Winging It: Grocery Shopping for Delicious Unrecipe Cooking
As valuable as good cookbooks are, you don’t need one for every dish. Buy and prep some basic staples, and you’ll be able to throw together healthy entrees without so much as glancing at a recipe.
Last week we talked about starting to build up your seasoning supplies, with some basic spices. This week, add some or all of these ingredients to your pantry: soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, mirin or cooking sherry, rice vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, vegetarian Worcestershire sauce, broth or bouillon, and liquid smoke flavoring. Add Sriracha or Louisiana hot sauce to the shopping list if you like spiciness, and a couple of bottled dressings or marinades if you wish — read package labels, and as much as possible avoid artificial ingredients like high fructose corn syrup and MSG.
Pick up some canned or dried chickpeas, cannellini beans, and black or kidney beans. Make sure to get some sandwich rolls, whole wheat tortillas, and/ or pita-style sandwich pockets. You probably have brown rice and whole wheat pasta pre-cooked from last week, ready to be defrosted for quick meals, and produce from the farmers’ market or CSA basket.
When you get home from the grocery store, wash produce well and make a ‘sturdy chopped veggie’ mix from any two or more of the following: red or white onions, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, leeks, parsnips, cauliflower, kale, or Brussels sprouts — using a food processor, this is easy-breezy prep. Store veg mix in the fridge, in a large airtight container. Potatoes also belong in the ‘sturdy veg’ category, but they work best when chopped just before cooking.
Make another ‘tender chopped veggie’ mix, the same way; include any or all of the following: zucchini, yellow squash, green onions, spinach, bok choy, white or red cabbage, celery, sweet corn, or snow peas. Store the mixture in the fridge until needed. Cucumbers could be included also, if you’re only going to use the mix for cold dishes.
Salads, Sammies, and Stir-Fries, Oh My!
Toss sturdy veg mix with sliced mushrooms and chopped potatoes or sweet potatoes; marinate overnight in bottled or homemade balsamic vinaigrette, then roast. Serve over rice, pasta, or salad greens, or use in sandwiches and wraps. Whisk a little reserved marinade with mayo (vegan mayo if desired) for a tasty sauce to dress the dish.
Cook about a cup of sturdy veggie mix 5 min over medium-high heat in a large skillet, stirring very frequently. Add another cup of tender veggie mix, and cook another 2 minutes. Add bottled or homemade stir-fry sauce, and simmer one more minute. Toss in a handful of cashews or peanuts, if desired, and serve over rice or pasta; good with linguini noodles.
Marinate portabello mushroom caps or 1/2″ thick eggplant slices, using bottled or homemade marinade sauce, for an hour up to a couple of days; grill on a Foreman grill or roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Serve on buns with whatever you’d put on a burger.
Toss spinach, arugula, or other salad greens with:
- a handful of tender veggie mix + peanuts + sesame ginger dressing
- walnuts or almonds + fresh berries + balsamic or raspberry vinaigrette
- a handful of tender veggie mix + walnuts or sunflower seeds + chopped avocado + ranch dressing (nondairy or dairy)
Eat as a salad, wrap it in a tortilla, or use it to stuff a pita.
Rinse and drain any kind of cooked beans; puree in blender with sprinkles of salt, cumin, garlic powder, liquid smoke, and hot sauce (if desired). Taste and sprinkle, sprinkle and taste. Add dashes of water (or juice from jarred jalapenos) as needed, to make it smooth enough to blend. When it tastes good to you, refrigerate in an airtight container. Use as a healthy dip for pretzels, chips or crackers; or spread bean mixture on tortillas, roll up with sauteed onions and peppers, top with salsa, and microwave to make simple enchiladas or burritos.
Rinse and drain 2 cans of chickpeas. Sprinkle generously with soy sauce, rice vinegar, and mirin, and drizzle with sesame oil. Add a dash of hot chili sauce or crushed red pepper, if desired. Refrigerate overnight, and use along with tender veggie mix to top green salads, or to fill wraps or pitas.
Grain salads are versatile, tasty, easy, and filling: combine about 2 cups cooked barley (or couscous or quinoa or other grain) with a handful of tender veggie mix, a chopped tomato, one can of any beans you like (rinsed and drained), a handful of chopped parsley (or cilantro or basil), and the fresh juice from one lemon. Drizzle with olive oil, salt to taste, and toss well.
Crock Pot Yum for Beginners
Slow cooking is one of the easiest ways to enjoy hearty, filling, real-food meals without a lot of time or effort. Put everything together in the crock pot the night before; transfer to slow cooker base in the morning before leaving for work, and come home to fresh hot healthy instant dinner!
Foods that lend themselves especially well to crock pot cooking include:
- potatoes and sweet potatoes
- winter squash
- dried beans, lentils, black-eyed peas, and chickpeas
If you’re cooking a crockpot dish using lemon juice, summer squash, or fresh herbs, be sure to add these ingredients during the last hour of cooking to preserve best flavor.
Cooking with dried beans saves money, and avoids the BPA issue. Presoaking dry beans according to package directions, then rinsing and cooking in fresh water, will result in a less (ahem) windy dish. But if you’re pressed for time, you can skip it — in a slow cooker, they can soak while they cook. For black-eyed peas or chickpeas, cook on high 4-6 hours; lentils need 6-8 hours on low; and black, kidney, or pinto beans about 8-9 hours on high. Use unsalted or low-salt broth, or add salt to beans after cooking, and avoid adding acidic ingredients (tomatoes, vinegar, etc.) early in the process: these additions can keep some legumes from becoming tender.
A good veg-based crock pot cookbook will pay for itself many times over! But while you’re working on building up your bookshelf, try these simple recipes:
- Refried Beans Without the Refry
- Crockpot Vegetable Minestrone (sub nooch for parmesan, if you want it vegan)
- Slow Cooker Red Lentil Dahl (sub brown lentils for red, if that’s what your grocery store offers)
- Make-It-and-Leave-It Lasagna
- Slow Cooker Summer Pasta Sauce with Fresh Basil