Looking to rev up your energy? Try this protein-packed, low-fat Latin inspired salad to keep your engine going. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

A healthy idea: Energy salad!

The next time you’re tempted to reach for a Red Bull or that fourth cafécito of the day to try to rev yourself up, here’s something to try instead: energy-packed whole foods. Studies show protein-rich, low-fat foods can help you stay awake and alert.

One surprising ingredient that falls into that category? Queso fresco. Lower in fat and calories than other cheeses, like cheddar or (gasp!) American, it’s also higher in protein and a healthier alternative to the creamed cheese or butter we often slather on breads. Unaged, tangy and slightly salty (though many are also lower in sodium than other cheeses), queso fresco comes in small rounds you can slice or cube, or crumble over salads, enchiladas and burritos. In Peru, it’s a key ingredient in the famed huancaina sauce. In Mexico, it’s used in quesadillas (as opposed to that yellow stuff we so often see here!) And in Cuba, it’s sliced and served with sweet guava.

But for today’s healthy recipe, queso fresco takes center stage with two more protein-packed ingredients—quinoa and chickpeas (a.k.a. garbanzos)—to make a salad brimming with get-up-and-go. A simple lemon vinaigrette and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro brings it all together. Feliz Meatless Monday!

A Latin energy salad: quinoa, chickeas and queso fresco. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

A Latin energy salad: quinoa, chickeas and queso fresco. (Photo/Betty Cortina)

Quinoa, chickpea and queso fresco salad
8 oz uncooked quinoa
4 1/4 cups cold water
1 tsp salt
2 tsp dijon mustard
2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 T olive oil
1/2 of a large shallot, minced
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered lengthwise
1 15-0z can low sodium chickpeas, drained and rinsed
6 oz queso fresco, diced into 1/2-inch squares
2 T fresh cilantro, finely chopped

1. Cook the quinoa. Wash and rinse the quinoa in a large bowl until the water runs clear. Put the cleaned quinoa in a large sauce pan or caldero over medium heat and add the cold water and salt. Bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, until the quinoa is translucent. Drain well and set aside to cool completely.

2. Meanwhile, in a separate large mixing bowl, whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, olive oil and minced shallot. Season with salt and pepper. Add the cooled quinoa, tomatoes, chickpeas, queso fresco and cilantro and gently toss to coat in the dressing. Serve chilled or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.

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