MIND OF A CHEF: THE THING ABOUT PROTEINS

Proteins are made of a chain of 20 amino acids, and there are nine essential amino acids that we, humans, cannot synthesize; therefore, we must eat food to fulfill those needs.

I am here to tell you that you could absolutely get all your amino acids (note that I didn’t use “proteins” here) from eating plants. I am here to solve the myth of “incomplete proteins” that plants are often mislabeled or misunderstood. “Incomplete Proteins” simply means that the ingredient may be low or lack in one of the nine essential amino acids (eg. lentils are low in methionine, Brazil nuts are low in lysine). In order to obtain all the essential amino acids for our body, we need to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to pool enough amino acids to form proteins. Classic pairing such as beans and rice, corn and beans, and legumes and nuts provide the necessary amino acids intake. As a chef, I love pairings. Pairing food gives me the opportunity to explore flavors and texture; broccoli (my constant obsession) is sweeter if cooked with garlic or chili. Lentil is more savory if paired with walnut. Finally, rice is sweeter if eaten with savory beans.


My walk through a rice paddy field in Taiwan

Here’s a recipe of Italian beans and rice that could get you started on completing-your-proteins from eating through the veggie aisles.

1 large carrots, cut into bite size chunks
1 medium onions, diced to your preference
5 cloves garlic, sliced thin or minced
3 tablespoons of canola/vegetable oil
1 can of great northern white beans or cannellini beans (canned beans has   its benefit in its unique texture), or you may soak some beans overnight     and cook them fresh the next day
½ cup of edamame (optional)
2 sprigs of thyme leaves
1 teaspoons of salt, or more to adjust seasoning
½ teaspoons of ground black pepper, or more to adjust seasoning
pinch of cayenne pepper (optional)
1 cup of your favorite rice, cooked (my choices are a mix of short grain         brown rice, jasmine rice, and wild black rice)

  1. Set a pot on medium high heat and add oil, once the oil starts to shimmer, add your carrots, onions, and garlic. Season with salt and black pepper. Cook the onions and garlic until fragrant and soft. Carrots will be stewed and softened in the next step.
  2. Add thyme to the pot and cook until fragrant, and then add enough water to just cover the carrots. Cover the pot, bring it to a boil, and turn the heat to medium low. Simmer the carrots until soft, but not mushy. Bite size carrots will take less than 10 minutes to soften.
  3. Add the can of white beans and leave the pot to simmer for another 2 minutes to thoroughly heat the beans.
  4. Turn off the heat and add edamame. Cover the pot with a lid for 2 more minutes to heat up the edamame with its residual heat.
  5. Serve your Italian beans with your favorite side of rice. Add freshly chopped parsley and mint, and a squeeze of lemon to brighten up the dish, or a pinch of cayenne pepper will wake up your palate and help you enjoy a pint of IPA.


Rustic Italian beans and rice

Last but not least, why eat multiple plants when you could get all the amino acids from a piece of meat? Animal proteins have higher ratios of amino acids that contain sulfur, which is converted to sulfuric acid when digested by humans. In order to balance out the acidic condition, our bodies work harder to keep us alive, alert, and sexually active, as I am told.

MIND OF A CHEF: CHLOROPHYLL

(Can you spot the difference?)

Implementing plant-based diet to my personal life was an economical decision that pairs with my curiosity for its benefit to triathlon training. Becoming a plant-based chef is a lifelong resolution in learning how to cook the most misunderstood category of food – plants and vegetables.

Most of the professional kitchen is set up to have vegetable cooks (entremetier) working under the meat/fish cooks, who are usually senior to all the staff. Proteins are more expensive; therefore, only experienced chefs are allowed to cook them. After working in numerous world class kitchens, I start to question the tradition of the chain of command; does a senior cook have to be cooking a piece of meat or fish? Or, can a restaurant succeed if proteins are used as garnishes only?

I remember a cook once told me that vegetables are more forgiving; therefore, vegetable cookery is the training ground to build fundamentals. Very true to the latter part, but to its “more forgiving” nature than animal proteins, I say bullshit…based on my own frustration in keeping vegetables’ integrity and flavors when I put them on flames.

(some very overcooked broccoli)

No bull, green vegetables are incredibly hard to handle. Green vegetables are of their color because of chlorophyll, molecules that absorb sunlight and undergo photosynthetic system to become sugar. When green vegetables are heated, gases trapped between cells expand and escape; therefore, we see chloroplast, the green pigment, more clearly. However, prolonged cooking and acidity are the main culprit to the loss of the green pigment. Green vegetables are susceptible to dull colors from its exposure to acidity during cooking. When green vegetables are heated, their cell membranes around chloroplast are damaged; natural acidity leaks out and replaces magnesium ions with hydrogen, a change that turns colorful green pigment to grayish-green or yellow (stop there…getting too scientific). The moral lesson here is that most of the green vegetables should be cooked quickly and swiftly, but long enough to help pocket of gases collapse inside the cells and make the green color more apparent, and appealing to the diners.

(I like my broccoli blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds…no more, no less, and saute the cooked broccoli on high heat for 30 seconds more with chopped garlic and black pepper – my credential to a great uncle-hood)

To how long should you be cooking green vegetables…somewhere between 3 to 5 minutes, or even less, depending on your preference for their texture, in an appropriate size of pot and a more alkaline condition, with temperature at boiling point (that might just be another conversation).