Articles in Healthy Cooking
Chopped ultrathin in a style called a chiffonade, kale is a perfect bed upon which to build your salad dreams. And since it is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, with vitamins A, K, C, B6, manganese, calcium, copper, potassium and magnesium to boot, it’s pretty much the Tempur-Pedic of salad beds. Try these simple combinations to become a kale fan for life. And make sure that your kale was harvested correctly — too late and the leaves turn bitter, a winning characteristic for no one.
Apple of your eye
Sweet and tart apples make kale salads meet all of your taste requirements for sweet, bitter, sour and umami. Try a Pink Lady sliced thin paired with pistachios and feta, and mix gently with a dressing of fig vinegar and high-quality olive oil.
The classic spinach salad combination of bacon, grape tomatoes, hard-boiled egg and red onion gets an updated nutritional boost by replacing the spinach with kale. Toss in a vinaigrette made with warm bacon fat, olive oil and your favorite balsamic.
Citrus is the star
Citrus is the star of this kale salad, which pairs the leafy green with thin-sliced fennel, shaved Parmesan and vinaigrette of lemon and olive oil. For a sweet touch, add a thin-sliced Asian pear to the mix.
A protein punch
For a dinner salad with a protein punch and good fats galore, add pieces of turkey, chopped walnuts and scooped, diced avocado. Dress with your favorite balsamic vinaigrette and season with salt and pepper.
Veggies abound in this kale salad with grated carrot and diced roasted beet. For extra crunch and the perfect mellowing creaminess, add some thin-sliced almonds and crumbled chèvre. Toss in a vinaigrette with fresh dill or make a creamy dill dressing with plain yogurt, olive oil, dill and garlic.
If you’re a fan of Caesar salad, you’ll adore a kale-centered version pairing the leafy green with sliced sardines and Parmesan. Simple and packed with fatty acids, it’s a plated nutrition bomb. Make a dressing of minced garlic with lemon juice and high-quality olive oil.
Rethink the radish
Rethink the radish in this design-friendly stunner where the contrast of red and green makes the plate. Slice the radishes as thin as possible and toss them with the kale, sliced green onions (or chives) and a generous handful of pumpkin seeds. Dress with good old apple cider vinegar and olive oil and you’ve got a plate to celebrate early summer.
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Main photo: Kale is the perfect bed upon which to build a salad, as well as being packed with nutrients. Credit: Thinkstock
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson recently shared his muscle-building meal plan, startling some with the more than 4,000 calories and 36 ounces of cod he consumes on a daily basis. While my Oklahoma-raised husband nary includes seafood on the menu, he has been “eating for muscle” since high school, as he has trained and competed in wrestling, bodybuilding and power-lifting.
Over the past decade, I have been forced to cede significant kitchen territory to culinary enigmas such as chocolate-flavored whey protein, pink-hued pre-workout powders and multi-piece shaker bottles. As a result, I have observed at close range the food rules of a deliberately anti-foodie subculture, where positive nitrogen balance triumphs over palatability.
Protein is king
A veritable army of protein-rich comestibles rules our kitchen. Dozens of eggs, pounds upon pounds of lean meat and gallons of milk colonize the refrigerator. Large, barrel-like canisters of protein powder and accompanying supplements set up camp in one of the largest cupboards. Far from a child’s after-school snack, skim string cheeses populate the dairy drawer, ready in waiting for when hunger strikes.
Food is fuel
Anyone following an eating plan like this calculates each meal to provide a specific amount of carbohydrate, fat and protein, referred to as “macros.” This means that seasoning, texture and overall flavor may fall to the wayside. For example, on the morning of my husband’s final bodybuilding competition, he ate his last meal: a boiled chicken breast and a side of cooked oatmeal with cinnamon. He ate it cold. Out of a plastic container. Standing up. He might not have tasted it at all. It was just fuel. One last fill up before the show.
Taste is secondary
When protein commands the kitchen, flavor may be highly compromised, as foods take on a decidedly chalky taste. With options like chocolate malt, cinnamon graham cracker and banana cream, protein powder flavors may mimic a dessert menu, but they taste nothing like it. While there are certainly vegetarians and vegans who successfully follow muscle-building diets, it is unlikely many foodies could follow this regimen.
Cheating is part of the plan
Not all muscle-building meals are so profoundly ascetic. Bodybuilding resources abound that promote scheduling “cheat meals,” food breaks that understandably relieve the monotony of the diet, enhancing compliance and preserving sanity. Cheat meals also purportedly boost hormones and insulin sensitivity, which can be affected by prolonged calorie restriction during stricter phases of the pre-competition diet.
Bulk is good
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Building muscle bulk is one thing. Preparing food in bulk, known as meal prep, is another. Take, for example, the ingredients for one week of my husband’s lunches: 6 pounds of ground turkey, two cups of whole grain pasta, four cups of chopped vegetables and another four of greens, plus olive oil and low-calorie salad dressing. He prepares these meals in a fury on Sunday evenings, transforming our kitchen counter into a Ford-inspired assembly line. In under an hour, he cranks out five identical lunches, programmed for macros and packed into transportable containers. You can judge a muscle-building kitchen by how many pieces of Tupperware it holds.
Meal prep is not cooking
Make no mistake. Meal prep is not exactly cooking. It lacks cooking’s therapeutic value, its sensual processes, its variation and its creativity. Meal prep is mass assembly, measured and calculated. Meal prep is about efficiency, convenience and perhaps above all, adherence. Because sticking to the plan facilitates meeting one’s goals. It means making weight or achieving a competition-ready physique at just the right time — and if everything falls into place, winning.
Main photo: Eating to build and maintain muscles, rather than taste, is a very different approach to your diet. Credit: Thinkstock.com
Before the advent of TV’s “MasterChef,” master chef Michel Guérard was already on the gastronomic front lines. He was one of the key activators of the nouvelle cuisine movement in France in the 1970s, which refreshed France’s culture of heavy, rich dishes, and has been pushing for light, healthy, seasonal food ever since.
Today, he continues that commitment in the cooking school he’s recently opened on his estate.
Teaching chefs to cook for health
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At Les Prés d’Eugénie, Guérard also runs several hotels, restaurants and a treatment center.
Food as a cure for what ails us
Guérard has always believed that we truly are what we eat, and that food — fresh, light food — can cure us from many of the illnesses that beset the modern world.
The cooking school is aimed at professional chefs and at people preparing food in schools, hospitals, homes for the elderly and for others with special dietary requirements. It brings together current knowledge on key medical problems – such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease — and proposes eating plans for each. The teaching focuses on cuisine that is both healthy — with reduced calories, fats and sugar — and pleasurable, in what Guérard calls cuisine minceur.
“You must never compromise on flavor,” says Guérard. Situated in a luminous, state-of-the-art kitchen overlooking the gardens of Les Prés d’Eugénie, l’Ecole de Cuisine de Santé offers professional courses for groups of up to 10 cooks for one or two weeks.
Beyond a diet of grated carrots
“When I started observing what the patients who came for the thermal cures were eating, I too was depressed by the heaps of grated carrots that were placed before them, topped at the last moment with improvised dressings,” Guérard says.
“I saw an opening for a new kind of healthy cuisine that could inspire people with special needs in their diets to look forward to eating, and to make profound changes in their eating habits that would remain with them for life.”
In his spiced crab on grapefruit jelly with citrus mousse, Guérard demonstrates some of his core principles: that seafood and meats can be cooked without fats, butters or creams to produce vibrant dishes. Even dishes on the three-star Michelin Grand Table menu are cooked with natural flair and a light touch. For example, fresh herbs and citrus notes add zest and flavor to shellfish without leaving the diner feeling heavy.
Slimming cuisine based on research
Cuisine minceur is not achieved by simply reducing fats, sugars and calories. It is based on experience and nutritional research. After Guérard published his first book on the subject in the mid-1970s, “La Grande Cuisine Minceur,” he was approached by the Nestlé group to help them develop a line of frozen foods that would reflect the healthy approach of his new cuisine.
“I was fortunate to continue this consultancy for 27 years, and thus to have access to the latest scientific research into diet, nutrition, physical exercise, thermal treatments and every aspect of this discipline,” he says. “And throughout, I never lost my conviction that pleasure must always play an important part in eating, no matter what the calorie count!”
You can eat dessert on a diet
The desserts at the restaurant and in the cuisine minceur cookbooks have also been overhauled. (No surprise there, for Guérard is a master pastry chef who won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which honors the creative trade professions, for pâtisserie in 1958). Each dessert recipe comes with a calorie count that varies depending on which sweetener has been used, be it sugar, honey, fructose, xylitol or aspartame. Most three-course meal combinations total less than 600 calories, so they are well suited to those who are cooking for the popular 5:2 diet (in which people are limited to 500-600 calories for two days out of seven). For those who want to learn more about Guérard’s cuisine, his seminal cookbook has recently been translated into English. “Eat Well and Stay Slim: The Essential Cuisine Minceur” offers full instructions for dozens of his delicious dishes.
A dynamic and lasting legacy
Guérard has never abandoned his commitment to lighter, healthier food, as the new cooking school attests. Today, his philosophy is bearing fruit as the word about cuisine minceur and its methods spreads within the food community in France and beyond. It’s a fitting legacy for such a dynamic grand master, whose revolutions in the kitchen continue to impact on our eating habits, every day.
Main photo: Chef Michel Guérard. Credit: Copyright 2015 Carla Capalbo
Looking for a new, healthful yet satisfying option for lunch or a light dinner? Skip the old standbys (Caesars, wedges, mixed greens) and upgrade your salad bowl with these 10 tips.
Make your own salad dressings.
Homemade dressings put store-bought bottles to shame; the flavor is unparalleled. And they’re easy to make, especially if you have a blender of any kind or a food processor on hand. (It’s also easy to bolster the nutrition level by adding a tablespoon of chia seeds or flaxseeds.) Try matching your dressing to a salad based on its regional or seasonal ingredients. Making a Mexican tortilla salad? Whip up a batch of cilantro, lime and pumpkin-seed dressing (recipe below). Or liven up a chilly day with hazelnut-orange dressing over winter greens such as radicchio.
Practice the golden rule of salads.
The lighter the lettuce, the lighter the dressing. That means pairing hearty dressings such as Caesar, lemon-buttermilk and creamy ranch with heavier greens such as romaine, kale and cabbage. Save the more delicate mâche and baby lettuce for lightweight dressings such as lemon-garlic vinaigrette or three-herb vinaigrette.
Add crunch with a handful of nuts.
From peanuts, walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts to pecans, macadamias and cashews, nuts can bring a burst of flavor and texture to an ordinary bowl of greens, elevating it from blah to wow. Toasting them is an easy step that boosts their flavor immensely: Just place a pan over high heat, add the nuts and toast for 1 to 2 minutes while shaking the pan (be careful not to burn them). Seeds offer a similar crunch: sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds are easy to find and full of flavor.
Add an unusual oil.
Give a flavor and nutrition boost to your salad by drizzling it with walnut, pecan or hazelnut oil. Pistachio oil drizzled over steamed asparagus is sublime. (Note that nut oils are highly sensitive to light and heat, so store them in the refrigerator.) Meanwhile, avocado oil is a neutral, healthy option that can be substituted for canola oil.
Punch up the proteins.
Ditch the roasted chicken breast and try a new source of protein: Roasted chickpeas, marinated feta, roasted pork loin and broiled shrimp make quick and easy alternatives. Chop up leftover ingredients from a weekend cookout — grilled steak, barbecued chicken, grilled peppers or mushrooms — and toss with a hearty lettuce such as romaine.
Make a side salad the main dish.
Sides like coleslaw can easily achieve main-course status with the addition of a few ingredients. Tossed with roasted turkey and a few tablespoons of homemade poppyseed dressing, chopped or shredded broccoli and roasted walnuts make a hearty, portable lunch or quick dinner. Prepackaged, shredded veggies are available in nearly every grocery store if you’re in a time pinch.
Add fresh fruit.
Tomatoes are the gold standard, but fresh orange segments, sliced pears and grapes add brightness and seasonality to a salad. Sliced strawberries are perfect paired with peppery arugula and balsamic vinegar, while hunks of fresh papaya offer a sweet contrast to crunchy green cabbage. In summer, sliced peaches make a great counterbalance to creamy mozzarella.
Remember: A is for acid.
An often-overlooked but key salad ingredient is acid, whether in the form of vinegar, citrus juice, soy sauce or pickled vegetables. Just a few tablespoons of high-quality balsamic vinegar or rice vinegar or a squeeze of fresh lemon can brighten the flavor of any salad. And pickled veggies, from kimchi to plain old cucumber pickles, can add oomph to a can of tuna or a plain roasted chicken breast.
Spice things up.
Adding chili peppers to a salad or its dressing gives a big flavor boost. Chopped jalapeños, raw or pickled, are a must for Mexican-style salads; you could also try a chipotle dressing. Or add sliced red Thai peppers to cabbage, peanuts and rice vinegar for an Asian flavor.
Expand the definition of “salad.”
Go beyond greens to incorporate grains like quinoa, farro and bulgur wheat. Carbs such as rice, couscous and orzo add a little bulk and act as a neutral base for other flavors. Pasta comes in so many varieties these days that even gluten-free eaters can enjoy pasta salad. Cooked vegetables can also star: Brussels sprouts, asparagus and roasted beets become salads with the addition of just one or two other ingredients, such as roasted nuts, shaved ricotta salata or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. (Time-saver tip: you can cook the grains on the weekend so that they’re ready to go for a weeknight supper.)
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» 6 ways to love spring's vibrant, tender greens
Mexican Salad With Cilantro, Lime and Pumpkin Seed Dressing
Note: This is an easy salad that pairs crisp lettuce and jicama with a tangy, satisfying dressing. Add cooked chicken or a handful of shrimp for a more substantial meal.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
2 1/2 cups chopped romaine lettuce (about 2 large heads)
1 large jicama, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch pieces
3/4 cup thinly sliced radishes (about 10)
1 cup Cilantro, Lime and Pumpkin-Seed Dressing (see recipe below)
1/2 ripe avocado, diced
1/2 cup tortilla chips, crushed, for serving (optional)
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1. In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, jicama and radishes.
2. Add the dressing and gently toss to mix. Add the avocado and tortilla chips and gently toss again.
3. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
Cilantro, Lime and Pumpkin-Seed Dressing
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 5 minutes
Yield: 1 1/4 cups
1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
1/2 cup avocado oil (canola oil can be substituted)
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (about 4 limes)
2 small cloves garlic, peeled
1 medium jalapeño pepper, halved and seeded
1/4 cup unsalted, roasted pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1. Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth.
2. Season to taste with salt. The dressing will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Main photo: Prosciutto over baby spring greens. Credit: Copyright 2015 Laura Holmes Haddad
You’re standing on a rooftop in Portland, Ore., Aperol spritz in hand. The bubbly orange cocktail matches the summer sky at sunset. Prosciutto-wrapped grissini — long, crispy breadsticks enveloped in buttery ham — appear as if by magic for snacking. City lights sparkle below and bridges reach across the Willamette River as you dine on a salad of juicy peaches, creamy burrata and fresh basil, followed by succulent roast pork with green garlic sauce. Dessert is zabaglione with ripe berries. When the sun goes down, all eyes turn to the crisp white sheet taped to the wall, where a projector beams Stanley Tucci’s “Big Night,” a film about two brothers from Italy who open a restaurant in New Jersey. You sigh contentedly as you munch on a bowl of Pecorino popcorn.
This may sound like a delicious culinary dream, but it was the Portland Picnic Society’s La Dolce Vita gathering last summer. This group of 20 ladies meets monthly in the spring and summer to throw fabulous fetes. With summer on the horizon, we’re anxious to steal some of their picnic pointers. But don’t fret if an Italian-themed al fresco gathering seems like too much to plan. “Picnics are so flexible: You can dress them up with involved recipes and elegant touches, or you can head to your favorite market and throw together a pop-up party in a matter of minutes,” says Jen Stevenson, a founding member of the Portland Picnic Society, co-author of “The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket,” and the gastronomical genius behind the food blog Under the Table With Jen. Get inspired for your own gathering with these ideas.
Rethink deviled eggs
The classic recipe always pleases, but it’s fun to take a crack at a new version. Here, two that Stevenson loves:
Try a BLT: Mix minced cooked bacon into the filling; garnish with ½ cherry tomato and a piece of baby arugula.
Perk it up with pesto: Mix in a bit of store-bought pesto to the filling, then top with tiny fresh basil leaves.
Make a daring dip
Crudité and dip are an easy appetizer, but it’s fun to wow your guests with a shock of color.
“Hummus doesn’t have to be boring,” says Stevenson. “Add roasted red beets to turn the dip a gorgeous shade of magenta, or blend in a handful of parsley for a fresh flavor and a pretty green hue.”
Prep individual desserts
What’s cuter than a mini mason jar? A sweet treat for one inside that itty-bitty container. Serve lemon curd topped with whipped cream, chocolate pudding with fresh strawberries, or a fruit and yogurt parfait. Or bake a crumble (like the Portland Picnic Society’s drool-worthy Blueberry Cardamom Crumble, pictured here) right in the jar.
“Most crumble recipes can be baked in jars or ramekins; just be careful not to overfill since they tend to bubble up while cooking,” recommends Stevenson.
Forget tired sandwiches
Turkey or tuna salad on whole wheat screams “school lunch,” not glam outdoor gathering. One of the most colorful and delicious sandwiches to bring is the classic pan bagnat, which is based on salade Nicoise.
It’s easy: Split a fresh baguette from your favorite bakery, then layer it with high-quality canned tuna, sliced hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, olives, sliced fresh tomatoes and lettuce. This is a seriously picnic-proof sandwich; the hardy crust protects the gourmet goods you stuff inside. It’s a cinch to transport if you wait and slice on-site (bring toothpicks to secure each individual sammy).
Get creative with props
Sometimes the most picturesque spots lack a picnic table, but a basket with a flat, hard top can serve as a miniature table once it’s unpacked. You can also incorporate everyday kitchenware into your spread for easier serving. Bring cutting boards and platters to set food on.
“We like to fill a Le Creuset Dutch oven with ice, then keep our wine and bottled cocktails in it,” says Stevenson. “Eight-ounce jam jars make the perfect glasses, because they’re easy to nestle into the grass.”
Another idea: Schlep goodies from the car to the picnic site in an old-school red wagon, then use the wagon as a table. If someone asks you to pass the three-bean salad, you can just give the wagon a push in her direction.
Sip in style
With all those delicious snacks, don’t forget about drinks. The Pimm’s Cup, a classic gin-based English cocktail, is refreshing but not too sweet. With this version, from “The Picnic,” each guest gets his or her own mason-jar cocktail for easy transport.
Elderflower Pimm’s Cup
Yield: 1 serving
Excerpted from “The Picnic” by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker and Jen Stevenson (Artisan). Copyright 2015. Photographs by David Reamer.
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Lemon Simple Syrup:
½ cup sugar
½ cup water
1 small lemon, zested with a peeler into ½-inch strips
2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 Cup
1 ounce St. Germain liqueur
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon Lemon Simple Syrup
1 strawberry, hulled and quartered
1 thin slice orange, quartered
3 thin slices cucumber
1 mint sprig
1 1/2 strips lemon peel, from Lemon Simple Syrup
Before the picnic:
1. Make Lemon Simple Syrup by bringing sugar and water to a gentle simmer in a small pot. Stir frequently until the sugar has dissolved and the syrup is clear. Remove from heat and add the lemon peel. Let the syrup steep for one hour. Strain the syrup into a jar. Reserve the lemon peel for garnish.
2. Combine the booze, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a Mason jar. Add the strawberry, orange, and cucumber. Replace the lid and pack in a cooler filled with ice.
At the picnic:
3. Add ice, top with club soda, garnish with a mint sprig and lemon peel strip, add a straw, and serve.
Pick a theme
Instead of just throwing food in your basket willynilly, pick a theme to tie everything together. Make it meze madness (meze are small plates, dips and salads common throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East) with feta-topped figs, bunches of fresh grapes, hummus and pita, kalamata olives, and dolma (grape leaves stuffed with rice).
Host a Southern soiree with deviled eggs, macaroni salad, fried chicken and sweet tea. Plan a Parisian party with roast chicken; Lyonnaise potato salad; crusty baguette with brie, Camembert and chevre; rainbow-hued macarons; and plenty of rosé.
Main photo: Turn your picnic into a feast with a few simple twists. Credit: Copyright 2015 David Reamer, from “The Picnic” by Marnie Hanel, Andrea Slonecker and Jen Stevenson (Artisan).
In mid-April, the people of Bengal — a region straddling Bangladesh and parts of India, including my hometown in West Bengal — celebrate the Bengali New Year.
Bengalis of all religious persuasions celebrate this secular holiday with music, song and, of course, plenty of good food. So today I share with you food. Lots of it. Twenty-six Bengali dishes, to be precise
People also buy new clothes and other new items with the belief that something done at the beginning of the year repeats itself year-round. Bengali traders crack open fresh new account books called the haal khata on this day.
A new year ahead, with taxes behind us
Ironically, the Bengali New Year, which falls during a season when the U.S. tax deadline looms, originated in the Mughal Empire, when it marked a fresh beginning after the collection of taxes.
So, celebrate the end of tax season with me by delving into this regional cuisine.
Bengal, with its west monsoon climate and proximity to rivers, offers a diet rich in fish, greens, rice and vegetables. Its seasonings are distinct and prominent with the use of mustard, poppy seeds, ginger and a Bengali Five Spice Blend consisting of mustard, cumin, nigella, fenugreek and fennel. This seasoning is called panch phoron: panch means five and phoron means tempering.
The Bengali meal ranges from light to heavy courses, with a sweet and sour chutney to cleanse the palate before dessert.
This slideshow offers an insight into some of the most traditional dishes on the Bengali table.
Starting the new year with a family recipe that travels well
The fact that the holiday lands midweek this year puts a wrinkle on food celebrations.
This year, however I’ve resurrected a well-seasoned egg dish that my grandmother used to call her “picnic dimer dalna” or picnic egg curry.
Our “picnics” consisted usually of multilayered lunch boxes, filled with puffy fried breads known as luchi and drier curries like alur dom. In our family’s case, it included these eggs, since my grandmother felt that we should get our protein as growing children.
This dish travels very well, and actually improves as leftovers. My children now love this as a special breakfast treat and it can be enjoyed with toasted bread almost as much as the luchi, which can be difficult to pull off on a school-day morning. The eggs, however, can be made the night before.
This particular recipe is also known as Kosha Dimer Dalna. The word kosha in Bengali refers to slow-cooked and refers to the slow-cooked onions in the dish.
This year, if you feel that you just might need an excuse for a new beginning and an opportunity to revisit your New Year’s resolutions, join the Bengalis in celebrating our Bengali New Year.
Kosha Dimer Dalna (Egg Curry with Clingy Caramelized Onion Sauce)
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 45 to 50 minutes
Total time: 65 to 70 minutes
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 tablespoons oil
3 medium-sized onions, sliced
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 to 3 cardamoms
2 medium-sized tomatoes
1 teaspoon red cayenne pepper, or to taste
8 eggs, hard-boiled and shelled
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Chopped cilantro to garnish
1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the oil and add in the sliced onions. Cook the onions on low heat, until they gradually wilt, soften and turn golden brown. This process will take about 30 to 35 minutes, but should not be rushed.
2. Add in the ginger and stir well.
3. Add in the cardamoms, tomatoes and red cayenne pepper. Cook for about five minutes until the mixture thickens and the tomatoes begin to soften.
4. In the meantime, make slits on the sides of the eggs and rub them with the salt and the turmeric.
5. Mix the eggs into the tomato mixture and cook for about 5 minutes, until the eggs are well-coated with the onion base.
6. Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve.
Main photo: My grandmother made this Kosha Dimer Dalna or egg curry as a picnic treat for us when I was growing up in Kolkata in India’s West Bengal province. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya
I am a culinary instructor, a cookbook author, a food blogger. And yet, despite my ability to plan very well all the other aspects of my life, I have a confession to make: I am meal-planning challenged.
For those of us who view with rose-colored glasses those who can successfully execute a weekly meal plan, I have often attempted this feat, and, finally, given up. I’ve realized that it’s perfectly fine to embrace a daily practice of winging it when it comes to dinner. And you can, too.
Here’s my secret. With lentils or dal as the cornerstone of my family table — and of many Indian tables — the possibilities are endless for a quick, easy and healthy dinner, with the addition of vegetables into the mix. As long as I have a variety of legumes and grains stocked in my pantry, I’m good.
Despite my meal-planning-challenged self, I often produce a balanced meal on short notice. I have 10 examples here in the slideshow.
Winging it runs in the family
There’s a history of that in my family. As a child of a mother who worked outside the home, I never saw my mother poring over menus or meal plans. Our meals were simple to elaborate – depending on the day and the time available to cook. And while my mother didn’t obsess over food groups, somehow, her meals always ended up being well-balanced.
That turned me into a very practical mother who views the weeknight dinner as a ritual that is not up for a lot of discussion or drama. I have found that by doing my own cooking, it saves me the hassle of worrying over details such as sodium content, whether something’s organic or the meal is well-balanced. Since I’m doing the cooking, I pretty much control what’s happening in those departments.
There’s plenty of peer pressure to do it the hard way.
Keeping up with the meal-planning warriors
We seem to have a battle of the parents – often mothers — who tout their ability to produce multidimensional, unprocessed meals every day for their weeknight dinners. They wage that war armed with apps on everything from meal planners to calorie counters and recipe trackers. These well-armed planners are pitted against the seemingly meal-planning-challenged parents, who feel they should follow suit.
Instead, busy, working parents often find it easier to pick up a pizza or Chinese takeout – and then feel chagrined when they analyze the nutritional content of those meals.
At a recent event, I was asked about the good old family dinner. I flippantly mentioned that most people would say I raise my children on rice and beans.
I mention lentils as an extended example. I am sure most people have favorite dishes in mind and a culinary repertoire that are relatively simple, full of childhood nostalgia and lacking any artificial trappings of flavor or processed ingredients. My lentils can be someone else’s chicken noodle soup – or whatever your pantry offers.
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My favorite comfort food will always be red lentils. So, depending on my mood, I can make a meal of red lentils by adding anything from kale to carrots to chicken. It brings back memories of warmth, simplicity and family time.
My son often feels the same way about his morning eggs, which I scramble simply for him. He tells me that they start his day right. Once again, it is sometimes the simple, unplanned things that resonate with us most at the meal table.
So embrace your meal-planning-challenged self. I can get you started with 10 one-dish meals that range from light and lively to elaborate, comforting and elegant. Dishes like khichuri or a biryani are always nourishing and they can do the trick in your household, just as they do in mine.
You can get started with this recipe from my cookbook, “Spices and Seasons,” for Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf.
Bulgur or Cracked Wheat Pilaf
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes (mostly unattended)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
For the pilaf:
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
3/4 cup bulgur or cracked wheat
3/4 cup cooked red kidney beans or chick peas
1/2 teaspoon red cayenne pepper powder (optional)
1 (3-inch) cinnamon stick, broken
2 cups water
For the garnish:
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
1 to 2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1. Heat the oil in a pot on medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and when they begin to sizzle, add the onion and sauté for about 6 minutes, until it wilts and begins to turn gently golden.
2. Add the tomato, salt, and bulgur and mix well.
3. Stir in the red kidney beans, cayenne pepper powder (if using), and the cinnamon stick. Mix in 2 cups of water and gently bring to a simmer.
4. Cover and cook on low heat for about 25 minutes, until the water is absorbed and the bulgur is soft and cooked through.
5. Squeeze in the lime or lemon juice, stir in the cilantro and serve.
Note: This recipe also can be made with quinoa or faro, depending on your preference, and you can add in vegetables such as mushrooms or zucchini to modify.
Main photo: By keeping legumes and grains on hand in your pantry, you can create quick, healthy weeknight dinners like this Tomato Rice With Peanuts. Credit: Copyright Rinku Bhattacharya
I have a repertoire of quick, easy dinners that I make when there is no produce in the house. It does happen; after I return from a trip, in particular, but also there are times when I just haven’t gotten to the market. My favorite pantry dishes are the ones I picked up long ago from an Italian friend who was able to produce the most marvelous simple dinners every evening when he returned from his office, though he hadn’t stopped at the market. He’d whip up a delicious tuna and bean salad, or pasta e fagiole, or pasta with tuna and tomato sauce or penne a l’arabiata, because he always had three canned items in his small cupboard: tuna, beans and tomatoes.
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From him I learned that I must always have these three foods on hand. They don’t have to be fancy and I’m not stuck on any particular type of bean. Right now I have supermarket brand chickpeas, white beans and pintos on my shelf. I have one can of tuna packed in water and another can of tuna packed in olive oil, and I’ve got 28- and 14.5-ounce cans of chopped tomatoes in juice, which is what I prefer (less work), but whole tomatoes will do.
Tuna and bean salad is a meal I make often when I’m on my own. If I have some produce on hand — green beans or cauliflower or some of those beautiful spring onions I’m beginning to see in the farmers markets — I’ll make variations on this simple theme, which requires little more than the tuna and the beans, vinegar, olive oil and whatever seasonings you like. Red onion is standard, parsley is always nice for color. But I never get too elaborate; it’s not a salade Niçoise, after all.
Simple Tuna and Bean Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Yield: Serves 4
1 small or 1/2 medium red onion or spring onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or sherry vinegar
2 5 1/2-ounce cans tuna, packed in water or olive oil, drained
1 15-ounce can cannelini beans, white beans, chickpeas or borlotti beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small or medium garlic clove, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 Japanese cucumber, cut in half lengthwise and sliced, for garnish (optional)
1. Place the onion in a bowl and add 1 teaspoon of the vinegar and cold water to cover. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water, then dry on paper towels.
2. In a medium bowl or salad bowl, combine the tuna, beans, onions and parsley.
3. In a small bowl or measuring cup, mix together the remaining vinegar, salt to taste, freshly ground pepper, garlic and Dijon mustard. Whisk in the olive oil. Toss with the tuna and beans and serve, garnishing each plate with cucumber slices.
Advance preparation: This will keep for 3 days in the refrigerator.
Two-Bean and Tuna Salad
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes
Yield: Serves 6
3/4 pound green beans, trimmed
1 small red onion, cut in half and sliced in half-moons
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
2 5-ounce cans tuna (packed in water or olive oil), drained
1 15-ounce can white beans, cannellinis, chickpeas, or borlottis, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped chives
2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram or sage
Salt to taste
1 garlic clove, minced or puréed
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1. Bring a medium-size pot of water to a boil, add salt to taste and green beans. Cook for 4 minutes (5 minutes if the beans are thick), until just tender. Transfer to a bowl of cold water and drain. (Alternatively, steam the beans for 4 to 5 minutes.) Cut or break the beans in half if very long.
2. Meanwhile, place sliced onion, if using, in a bowl and cover with cold water. Add 1 teaspoon vinegar and soak 5 minutes. Drain, rinse and drain again on paper towels.
3. Drain tuna and place in a salad bowl. Break up with a fork. Add canned beans, green beans, onion and herbs. Toss together.
4. In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together remaining vinegar, salt, garlic and mustard. Whisk in olive oil. Toss with tuna and bean mixture, and serve.
Advance preparation: This will keep for a day in the refrigerator; however, you should keep the green beans separate and toss with the other ingredients just before serving so they retain their bright green color.
Main photo: Two-Bean and Tuna Salad. Credit: Copyright Martha Rose Shulman