For me, being comfortable in the kitchen means being able to improvise and create, and being willing to experiment, knowing sometimes things won't come out the way you want. (But that is what compost bins are for! It isn't waste if it is going back to the soil!)
So how do you get to that place of comfort? Some of it is truly just practice and a willingness to try, but learning from others can definitely help speed up the process! I am going to try and impart some of the tips and tricks I have learned over the years.
First, I have a few confessions. Confession number one: I don't write down recipes. And I don't measure. Sorry, folks, but you won't be getting recipes from me anytime soon. But there are TONS of websites and blogs already doing recipes so I think you will be ok.
What I do do, which is trick number 1, is I look at recipes and even have a free meal planning app that I will look at for ideas. I also get inspiration from meals I eat at restaurants or friend's houses. If I have a particular ingredient I want to use, like say eggplant, I will google "recipes with eggplant" and start there. And I am not afraid to experiment and am the queen of substitutions as I do not want to be running out to the store at 5pm to get that one missing ingredient so I can make dinner.
So what can you substitute? Just about ANYTHING! Use a different grain, or add a grain on the side to beef up a meal. Quinoa, rice, and millet are a few of my favorites. Vegetables? Just look in your fridge and see what you have and use that! A CSA is a great way to make sure you always have some vegetables in your fridge. Protein? Crushed up tofu can substitute for eggs or ground beef, chicken can substitute for steak... use the protein you have and like! Spices? So, good flavoring is key, and more on that a little later, but you don't have to use their flavors. Use what you have!
A note on flavors and grains and spicing up that plain old pot of rice. I like to always have some grain on hand. It makes a meal go further, and for me it is hard to feel satiated without some carbs. But to keep it interesting I also try to add a little flavoring to the pot. Here are some to try:
Cook your grain in broth or coconut milk. Or try adding a can of organic diced tomatoes and even some minced onions to make it into Spanish rice (or quinoa, etc.)
Add a spice like Turmeric for added health benefits, taste, and color. Turmeric is a great one as you can get the anti inflammatory benefits and turn a pot of plain brown rice into fancy looking yellow rice!
Put a tablespoon of butter, ghee, or coconut oil in the pot to add some satiating to the taste buds fat (fat is not evil, but I'll save that for another blog post)
Add some crushed up dry mushrooms, finely chopped onions, corn, peas, or beans for some added color, flavor, and nutritional value.
Confession number two: I get into food ruts. I think we all do. But I have learned some tricks over the years to try and make sure I am feeding myself healthy home cooked meals as much as possible, even when I am not feeling very creative. Some keys to this are to keep a well stocked pantry and fridge of HEALTHY food. What does this mean? This means mostly raw whole food ingredients. But it also means some quick meals that you can feel pretty good about! Here are some photos of my own pantry and fridge to help us out here:
My pantry always has a bunch of mason jars filled with thing from the bulk foods section of my favorite food coop or natural food store. This includes dry grains, dry beans (pressure cookers make cooking these a snap!), lentils, granola, as well as dried mushrooms, a favorite flavoring addition to any soup, stew, or pot of grain. It also includes salad toppings like nutritional yeast, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, dried cranberries, coconut flakes, walnuts and other things.
On the top shelf of my pantry I have some canned goods and quick meals. So what is my idea of a quick meal? First off, I want to be clear that I think whenever possible, a home cooked meal cooked with love, from scratch is the best way to go. But we can't always do this! And if we don't give ourselves the option for some pretty good quick meals we will end up with even less healthy options. Here are some meals I keep handy for when I am feeling lazy or getting hAngry and just need to get some food in my belly:
Tasty Bites (with couscous if you want a super quick grain): Tasty bites are delicious, all natural, simple ingredient, microwaveable, ethnic quick meals. I usually skip the microwave and take the extra five minutes to empty the package into a a pot to heat with a little extra water, boil water for couscous as well, and then boom, you have a pretty healthy delicious meal in less than ten minutes.
Koyo Ramen: Have you ever looked at the ingredients on these? They are ridiculously simple. And, if you just add hot water, they are pretty bland. BUT it is SO easy to spice these up! Sauté some onions on the bottom of a medium sized pot with a generous amount of of butter or your choice of oil (olive or sesame oil works well). Add some garlic and other spices such as cumin, tumeric, ginger... Add any veggies that need to cook a little while, like thin slices of carrots or cabbage. If you want to add any meat or tofu now is a good time to do that too. Then add water and some better than bouillon of your choice (or miso, but miso shouldn't boil so add that at the end), and maybe some dried mushrooms, seaweed, or a splash of your choice of vinegar. Bring to a boil, add your Koyo Ramen noodles and flavoring packet, crack an egg for extra protein, cover for about 3 minutes. Pour into a bowl, if you have some kimchee, bean sprouts, spinach or other toppings add those. And add some soy sauce, amino acids, ume plum vinegar, or hot sesame oil for some kick. And Enjoy! I know it sounds like a lot but it really isn't - this all takes about 20 minutes max once you get the hang of it!
Simple salad: A massaged kale salad, maybe with half a can of sustainably sourced tuna or avocado in there, a pasta salad with some tomatoes and fresh spinach and cucumber tossed in, some leftover quinoa with a can of chickpeas, and maybe sun sunflower seeds or walnuts to add some crunch... the possibilities are endless. And the key for me is good dressing. Which we will talk about in my next post.
Hearty smoothie: I am not a fan of protein powders. So when I say hearty I mean scoop a half an avocado into the blender, or put a handful of cashews, almonds, or chia seeds, stuff some kale, and then some fruit.
Now, here is a photo of my fridge right after my Bounty Box was delivered to my door (use coupon code MIWA2018 for a discount when signing up).
I've got fresh local corn, kale, broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, zucchini, cucumber, mushrooms, eggs, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, bean sprouts, okra.... So many vegetables to choose from! And pretty much all from either my Bounty Box CSA or my own garden! Then it is just about making sure you actually use them rather than letting them go bad in the fridge! Pick one, google a recipe that uses it, and start experimenting.
Here are some quick easy preps using only a few simple ingredients:
Steamed Broccoli with butter and lemon juice: Just as it sounds: steam for 5-10 minutes, a splash of lemon juice (I always have a jar of 100% pure organic lemon juice in my fridge as it brightens many dishes and is good for health), and some butter. Delicious. Pair it with a grassfed burger (make a bunch and put them in your freezer!) and you've got a delicious paleo meal.
Edamame: You can buy this yummy healthy side dish or snack from the frozen section and then you just have to steam them for a few minutes, sprinkle with salt and bam! Ready to eat.
Sweet potato: Baking one takes a little while, but prep time is pretty much zero. Drizzle it with a little olive oil, poke a few holes with a fork, pop in the oven for 45 minutes at 400F and go read a book.
Massaged kale salad: Pull the leaves off some kale stems, massage with your hands in a bowl with olive oil, salt, and a tablespoon of lemon juice until the leave turn a bright green. Then throw in whatever else (tomatoes, avocados, nuts and seeds) and you have a delicious hearty meal.
Having some healthy snacks is also key to not slipping into unhealthy eating or being over hungry. Some snack ideas are
Fruit to eat whole or put in a pick me up smoothie. Banana's are great but what fruit is in season in your area? A day picking blueberries or peaches with the family at a U-pick farm can make for great memories!
vegetables (raw carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, okra, cucumber, cherry tomatoes all work well. Or go to your local farmers market and pick up a new vegetable!) and hummus, dressing, or nut butter to dip.
Apples and nut butter. Try a new kind of nut butter, like almond or cashew or sunflower seed butter! Make sure to check that there isn't added sugar.
wholesome granola or trail mix (watch out for sugar content!) with yogurt or kefir
Cheese with apple slices or whole grain crackers (Mary's Gone Crackers is a good one!)
Energy chunks - sold now at most natural food stores in the bulk section
So there you have it. A well stocked kitchen complete with quick but healthy meal options and snacks. And even though I didn't give you exact recipes with measured amounts, I hope I gave you enough ideas to go and start playing. This to me, is the first step towards being excited to go into your kitchen and cook!
To summarize some of the things we talked about today...
Use recipes and meal planning apps for ideas
Don't be afraid to substitute and experiment
Use grains to beef up the portion size
Have a well stocked pantry and fridge
Have some quick meals (and snacks!) on hand
Buy a whole food you've never bought before next time you go to the farmers market or grocery store and try a new recipe!
Next time we will talk about seasoning and making your own dressings, sauces, and marinades. This is a topic I love. They are easy to make, soooo much healthier than store bought options (less sugar, less salt, less preservatives), and are a quick way to jazz up just about any meal!