PREPARING HEALTHY MEALS IN MINUTES WITHOUT A RECIPE
by Sharon McRae www.eatwell-staywell.com
(For some examples, see the "recipes" 'Thrown Together Meals' or 'Easy Beans and Greens').
As a busy mom and a part-time health coach, I often find myself in the kitchen with just minutes to throw something on the table for the rest of the family (13-year old twin daughters, 9-year old son, and husband – all of us 100% plant-based) before I dash out the door. After months of experimenting with my favorite plant-based recipes, I’ve found that it’s really quite easy to put together a delicious, nutritious meal without a recipe, using a few basic ingredients and a bit of advance preparation.
I like to look at it as putting together pieces of a puzzle. The basic building blocks on most nights include a whole grain, a bean or legume, a leafy green, a few other veggies that we have on hand, spices, and nuts or seeds to garnish. My family enjoys a variety of whole grains, including wild, black, or brown rice, and quinoa. I use my rice cooker, but you can also prepare grains in a pot on the stove or in a pressure cooker. I find that it helps me save time during the week if I prepare grains in large batches and then refrigerate them to use during the next few days. If I don’t have any grains on hand and I’m pressed for time, I use quinoa, which can be prepared on the stovetop in just a little more than 20 minutes (boil for 5 minutes and then let stand).
There are so many types of beans and legumes that can be used to create delicious and nutrition-packed meals. Our family favorites include black beans, adzuki beans, chickpeas, mung beans, and several varieties of lentils. As with grains, I find that a little bit of advance planning is helpful. I prefer dried beans to canned, but cooking them properly usually requires soaking for several hours, and in some cases overnight, to improve digestibility. The pre-soaked beans can then be cooked quickly in a pressure cooker. Other options for beans include cooking them on the stove, in the slow cooker, or for an even more convenient option, try salt-free canned beans (but choose a brand that uses BHA-free cans!) and rinse them well before use. One of my other favorite quick options for beans and legumes is to buy sprouted lentils or mung beans; these have been soaked and are much easier to digest, and they cook on the stove in just 5 minutes!
We almost always have some type of leafy greens in the fridge, including kale, collard greens, baby bok choy, chard, mustard greens, spinach, and romaine lettuce, and occasionally mustard, dandelion, and beet greens. We also keep a good stock of other veggies, like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, red peppers, yellow squash, purple cabbage, asparagus, and mushrooms of all varieties, on hand. I really love to “cook with the rainbow” to maximize nutrition, so again, it’s like putting a puzzle together when choosing which veggies I use for a particular dish. We also keep lots of spices, nuts, and seeds on hand for flavoring our dishes.
I rely on what I like to call the “Five S’s” when choosing what meals to prepare. These are my five favorite ways to incorporate lots of nutrient-dense veggies into our diet every day: Stir-fries, Salads, Soups/Stews, Sandwiches, and Smoothies. I try to vary things a lot, but I do try to serve salad at least once daily, because most raw veggies offer the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to micronutrients, antioxidants and protective phytochemicals.
If I’m going to make a stir-fry, I typically start with some diced onion and garlic, then chop up other veggies that I have on hand and throw them into the pan. I ALWAYS stir-fry without oil, using veggie broth or water instead, to keep the fat and calorie content lower. I decide what spices to use, choosing combinations that my kids enjoy, like curry powder and cumin or basil and oregano, and just toss them in to taste. Then I stir in the cooked beans or other legumes and serve over one of the cooked grains (and often steamed kale or spinach as well), sprinkle with some nuts or seeds and maybe raisins or currants, and there you have it – a complete meal, bursting with flavor and nutrition, ready in about 30 minutes! The best part is that you really can’t make a mistake, because if you taste it and decide it “still needs something”, you can add more spice, more veggies/grains, a little lemon juice, more nuts, nutritional yeast (a HUGE favorite in my family), Tamari or soy sauce, liquid aminos, a dash of balsamic vinegar – basically, whatever you want to adjust the taste. There is almost no end to what you can create!
When preparing salads, I try to get creative and top them with some cooked beans or lentils and/or cooked grains (if I have them on hand), and nuts or seeds, and I create my own delicious salad dressings by throwing some frozen fruit (thawed), a little balsamic vinegar, and some seeds (chia, hemp, flax, and sesame are all favorites) or nuts into the blender, adding water as necessary to adjust the thickness. It’s amazing how delicious and filling salad can be when served this way! I’ve often topped salad with cubed, steamed sweet potato and some black beans, which has been a big hit with my kids, especially with salsa added as a finishing touch. A quick way to make salad is to have some of the pre-bagged salad mix or greens, like spinach, on hand. It also helps if you keep some shredded or chopped veggies on hand, but if you don’t have them, you can chop them pretty quickly in a food processor. Salad can be the main dish, or you can combine it with one of the other options.
SOUPS AND STEWS:
Soups and stews can be pretty easy to make too, especially if you have a pressure cooker, which cuts cooking time down to under 5 minutes! Just start with some veggie broth or water (sometimes I do a quick water-sauté of diced onions and garlic initially, as described for stir-fries above, before adding more liquid for the soup broth), throw in your chopped or frozen veggies (which, as with the other “Five S’s”, can be whatever you have on hand and feel like using), add some spices, and bring to pressure for a few minutes. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, you can still make a delicious soup on the stovetop in about 45 minutes or less of boiling/simmering time. [One great cooking gadget for soups, if you have a chance to get one, is an “immersion blender”, which you can use at the end of cooking time to turn a watery soup broth to a thicker, creamier consistency; another way to do this is by ladling some of the cooked soup into a blender to make a purée, then adding it back to the main pot and stirring it in.] At the end, you can add your cooked or canned beans, grains if you wish, and you can stir in raw greens such as spinach, kale, or baby bok choy, which are cooked to perfection within moments after they’ve been added to the hot liquid. If you’ve made a large batch of soup, you can always freeze some to use for a future meal.
If sandwiches are your option of choice, you can make a quick hummus or bean dip in a blender or food processor by blending cooked or canned beans with garlic, onion, spices like cumin or curry powder, and even a little tahini to add creaminess, adding water to adjust the thickness. Spread over a whole grain bread or tortilla, or an even more nutritious option is to use a collard or Lacinato kale leaf as your tortilla, after cutting out the thick stem. You can layer some shredded carrots, chopped onion and/or chopped red pepper over this and roll up, or if using bread, add some type of leafy green and other shredded or sliced veggies. Quick, easy, and satisfying! For another super easy option, open and drain a can of black beans, stir in a jar of oil-free, salt-free salsa, add mashed avocado and/or cilantro, and roll in a tortilla or collard or kale leaf. Another great way to create a sandwich is to make bean burgers. Here is my favorite guide for creating delicious bean burgers in minutes: http://engine2diet.com/the-daily-beet/simple-guide-to-plant-strong-burgers/. Serve on a whole grain bread or roll, or again, use your collard or kale leaf and make a lower-calorie roll up.
When I’m really short on time and need a “grab and go,” I’ll choose the smoothie route; this is often my breakfast of choice as I prefer something lighter in the morning. I pack the blender with lots of leafy greens; I generally find that kale, collards, baby bok choy, and spinach all work best. Then add your favorite frozen fruit, like strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. Berries are very high in antioxidants, so these are all great choices! If you’d like, you can add a touch of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, or a bit of vanilla extract. If you’re really feeling decadent, try adding a tablespoon or two of cacao powder for a delicious, chocolatey shake! I also like to add some ground flaxseed (aka flax meal) for the beneficial omega 3 fatty acids; this also helps me feel more satisfied. Sometimes I really prefer to eat my smoothie with a spoon, so I’ll purée just the greens, spices, flaxseeds, and strawberries, then pour into the glass and stir in the other fruits whole.
I hope that these ideas help inspire you to experiment in the kitchen. It’s always great to try a new recipe, and there are loads of them on this website, but if you don’t have the specific ingredients on hand and/or you really need to throw something together quickly, it’s nice to know you can just trust in your own good, healthy ingredients and your own good taste, and “wing it”! With amazing, delicious, colorful vegetables and fruits and a variety of beans, spices, and garnishes, you really can’t go wrong. Don’t be afraid to experiment . . . the sky’s the limit! My kids often tell me that their favorite dishes are the ones I just throw together. Have fun! And please let us know if you come up with any of your own creations that you’d like to share.