Occasionally I am told that one of the “problems” of a vegetarian or vegan diet is that we humans can only obtain “complete protein” from eating meat and fish (a “complete protein” being one which contains the nine “essential” amino acids).
This claim is wrong on two counts. Firstly, it is factually inaccurate: there are several plant-based foods that not only contain traces of the nine essential amino acids but of all 20 amino acids. These include pistachio nuts, quinoa, pumpkin seeds and – one of my all time favourite cooking ingredients – chickpeas (known as garbanzo beans in the USA).
Secondly, it is a very simple matter to ensure a vegan or vegetarian diet includes sufficient proportions of the nine essential amino acids by eating a variety of different plant-based foods (a dish of beans and rice, for example, can provide sufficient “complete protein” in a single meal).
The chickpea forms an essential part of the diet for many people across the world, especially in Asian and African countries. Not only does it contains all twenty amino acids, it comprises 25% high quality protein and has high levels of iron and zinc, phosphorous and magnesium. Research has shown that chickpeas have a range of additional health benefits you would not get from a meat-based diet, including lowering cholesterol and blood glucose levels.
On a chickpea plant the peas grow in small green pods, but the rest of the plant is useful too: the husks and stems can be used in animal feed, and the leaves are used in the manufacture of natural (blue) fabric dye.
Along with other members of the legume family, chickpeas also play a key role in maintaining the health of our growing soils through their ability to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere, eventually releasing it into the soil for use by other plants.
In an overpopulated world with diminishing land resources, chickpeas offer one important alternative source of protein. The meat industry is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions on the planet and it takes many more resources, in terms of land, water, and feed, to produce a gram of meat protein than it does to produce a gram of chick pea protein. Going meat-free, whether you do so permanently or for a few days per week, is healthier for you and better for the planet.
On to the recipe which, it will not surprise you to learn, contains chickpeas.
Aubergines and chickpeas appear together frequently in middle-eastern cuisine, and the natural temptation when I came first up with this recipe was to include one or two typically middle-eastern ingredients such as harissa or cumin. However, one of the joys of this dish is in the subtle smokey undertone from the aubergine, which would be simply overwhelmed by the addition of strong spices. Instead, these few simple ingredients combine to produce something far greater than the sum of its parts – a gloriously satisfying, restorative and nutritious bowl of goodness.
smoked aubergine, tomato and chickpea casserole
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
500 ml vegetable stock
juice of ½ lemon
½ tsp smoked paprika
15 g fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
2 400 g cans organic chickpeas, drained and rinsed
400 g can organic chopped tomatoes
½ tsp smoked sea salt (if not available use regular sea salt)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra for serving
1. Prick the aubergines with a sharp thin knife. Place them on a baking tray and cook under a hot grill for around 45 minutes, or until the skin becomes crisp and the aubergine flesh underneath feels very soft. You will need to turn the aubergines a couple of times to ensure even cooking. The skin will blacken during this process, but keep your nerve. This process will produce the lovely smoky flavour we need for this dish. Once cooked, set the aubergines to one side to cool.
2. Once the aubergines have called, cut a slit lengthways with a sharp knife and then use a spoon to scoop out the softened Chopped the aubergine flesh roughly and set to one side.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C (325°F, gas mark 3). Pour the olive oil into a large saucepan and place over a medium heat. Add the garlic, sea salt and aubergine and stir for 3 to 4 minutes before adding the chopped tomatoes and the stock. Bring to a simmer then place in the pre-heated oven for 30 minutes. Remove briefly from the oven to stir in the chickpeas, smoked paprika, lemon juice and basil, and return to the oven for a further 20 minutes.
4. Serve the casserole in bowls, drizzled with a little extra virgin olive oil and accompanied by good quality bread.