Protein is the bugaboo of the vegetarian diet. The most common question I hear, tinged with anxiety, is: “Where do you get your protein?”
The thing is, protein comes from many more plant-based sources than you might think. It’s not just from tofu, tempeh, beans and seeds, although those provide plenty. The category that home cooks seem to forget all too easily is that of whole grains.
I know, I know: Of course, there’s quinoa, the most protein-packed of all – although it’s technically a seed, not a grain, and I, for one, am not the biggest fan. I like to stick with the bigger grains, such as farro, barley and wheat berries.
The best answer to the question, I’ve found, is a mix, especially because grains don’t offer nearly as much protein per serving as your average piece of fish or chicken.
But when I let go of the idea that every meal needs to be dominated by a single protein provider and instead stack things up, I like the results so much better.
Take a barley salad, for instance. Sure, I can put broiled tofu in the bowl, but when I also drizzle on a miso dressing and sprinkle sesame seeds on top (not to mention the additions of broccolini and baby spinach), the number of protein sources multiplies right along with the flavors and textures.
That way, you’re not just getting your protein; you’re loving it, too.
Broiling the tofu with a little of the miso dressing gives it a chewy exterior, good for building a hearty salad. More protein is added in the form of barley and sesame seeds.
You can buy sesame seeds already toasted, or you can toast your own.
Barley, Tofu and Spinach Salad With Miso Dressing
14 ounces firm or extra-firm tofu
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 cup pearled barley, briefly rinsed
2 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth
2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup white or yellow miso
1/4 cup mirin (Japanese cooking wine)
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bunch broccolini
Flesh from 1 small avocado, sliced
2 cups lightly packed baby spinach leaves
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, toasted
Drain the tofu, wrap it in paper towels and set it on a rimmed plate. Top with a second plate, then put a can of tomatoes or beans or another heavy object on top, and press it for about 30 minutes to remove extra liquid. Unwrap and pat the tofu dry.
Pour the oil into a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the ginger and garlic; cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the barley and cook, stirring, until well coated, then add the broth. Once the mixture begins to boil, reduce the heat to low so the mixture is barely bubbling around the edges. Cook, uncovered, until the barley is al dente, about 25 minutes. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Cover to keep warm, if desired.
Whisk together the water, miso, mirin, vinegar and sugar in a small bowl to form a dressing.
Position an oven rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat to broil.
Cut the drained, pressed tofu block into 1/2-inch slabs. Arrange them on a large rimmed baking sheet, along with the broccolini. Brush the tofu lightly with the miso dressing. Broil the tofu and broccolini until both are browned, 5 minutes, then transfer the broccolini to a cutting board, chop it and transfer it to the mixing bowl with the barley. Turn the tofu slabs over, brush with more of the miso dressing, and continue broiling until browned on the second side, 5 minutes.
Transfer the broiled tofu to the cutting board; let it cool slightly, then cut each slab into 1/2-inch-wide strips. Add the tofu, avocado, baby spinach and the remaining miso dressing to the barley in the mixing bowl; toss gently to combine.
Toast the sesame seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium-low heat until fragrant and lightly browned, shaking the pan a few times to avoid scorching. Cool completely before using.
Divide salad among individual bowls or plates; sprinkle with the sesame seeds. Serve warm, at room temperature or cold.
Nutrition Per serving: 510 calories, 26 g protein, 65 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 850 mg sodium, 15 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar