Vegetarian Cooking: Grains and Legumes

The most frequently asked question when I get when people find out I’m a vegetarian (aside from “why?”) is, “Where do you get your protein?” I don’t mind this question at all because it is certainly something that vegetarians think about a lot and I understand why someone who eats meat is curious about what I eat. I normally end up answering with something along the lines of “Well, I eat lots of beans, nuts, grains, and tofu.” Basically, I am excellent at making it sound like I eat like a rabbit all of the time.

I hope today I can convince you that even though at face value these foods sound bland and uninspiring, they can create simple, nutritious meals that everyone will enjoy. They’re full of protein, fiber, and healthy fats—all macronutrients that are vital for a healthy lifestyle.

One thing that vegetarians always have to be aware of is getting all eight essential amino acids that our body cannot produce on its own. This is not a problem for meat eaters because all eight of the amino acids are present in meat. A common misconception then, is that all of the aforementioned amino acids must be consumed at the same time from one food. In reality, that doesn’t matter. As long as all of the essential amino acids are eaten at some point during the day, the effect is the same.


Plants contain all eight of the amino acids, but not every plant contains all eight. Awareness of food combinations and variety are important to obtain all of the eight amino acids. Some plants, like soybeans and quinoa, are considered complete proteins, meaning that they have all eight amino acids. Other plants, like beans and pulses (lentils), do not have all eight. In order to eat a “complete protein” meal with beans, simply eat the beans with a grain. Dishes like rice and beans, lentils with couscous, and hummus with pita bread are a few delicious examples. Other plant-based sources of (incomplete) proteins include nuts, peanuts, seeds (like sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin seeds) and dark, leafy greens.

With all this information about amino acids, and combinations, it can get confusing. Not to worry! These next four recipes will provide you with all eight essential amino acids. They’re all healthy, light, and fresh. Make a big batch of any of these recipes for quick and easy lunches throughout the week. Enjoy a quinoa and chickpea salad that has caramelized onions, cucumbers, fresh mint, and feta. If you happen to have too much summer squash, sauté it with some balsamic and quinoa. If you’re looking for something a little warmer, try my braised lentils with tomatoes and greens. Finally, if you want something with a little more spice, whip up some brown rice and edamame salad with a chili-lime dressing.



Quinoa Chickpea Salad with Cucumber and Caramelized Onions
The complexity of flavors in this salad is outstanding. The caramelized onions, feta, and mint make this better than any quinoa salad I’ve ever tried.

Serves 4-6 for lunch or a light dinner

1 cup dry quinoa, rinsed

1 ½ cups water

1 onion, halved and sliced

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 15 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed

1 large cucumber, seeded and diced

2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint

Juice of 1 lemon

½ teaspoon salt


¼ cup feta, crumbled

  1. In a small saucepan, combine the water and quinoa and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 12 minutes until all the water is absorbed, then let sit off heat for about 10 minutes. Alternatively, you can use a rice cooker.
  2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat and once hot, add the onion. Let it sauté, stirring occasionally until caramelized, about 20 minutes.
  3. In a large bowl, combine the cooked quinoa, onions, chickpeas, and cucumber.
  4. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining olive oil, mint, lemon juice, salt, and freshly ground pepper to taste. Toss the dressing with the quinoa mixture, then gently fold in the feta. Add additional salt or pepper to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: If you are making this ahead of time, do not add the cucumber until just before serving. Letting it sit for more than a few hours makes it taste bitter.


Summer Squash with Quinoa and Chives

This summer squash with quinoa is the quintessential summer lunch. With just picked squash and fresh herbs on top of warm quinoa, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Serves 1

¾ cup cooked quinoa, warmed

2 cups sliced summer squash or zucchini

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

Salt and pepper

1 teaspoon chopped chives

  1. Heat the olive oil in a large, non-stick skillet over medium high heat. Add the squash in a single layer, sprinkle lightly with salt, and cook until golden brown on the first side, about 5 minutes. Flip each piece of squash individually and let cook on the second side until golden brown and tender, 5-7 more minutes.
  2. Reduce the heat to low and drizzle the balsamic onto the squash. Toss to combine, and let it caramelize the squash, 1-2 minutes.
  3. Place the quinoa in a bowl, arrange the squash on top, and sprinkle with the chives. Season with salt and pepper to taste.


Braised Lentils with Tomatoes and Greens

Lentils are one of my favorite legumes to cook because unlike most beans, they only take 20 minutes to cook and do not require to be soaked ahead of time. In right around half an hour, these braised lentils can be cooked and served on top of pearl couscous. Not to mention, this is a perfect one pot meal—it includes the incredibly healthy dark, leafy greens and fresh tomatoes. The lentils are also delicious served with crusty bread and topped with goat cheese.


Serves 4

1 onion, finely diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 garlic clove, halved and smashed

Salt and pepper

1 cup green lentils

3 ½ cups water

4 cups chopped Swiss chard or kale

1 cup halved cherry tomatoes

1 ½ tablespoons balsamic vinegar

  1. In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté 5-6 minutes until translucent.
  2. Add the garlic clove and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  3. Add the lentils, water, and ¾ teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes.
  4. Stir in the greens and tomatoes, and simmer for 5 more minutes.
  5. Finish by adding the balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Serve over grains or with crusty bread.


Brown Rice and Edamame Salad with Chili-Lime Dressing

This salad is refreshing and spicy. It manages to be full of fresh flavor thanks to the edamame and carrots, but it’s hearty enough to be a full meal.

Serves 4

1 cup brown rice, uncooked

1 ½ cups water

2 cups shelled, cooked edamame

2 carrots, grated

1 teaspoon red chili paste (or 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

Juice of 1 lime

1 garlic clove, minced

1/3 cup roasted, salted cashews

  1. In a small saucepan, combine the rice and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer, and cook for 40-50 minutes until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender.
  2. Transfer the rice to a large bowl and add the edamame and carrots.
  3. In a small bowl, combine the chili paste, soy sauce, and lime juice. Toss the rice mixture with the dressing. Fold in the cashews. Serve warm or at room temperature.

6 thoughts on “Vegetarian Cooking: Grains and Legumes

  1. Pingback: Honouring The Humble Legume | The Great Dorset Vegetable Experiment

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  4. Pingback: Eggplant Salad with Couscous and Harissa | Kinsey Cooks

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