Last year, I shared a “guide” of some sorts for those interested in going fully or partially plant-based. I also wrote a few other things about all the awesome perks that come with eating plant-based here, which include things like better digestion, clearer skin, saying farewell to bad breath in the mornings and the surge in energy levels you’re likely to experience 🙂
And well, it’s been 12 months months since I wrote all those things. During that time, I’ve had so many conversations and exchanges with you (online & offline) about food. Throughout last year, I noticed an interesting spectrum of patterns in questions & comments I get, and that I feel need to be addressed…because for starters: we need to answer these questions in one place that everyone can access 🙂 And secondly, I genuinely do worry that future generations will stop cooking (it’s really something that’s often on my mind!)
This post should hopefully help demystify all those seemingly intimidating, but actually, very basic ingredients that can help you incorporate more plants into your life!
I’m going to break it down into the four major categories I get questions about the most. As usual, I like to take the “understand vs memorize” approach, so please do take those few minutes to go through this thoroughly.
ALL THE HERBS & ALL THE SPICES ON ALL THE DISHES!
Herbs and spices are not just some fancy pants category of ingredients. Nor are they just to be used as a garnish or to make your dishes look “pretty”. They’re actually some of the healthiest things you can incorporate into your diet, as collectively, herbs & spices feature as some of the top antioxidant food items out there! Oregano, turmeric and pimento for instance, bring both flavour AND happen to be some of the highest ranking antioxidant foods ever! You can browse this ORAC Values link to see just how much herbs and spices dominate the list. While it is measured per 100gr (and honestly, no one is going to toss that much into one single dish), if you use a bit of everything into all your dishes, juices and smoothies, everyday, it will add up 🙂 I even add some spices to my coffee!
As for the dry vs fresh debate. Here’s my take on it:
For herbs, in terms of flavour, I ALWAYS prefer fresh. Especially when it comes to parsley, cilantro & basil: fresh will beat dry any day! Oregano, thyme and marjoram will, on the other hand, still retain a nice aroma when dried. But for the rest, I really insist on fresh and I use them ABUNDANTLY. Especially with my Middle Eastern origins, where we eat fresh herbs with pretty much everything, I was THAT girl who always had green stuff stuck between her teeth. Hurrah for tabbouleh.
As for spices, the ideal of course, would be to have a powerful spice grinder and grind as you go. But I recognize this isn’t a device that’s in everyone’s kitchen (mine included!), so I buy as I go, store in perfectly dry jars and keep them away from direct sunlight. I wrote about the magical world of spices a while ago, you can check it out here.
GRAINS AND ALL THE SHADES OF BROWNS & BEIGE:
As a disclaimer, when I refer to grains, I’m referring to cereal grains and pseudo-grains.
Cereal grains include wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, rye, farro, freekeh, emmer, bulgur, millet and spelt. Just to state a few.
Pseudo-grains are not technically grains but are prepared and consumed in a similar way. You’ve surely heard of a few of them, they include quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff, fonio, etc. Pseudo-grains are actually grasses or seeds and have been mega-trending in recent years. Sometimes they’re also referred to as “ancient grains”- which I find is a bit of a marketing gimmick to refer to “exotic grains from faraway places”, from a Western stand point of course. Remember that the vast majority of all grains have been around for thousands of years- which really makes them all “ancient”.
Most of the above can be used whole or ground, into flour.
Some grains are gluten-free, some aren’t. Because more people are looking to adopt allergen-free diets, there’s an evident growing appreciation towards gluten-free grains. Personally, I don’t hate non G-F grains so much because they still bring important nutrients to the table. I just don’t like when they are overly refined, stripped of any possible nutrient that they could possess. So those, use in moderation if you can.
Gluten-free grains are: amaranth, buckwheat, rice (all kinds), millet, quinoa, sorghum, teff, fonio and oats. Note that oats are gluten-free as long as they’re not processed in a factory that processes wheat as well (where there would be risk of cross-contamination).
Now, what is the purpose of grains?! Grains are GREAT! They bulk up your meals, making you full and never hangry. As an excellent source of complex carbs, they release energy slowly throughout the day (say goodbye to jittery energy drink crashes!) all while topping you off with fiber & protein. They’re also an excellent source of antioxidants.
All grains work in the same way. They are foods that need and absorb water in order to cook. So it’s one same method to cook grains every time:
- Rinse your grains. Brown rice cooks better if you soak in water for a few hours FYI.
- Toast them for a nice nutty flavour (optional, but I like to do this, especially with quinoa and bulgur)
- Add water (most are 1:2 or 1:3 ratios)
- Cover, bring to a boil.
- Then reduce heat, and cook until all water has been absorbed.
- Remove from heat, let rest for a minute (with the lid still on)
- Remove lid and fluff!
Note that steps 6 & 7 are important so that you don’t end up with excess water or mush.
So it’s one cooking technique for countless grain options. And each one tastes different!
You can use grains as a starch side, in salads, in soups, porridges- and desserts!
They’re also generally affordable and virtually fat and cholesterol free.
DRIED LEGUMES- AND THE GAS CONUNDRUM:
This family of ingredients is the one I get questions about the most often! And it also happens to the most exciting category in my opinion- dried legumes come in oh so many colours and shapes. I’m always mind blown by how generous nature is with us. In fact, there are more than 100 dried legumes! Some awesome person on the internets compiled pretty much every dried legume on this planet, check it out here.
Dried legumes are kind of similar to grains. They’re rich in fiber, protein, slow-releasing starches but also can be an incredible source of iron (lentils and black beans for example!) They also need soaking and lots of water- but more importantly, they need patience!
Dried legumes is the umbrella word for dried beans, peas, and lentils. You can buy them dried or already cooked and canned. If you opt for the latter (which can be a time-saver!) please be sure to rinse the beans first!
Dried beans includes: chickpeas (garbanzo), black beans, adzuki beans, kidney beans, fava beans- so many! I love them in curries, stews, soups, salads and of course- hummus (where chickpeas come in!) You can also use them in desserts, as adzuki beans are typically prepared in the Far East. They usually need to be rinsed and soaked for at least 6 hours. I usually soak them overnight, or in the morning before heading to work. That way when I’m back, they’re ready to cook. I also cook them in large batches then keep them in containers, in the fridge, so I can use them in versatile ways throughout the week. Beans generally need to be cooked in at least a 1:4 ratio. Meaning if you use 1 cup of beans, you need at least 4 cups of water. I’ve yet to come across a bean that took less than 50 minutes to cook- so work around that time frame. Some people prefer to use pressure-cookers, so if you have one, time to put it to use! (P.S: you can cook beans without a pressure-cooker, I’ve done it that way my entire life).
Lentils & peas: lentils and peas are cute confetti looking dried legumes that are iron powerhouses. Because they’re smaller in size, they also take less time to cook. So if you want to start somewhere, start with lentils and peas! I love them mixed with rice, in salads and most of all in soups! They’re also notoriously used in dahls and most delicious Indian dishes. The smaller the lentil or pea, the less time they’ll take to cook.
Basic cooking method for dried legumes:
- Rinse dried legumes
- Soak in water (for beans, please soak for at least 6 hours. Mung beans need at least 12 hours FYI)
- Add in a pot with loads of water
- Bring to a boil, then cook (keep the lid on!) on medium heat until dried legumes are soft- but not mushy.
Of course, you can oomph dried legumes by adding aromatics while they’re being cooked.
NOW for the famous GAS QUESTION! This has a lot of people running away from dried legumes, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
For starters, the soaking part is important. What the soaking does is remove the indigestible oligosaccharide dried legumes can contain. So please soak your beans for at least 6 hours! Some people add baking soda to the water as they’re soaking. I’m not sure if this helps eliminate oligosaccharides quicker, but you can give it a try.
When you’re ready to cook, you can add gas-busting spices that aid in digestion and reduce flatulence. Cumin, fennel and ginger are excellent digestive aids- so add them to your dried legume based dishes!
Equally important to keep in mind is weaning yourself slowly into bean & lentil world, especially if you’re a newbie at all of this. If you can’t remember the last time you ate dried legumes, well it’s probably not a good idea to have a bowl of chickpeas every night 😀 You need to ease yourself into dried legumes- so gradually increase the amounts as the days go by.
HOW TO MAKE VEGETABLES TASTE GOOD (AND HOW TO SNEAK MORE OF THEM INTO YOUR LIFE!):
Quick but important disclaimer here: for the purpose of this blog post, we’re going to include fresh produce that are commonly cooked and prepared as vegetables. For instance: tomatoes and cucumbers are technically not vegetables (they are fruits), but because they’re usually prepared in savoury ways, we’re going to refer to them as vegetables.
With that said 🙂
I recognize that there is clearly some childhood trauma around vegetables out there, and we need to fix that ASAP. You need to understand that vegetables are very important to good health so you can live an awesome sauce life! Fact: the more you eat them, the more your tastebuds will change and grow to appreciate their flavour. Your palate is like a sponge. It adapts to what you’re eating.
The other fact is that vegetables can taste radically different depending on cooking method. Take a semi-starchy veg like pumpkin for instance. It tastes completely different consumed raw, steamed or roasted. I love roasting as it creates this rich, creamy texture with a hint of sweetness and/or create a superb texture that won’t give you flashbacks of childhood bitter & soggy vegetables 🙂
Roasting is in fact, my favourite recommendation for veggie beginners. What roasting does is bring out the sweetness for many ingredients. Ever tried a raw and roasted garlic before? Two totally different things! Roasted garlic are sweet little nuggets!
Great veggies to roast are: broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, red bell peppers, pumpkin, all potatoes, onions, garlic, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and carrots. In fact, I wrote a blog post about roasting veggies not too long ago- you should probably check it out 🙂
Roasted veggies work great on their own, in salads but also can create magical things for soups. Roasted tomatoes, carrots or pumpkin make soups taste really special 🙂
My second favourite recommendation to make veggies more “palatable” (a very subjective word, hehehe) is to add them to your juices and smoothies. That’s also a GREAT way to consume tons of veggies in one go. Some fruits are naturally so sweet, so they’ll “cancel out” on green-ish flavours easily. Mangoes, pineapple, dates, naseberry, bananas are some great ones.
Another thing I always share is sneaking them into what would usually be delicious dishes. Case in point: anything pasta. Tuck in some callaloo into your lasagne next time, or use it to make a green pasta sauce (check out my recipe here– this is ALWAYS a hit with friends!) The pasta technique almost ALWAYS works- especially for the newbies 🙂 Adding in extra fiber in a mac & cheese (using pumpkin as a base) is another great way to sneak in the veg!
The last piece of advice covers raw veggies– which is sometimes even more difficult to “like” for some people. The trick to raw veggies is to make BEAUTIFUL salads! No one wants to eat lettuce leaves on their own! You need to make them BEAUTIFUL! Mix as many things as you can (you can even make a meal out of a salad).
Formula for a really awesome salad:
A leafy green base + two different other veggies + nuts & seeds + dried or fresh fruits + a grain or dried legume of choice + awesome sauce salad dressing. Avocado also always makes everything better!
And on the subject of salad dressings, I find fruit or creamy based dressings usually help for beginning vegetable eaters. A mango salad dressing can make any green taste amazing as would an luscious cashew based one!
So guys, I hope this was helpful and inspires you to bring more vegetables, dried legumes, grains, herbs & spices into your kitchen!
Stay connected on Instagram @missmariannaf as I go on my usual food, wellness & culture ramblings.
Have a great day!