg and saffron
  • Good-old freshly ground black pepper
  • A splash of booze, such as brandy, cider, red or white wine, beer or fortified wines like port or sherry

Now for one of my favourite go-to recipes…

No-Meat Cottage Pie

This is a variation of a recipe I created for The More Veg Cookbook. Try this and then buy The More Veg Cookbook: Over 200 vegetarian recipes for a more plant-based diet. You won’t be disappointed – thare are so many great innovative creations in it, making veggies centre-stage!

Serves 4

For the topping

Cook a medium peeled and diced sweet potato and 3 fairly large peeled and diced potatoes in boiling, salted water until tender. Drain and return to the pan over a low heat to dry out slightly. Mash with a knob of butter or vegan alternative, a good splash of any milk, a good grating of nutmeg and a good grinding of black pepper.  Beat well with a wooden spoon until smooth.

Meanwhile, for the filling

Heat a splash sof sunflower or rapeseed oil in a large saucepan.  Add a chopped onion (or a handful of frozen chopped onion) and fry, stirring, for 3 minutes until lightly golden. Add 5 sliced cup mushrooms, 2 grated carrots and turnips, 4 tablespoons frozen peas and 2 x 400g cans drained borlotti beans. Stir in 450ml vegetable stock, 1 tbsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp vegan Worcester sauce, and 1 tsp dried mixed herbs. Season to taste. Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently for about 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender.  Blend 4 tbsp plain flour or cornflour with 4 tbsp water.  Stir into the pan and cook, stirring for a minute to thicken.

To finish

Spoon the mixture into a medium-sized ovenproof dish or 4 individual dishes.  Top with the mash and fluff up with a fork.  Sprinkle with a little grated Cheddar, Red Leicester or strong vegan melting ‘cheese’. Place it under a hot grill until golden brown and piping hot throughout. Alternaitvely bake in the oven at 190oC for about 30 minutes.

Carolyn Humphries

I have been a food writer and editor for many years and have written over 60 books. I believe food should be easy to make, look good, taste good and do you good. I am passionate about creating delicious dishes that anyone can cook. I care about where our food comes from too: buying locally grown produce where possible and supporting ethical trading by purchasing Fairtrade imports when home-grown aren’t available.