There are salads, and then there are SALADS. I’m talking super yummy, satisfying and healthful salads, filled to the brim with flavor, texture, and nourishment. A salad like this answers the body’s desire for fresh, clean, and nutrient-rich meals, to offset all of the richer and more indulgent meals we (I mean, “I”) enjoy eating. Salads like this are definitely a staple in my diet, and this one is a particular favorite of mine. There’s sweetness from the roasted apples, depth from the caramelized onion, freshness from the greens, richness from the cheese, and a punch of flavor from the delish sherry vinaigrette (my new basic dressing for everything and anything). Trust me when I say, this salad won’t disappoint.
When creating a super satisfying “big salad” (Seinfeld reference), there are a few elements that I almost always include. There’s always something a bit sweet, there’s always something (or a few things) that adds richness and complexity, there’s always a balanced dressing, and there’s always an abundance of protein and fiber. But protein is the focus of this post.
I’ve decided to focus on meat-free protein sources for a few reasons. The first reason is that I get this question a lot, how do you get enough protein as a vegetarian or a vegan? Short answer, easily (sometimes I even eat too much protein by accident). The second reason why I’m focusing on protein today is because my class recently started our nutrition-specific lectures at school (Natural Gourmet Institute), and I’d like to pass on the basics of protein to all my lovely readers. And thirdly because this particular salad highlights almost all of the meat-free protein source categories, so it only makes sense to use it as a reason to talk about meat-free protein. So here we go!
The first question I want to answer is, what does protein do for us? Protein is one of three essential macronutrients required for life and function (the other two are carbs and fat). Protein, as most know, is a building block of muscles and organs in the body (including the brain and liver), and allows for a physically strong and fit body. But protein is also essential for important bodily functions such as metabolism, fighting off infections, and the creation of enzymes and hormones. Additionally, protein is also needed for proper brain function and clear thinking. So basically, protein is super-duper important. But what is protein?
Protein is a source of amino acids for our body. Our bodies require 22 different types amino acids in order to function. 13 of these required amino acids are naturally produced in the body. But 9 of them are not produced by the body, which means these 9 ‘essential amino acids’ (EAA) need to be given to the body through ingestion (aka eating and drinking). Complete protein foods, like meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, include all 9 EAA’s in sufficient quantities (easy enough).Point is, if you eat meat and dairy, it’s simple to get all those essential amino acids. And there are a handful of vegan complete protein options, including quinoa, chia seeds and buckwheat. However, most vegetarian- and vegan-friendly protein sources do not include all 9 EAA’s. We call these ‘incomplete proteins’.
The issue is, as a vegetarian, I can’t eat quinoa all-day-every-day. Don’t get me wrong, I love quinoa, especially in this salad. But variety is the spice of life! No worries though. The cool thing here, is that you can combine incomplete protein sources to create complete proteins. All plants contain protein, therefor all contain amino acids. To get complete proteins, simply combine multiple protein sources. For instance, black beans + brown rice or whole grain bread + almond butter or whole grain pasta + kale & pine nut pesto or millet pilaf with pecans and baby spinach. Basically, grains are combined with veggies and legumes (nuts, seeds, beans), creating whole and complete protein sources.
For this particular salad, I used quinoa, so other ingredients weren’t necessary to create complete protein. But I added beans anyway for texture, additional protein and fiber. Then I added even more protein with fresh baby spinach and brie cheese. See? So much protein! All of which are vegetarian, most of which are vegan.
So there you go, a brief summary of protein. To recap, protein is absolutely essential for a healthy and strong body and mind. Meat, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs are complete proteins, providing all essential amino acids in one swoop. Multiple incomplete proteins (most grains, vegetables and legumes) should be combined to create complete proteins. And veggie-friendly protein sources are countless, you just have to know when and how to combine them. And if you’re still wondering where meat-freers get protein, just take a look at this salad. Gang’s all there!
Roasted Apple & Brie Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette Dressing
Serves: 3 mains or 6 sides Start to Finish: 1 hr
3/4 cup dry quinoa
Sea salt, fine grain
1 large yellow onion, peeled and sliced into 1/4″ slices
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large apples (like gala or honey crisp)
1 can organic kidney beans (1.5 to 2 cups cooked beans)
3 ounces Brie cheese, thinly sliced
1 large romaine heart, washed and chopped
10 ounces fresh baby spinach, washed
Sherry Vinaigrette Dressing (recipe follows)
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons organic maple syrup
1 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped (1 teaspoon chopped garlic)
1.5 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teasooon sea salt, fine grain
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
Add quinoa, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1.5 cups water to a small saucepan. Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, cover. Cook until quinoa is tender, about 13 minutes. Set aside, still covered, for 5-10 minutes. Transfer to bowl to cool.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat in sauté pan. Add onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir frequently to prevent burning. Cook until onions are caramelized, about 45 minutes. Add water to the pan when it gets dry, 3-4 tablespoons at a time. When onions are caramelized and the pan is at a dry phase, remove from heat. Transfer to container for cooling.
While onions cook, remove core and cut apples into big bite-size chunks. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil and spread onto parchment lined baking sheet. Roast apples in oven until tender, 25-30 minutes, tossing once during cooking.
Drain and rinse beans. Wash and prep lettuces.
Make dressing. In a blender or using and immersion blender, blend all dressing ingredients until smooth and creamy. Season with sea salt to taste.
This can be a tossed salad or a composed salad. When all components are ready (quinoa, caramelized onions, roasted apples, beans, Brie cheese and dressing), divide among portions of romaine/spinach and drizzle with dressing to taste. Or toss all components together just before serving. Go easy on the dressing at first, you can always add more or serve more on the side for those who like lots of dressing.
*the components to this salad should be at room temp or chilled before tossing with lettuces.
**double recipe to feed a crowd or to keep around for future dinners and lunches in a pinch.
***sherry vinaigrette, caramelized onions, roasted apples and quinoa can all be made up to 3-4 days in advance. Store each component separately in tightly sealed containers and refrigerate.