Winter Sowing

Doesn’t look so cold, but the temperature was 12 degrees

One of the hardest elements of love for gardening is how things seem to stop in the winter. Well, I’ve found a way to keep it going, without a greenhouse. I’m trying winter sowing this year. I’ve heard about it for years and this year, I’m bored enough to try it. 

This is a phenomenon that has taken hold in the gardening world for those of us in colder winter climates. Basically, you sow seeds for the spring garden outside, in the cold and snow, but you do it in makeshift greenhouses or cloches. 

It’s a simple concept, and although you can certainly sow some seeds of hardy perennials and vegetables directly into the garden with occasional success, this method gives more control and actually works fairly well according to everything I’ve read. So, I’m giving it a try. 

I sowed my seeds in their little milk-jug cloches just after the winter solstice, and after many days of frigid cold and off-and-on snows, I checked yesterday and some of my seeds are actually germinating. 

This method is not for warm-season plants like tomatoes and peppers, but it supposedly works well for cool-season plants like broccoli and cabbage, not to mention cold-hardy flowers like cosmos, lupine and calendula. My broccoli rabe has already germinated. Putting them out in the fluctuating cold actually breaks the seed coats faster, and the constant moisture assures the germinating seeds will survive. 

The method: basically, you cut plastic jugs in half (leaving a hinge), fill partially with damp potting soil and sow your seeds. You tape the jug shut, leaving the cap off to allow moisture in and out. Then you wait. Once the seedlings are up and the weather is leveling off, you transplant them into pots for growing on. Or directly into the garden. 

I won’t go into all the details on how to do it here, but there are many good videos and tutorials on Youtube and the internet. I found a great video series on the Buncombe County (my county in North Carolina) extension site. There are several active Facebook groups also. 

A recipe for winter time

And, here’s a recipe not necessarily connected with winter sowing, but our dinner last night, paired with roasted salmon. The kale and chard were from my cold frame!

Delicata squash stuffed with couscous and greens

Delicata squash with couscous
  • 1 delicata squash, sliced in half and seeds removed
  • ½ c. whole-wheat couscous
  • ¾ c. stock
  • 1 c. greens of choice (kale, spinach, chard), chopped
  • ¼ c. sliced onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Parmesan cheese 

Brush the squash with olive oil and roast face down at 375 for about 40 minutes. 

Meanwhile, heat the stock to boiling. Add the couscous, turn off the heat and cover. Let sit for five minutes. After letting it sit, fluff it with a fork. 

Saute the onion, garlic and greens in a splash of olive oil, about five minutes until wilted. Mix into the couscous and season with salt and pepper to taste. 

Fill the squash cavities with the couscous mix. Sprinkle with parmesan or other cheese of choice and slide under the broiler until delicately browned. 

Cream soups

Broccoli soup drizzled with basil-infused oil

A creamy soup can make even the harshest winter seem not so bad. It soothes a raw throat, clears the sinuses with fragrant heat and nourishes the belly with warmth.

Don’t be put off by the word “cream” if you’ve made a resolution to count calories, because there are many ways to make a creamy soup without cream. Of course, the richness of cream is sometimes worth the indulgence. 

Add a fresh salad of spring mix and a homemade vinaigrette and a slice of crusty Italian toast and you have a winning, quick meal. 

Corn soup

Here’s a secret – make a creamy base from rice: 

  • 1/3 c. medium or long-grained white rice 
  • 3 c. broth, chicken or vegetable

Film a deep saucepan with olive oil, add the rice and cook for two minutes, stirring. Add the broth, reduce the heat and simmer until the rice is soft with most of the liquid, about 25 minutes. 

Transfer to a blender or use a stick blender and process until the sauce is smooth. Use as a substitute for cream or milk in any cream-based recipe.

And, now for the soup!

Once you make the easy base, the choice is yours as to what vegetables to add. The key is to cook the vegetables until done and then puree with liquid of choice as needed. Many don’t need further seasoning than salt and pepper but use your creative hand to make the soup Italian flavored with oregano and basil, curry-flavored by adding a tablespoon of red curry paste, or Tex-Mex with chipotle and cumin.

  • 1 T. butter
  • ¼ cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 4 c. broth (chicken or vegetable)
  • 2 cups vegetables of choice (see note below)
  • ½ c. half-and-half, rice cream, coconut milk or pureed cannellini beans
  • Salt and pepper to taste, other seasonings as desired

Melt butter in a large saucepan. Add onions and garlic and saute until tender. Add vegetables and saute until tender. Alternatively, toss vegetables with olive oil and roast at 375 until tender. Add broth and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and puree with a hand blender. You can puree until smooth or leave it somewhat chunky. Stir in half-and-half and season to taste. Pour into bowls and garnish with garlic croutons, scallions, feta or goat cheese, parmesan.

Note: suggestions for vegetables are endless. Raid the crisper drawers or freezer and come up with your own combinations. Frozen vegetables can make a really quick soup. Add mushrooms, spinach, carrots and skip the puree step for a delicious chunky soup.

  • Fresh or frozen peas and chopped carrots
  • Tomatoes and basil
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Cabbage
  • Corn
  • Edamame
  • Peppers and carrots
  • Eggplant
  • Zucchini
  • Beets
  • Pumpkin or winter squash

Resolutions and Vegetable Soup

I’m not one for making resolutions, mostly because I don’t want to be disappointed when I can’t keep them. But I am in the mood for some food cleansing to start the year off right. One of the best and easiest things I can do for my family is to make homemade vegetable broth. It has a clean, crisp flavor that is perfect for a soup base. It gives just about any type of soup a rich, savory flavor that you simply cannot get from canned stock or broth. It’s rich enough to drink on its own, flavored with a little salt and pepper.

Homemade vegetable broth

As simple as possible

Although I’ve seen fairly elaborate recipes for broth, I want to keep this as simple as possible. To help me keep the resolution to do it. So, I keep a plastic bag in my freezer, and every time I trim a vegetable I rinse the trimmings and toss them into the bag.

I use the trimmings from garlic, onions, greens, mushrooms, carrots, celery, etc. Onion skins in particular give a wonderful flavor to the broth. When the bag is full, I dump it all into a large stockpot, add a couple of bay leaves and a handful of whatever other herbs I have in the garden or dried on the shelf.

Simmer slow and long

I cover the vegetables with water and simmer very gently for four or five hours. Once they’re all reduced to mush, I pour the stock through a strainer and divide it up to freeze. I freeze it in one cup batches so it’s simple enough to pull out a chunk, thaw and use it. Toss in some pasta, some sauteed onions, a handful of chopped greens, a can of cannellini beans, and Voila! You have a hearty soup with tons of subtle flavors on the table in 15 minutes. And there’s also a bit of nostalgia about always having a pot of soup bubbling on the back burner.

Mirepoix

You can make almost any kind of brothy soup by starting with a mirepoix (French – named for Duke of Mirepoix and the community he ruled) or soffritto (Called the Holy Trinity in Italian – translates as fried softly).

Chop a small onion, small carrot and a couple of stalks of celery. Saute gently in two tablespoons of olive oil until soft but not browned. This releases the flavors to infuse your soup. Add other vegetables and greens as desired, cooked beans, cooked grains or pasta. Add 2-3 cups of your homemade vegetable broth and heat through, seasoning as desired.

Cabbage White Bean Soup

Olive oil
1 small onion, diced
1 small carrot, diced
2 stalks celery, diced
1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
2 medium thin-skinned potatoes, sliced
1 c. sliced swiss chard or kale
½ small head cabbage, sliced
1 c. cooked white beans
3-4 cups vegetable broth
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Saute onion, carrot, celery and garlic if using on low-medium heat, stirring often, until the vegetables are soft. Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to simmer. Simmer until potatoes are soft when pierced. Season to taste and serve hot.

Kale and Kasha Soup

2 T. olive oil
1 ½ c. chopped onion
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 c. vegetable broth
¼ t. dried oregano
1 ½ c. cooked kasha or other grain
1 can crushed tomatoes
1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed and divided
½ lb. kale, trimmed and chopped

Heat 1 T. oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add onion, and cook 3 minutes, or until softened, stirring occasionally. Add garlic, and cook 5 minutes more, or until onion is lightly browned. Stir in broth, kasha, tomatoes, 1 cup beans, oregano. Bring to a boil. Press half of the kale into the liquid with a wooden spoon until it wilts. Press remaining kale into liquid. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, or until kale is tender.

Purée remaining beans in food processor and add to the soup. Season with salt and pepper, and serve with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or sriracha.

Eating in season

I’ve given up on green beans. For now anyway. We cooked them for our Christmas dinner because we always have fresh green beans for the December holidays. But they were terrible. I realized that fresh green beans, even when blistered with olive oil and garlic are a summer dish. These were tough and tasteless. 

Green beans from last summer. The store-bought ones this month are a poor comparison

This unpleasant result brought me through the backdoor to my mantra “eat in season”. I tend to forget it when going back to family traditions. Of course you have green beans for Christmas dinner. But I grew up in Texas, where my family food traditions were seated, and green beans in December were not a novelty – they were still readily available locally. Or, as so many families do, my mother would pull out her home-canned green beans to make the standard casserole. Am I too old to change? Not at all – from now on we will have roasted brussels sprouts!

We gave up on tomatoes

My husband and I gave up on tomatoes about a month ago. We bought the small sweet Campari tomatoes on the vine at the grocery market after we had the last of our garden grown and the market tomatoes dwindled. Last year we thought these were better than the usual grocery store tomatoes, but we just realized that we’re reaching for a ghost of flavor that’s just not there. So, we’ve decided not to eat fresh tomatoes until next year. 

Simple sauteed Brussels sprouts

Cool season vegetables are abundant

Trying to find those flavors and only getting a ghost is so unsatisfying, and since there are so many other flavors that are robust and delicious, we’ll stick with those. Brussels sprouts and cabbage are still available locally, and the fresh-picked flavor is unbeatable. 

Brussels sprouts an winter squash for roasting

I have a shelf full of winter squash just waiting to be roasted and tossed with hot pasta or pureed into soups with onions, garlic and kale (also readily available). And I have a bucket of sunchokes harvested from my own garden waiting to be roasted. 

Roasted Kabocha squash

I will simply save the tomatoes, beans, summer squash and eggplant until I can enjoy it fresh and delectable as it ripens next summer. This decision also makes me feel better about my carbon footprint as I’m trying to eat locally as much as possible rather than vegetables shipped in from far away. No green beans, but delicious wintery beans with rice. And roasted brussels sprouts with kabocha squash.

Caribbean beans to go with steamy rice

Here’s a favorite: 

Caribbean rice and beans 

  • 1/2 c. chopped onion
  • 1/2 c. chopped celery
  • 1/2 c. chopped sweet pepper
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 can fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1/4 t. crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 t. cumin
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 can black beans, drained

Saute onion, celery, pepper and garlic until soft. Add the rest of the ingredients and cook for about 3 minutes. Serve over cooked rice, topped with mozzarella or queso fresco. Delicious with sauteed chorizo, either meat or plant-based. 

Melted sweet potatoes

I just read that North Carolina, where I now live, is the largest sweet potato producer in the country, eclipsing even California and Mississippi. There’s a reason it’s our state vegetable (did you know that all states have an official vegetable?). 

When you go to the farmers’ market or grocery store here, you will usually find three or four different varieties, unlike other states where you just find the traditional orange sweet potato. We have the orange globe-shaped ones, but also have red, purple and white, in all shapes from round to oblong to long and skinny.

Red-skinned sweet potato

Why always candy-sweet?

I grew up with the traditional “candied yams” prepared for the holidays and frankly, didn’t much care for them. Whose idea was it anyway to put marshmallows on top? As I matured, I did grow to love baked sweet potatoes with butter and salt. I realized that I just didn’t like them candy- sweet since they have enough sweetness on their own. 

My family is not particularly enamored of this healthy, delicious vegetable so if I buy them and they tend to be forgotten and languish in the pantry until they become shrunken and disgusting. But they are so good for us that I really want to add them to our diets. They are superstars for Vitamins A and C, not to mention fiber and a host of other nutrients.  

Red-skinned sweet potatoes have white flesh

Found: the perfect recipe

So, in my spare time now, I’ve been investigating ways to prepare them in different ways, to get my family to eat them. I’ve found the perfect way, one my family is raving about: melted sweet potatoes. 

It’s quite simple actually. You simply slice and toss with seasonings of choice and melted butter. Olive oil will work, but the best flavor comes with a splurge of butter or ghee. Then you bake at a high temperature, turning once, and then finish with a splash of broth. The outsides are crispy-delicious and the insides are meltingly creamy. Voila! And if you really like the sweet aspect, you can drizzle them with maple syrup when they come out of the oven. 

Ready for the oven

Melting Sweet Potatoes

(also works well with white potatoes)

  • 1 sweet potato, scrubbed but not peeled, sliced ½ inch thick
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • ½ c. broth (vegetable or chicken)
  • 2 T. butter
  • 1 t. chopped fresh herbs (can be omitted, my favorite combination is sage and thyme)
  • Salt and pepper 

Preheat the oven to 475. Melt the butter in the microwave with the herbs if using. Toss the sweet potato slices well and put them in a single layer in a cast iron or metal roasting pan (don’t use glass). 

Roast 15 minutes until the bottoms are crispy and caramelized. Flip and roast 15 minutes more. Then add broth and roast another 15 minutes. 

Serve hot, drizzled with maple syrup, or sprinkled with crumbled feta or goat cheese.

Salad Dressings – refreshing alternatives

We are rolling into the high-calorie season of the holidays, and although I absolutely love all those calories, there are many times I want to dilute them somewhat and just have a simple salad. 

It’s so easy to grab a bottle of dressing, but it’s really just as easy, with a little forethought, to make your own. This way you avoid the salt, sugar, hydrogenated fats and preservatives so often found in commercially bottled dressings. Best of all, you have an endless array of choices for flavorings to suit whatever greens and veggies you want to use. 

Caesar doesn’t have to be used on Caesar salad

Parmesan peppercorn dressing with lemon thyme

There are as many types of salad dressings as there are salads. If a dressing is specific to a type of salad, like Caesar, you can make a delicious caesar salad. But you can also use it for a wonderful savory punch on any other kind of greens than the traditional romaine. 

Creamy dressings stand up to strong greens and salads with lots of ingredients. Vinaigrettes let the vegetable flavors come through and let sweet lettuces and mild cucumbers shine. 

Use a hand blender or shake in a jar

I find the easiest way to make and keep dressings is with a hand blender and a mason jar. If you like a chunky dressing, just put the ingredients in a jar and shake. If you like it smooth, blend it. Purchase plastic or save metal lids for mason jars and you’ll never be without a salad dressing jar. 

Creamy Dressing Base with flavorings:

  • 1 c. buttermilk
  • ½ c. sour cream
  • ¼ c. mayonnaise

Substitute any or all of these with pureed ricotta, cottage cheese and/or yogurt for a lighter dressing

Process in blender until smooth. Make a few hours ahead of eating to let the flavors blend. Store up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

Additions

Add some or all according to your tastes. Change as your tastes do. 

Option 1
  • ½ avocado, mashed smooth
  • ¼ c. chives
  • 2 T. lemon juice
  • 2 T. chopped parsley
  • 2 cloves roasted garlic, skinned and mashed 
Option 2
  • 1 ½ t. chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • pinch of cayenne
Option 3
  • 3 oz. blue cheese, crumbled
Option 4
  • 2/3 c. parmesan
  • 1 t. coarsely ground pepper
  • 1/4 c. chopped scallions
  • 3 T. chopped fresh dill
  • 1 T. chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 T. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 T. prepared horseradish
  • salt and pepper
Option 5
  • 1/3 c. red wine vinegar
  • 1/3 c. Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 T. chopped fresh basil
  • 1 T. chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 T. minced shallots
  • 1 garlic clove, minced

Vinaigrettes

Plan on half oil and half acid for any vinaigrette, your choice of which oils and which kinds of vinegar to use. There is a myriad of choices from olive, peanut and safflower oils to avocado, walnut and sesame oils. Vinegars vary from aged balsamic to red wine to apple cider to rice. Other acids include lemon, lime, orange and tangerine juices. For a lighter dressing, use only ¼ oil and ¾ acid with half of the acid being citrus juice.  Pour the acid and vinegar into a shaker bottle and add whatever ingredients sound good to you. And don’t forget the salt and pepper. 

Lemon dressing
  • 1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 c. olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 t. dry mustard
  • 1 T. chopped fresh herbs
  • 1 t. salt or to taste
  • 1/2 t. black pepper
Tomato Vinaigrette
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, seeded and peeled
  • 2 T. red wine vinegar
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 1 t. dried oregano
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste

Blend tomatoes and add the rest of the ingredients. 

Vinaigrette with carrot puree for fall salads
  • 1/2 c. apple cider 
  • 1 T. Dijon mustard
  • 2 T. minced shallots or onions
  • 1 T. sugar 
  • 1 T. cumin 
  • 1/3 c. cider vinegar
  • 1 cup roasted carrot puree (drizzle carrots with olive oil and roast at 375 until soft)

Combine ingredients through cumin in a heavy saucepan. Over low heat, simmer gently to thicken and reduce the mixture. Mix in the vinegar and puree. Serve over a salad of shredded apples, chopped walnuts and bitter greens. 

Sun-dried tomato vinaigrette
  • ¼ c. dry sun-dried tomatoes 
  • ½ c. boiling water
  • 1 c. tomato, seeded and chopped
  • 2 T. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • ¼ t. salt
  • ¼ t. pepper

Combine sun-dried tomatoes and boiling water in a bowl; let stand 30 minutes. Drain and reserve water. Chop sun-dried tomatoes. Combine ingredients in blender and process until smooth.

Asian Vinaigrette
  • small garlic clove, mashed into a paste
  • 1 T. soy sauce
  • 2 t. unseasoned rice vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
  • 1 t. lime juice
  • 1 T. honey
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 t. toasted sesame oil
  • 1 t. freshly grated ginger (don’t be tempted to use powdered – it really won’t taste the same. I keep whole ginger in the freezer and then simply grate it frozen – it keeps forever)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place ingredients in a mason jar and shake vigorously.

Cleansing Foods

Roasted kabocha squash and massaged kale salad

I don’t know how you are feeling these days, but I’m kind of overwhelmed by the rich foods and desserts from the Thanksgiving holidays. And I know the season of holiday savories and sweets will continue. I love these foods but sometimes my palate need something cleansing. At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to wax philosophically about massaged kale salad. 

Kale Salad

Kale is in its prime right now and I bought a large bunch at the outdoor market last week. I blanched half of it to keep in the refrigerator to toss into soups and my favorite, stir-fried rice and black beans. I chopped the other half into small pieces and massaged it into a large salad I can dip into when I need the taste of something crisp and clean. 

I like to massage the kale because it breaks down the tough fibers, making it so much more palatable than simply chopped raw kale. Mature kale leaves are pretty woody and this method takes away not only the fibrous texture but also some of the bitterness. I do take out the ribs and toss them in my bag of veggies for stock. Baby kale doesn’t have the woodiness so is preferable if you use it without massaging.

Kabocha winter squash

My favorite companion to massaged kale salad is roasted kabocha squash drizzled with chile-garlic oil. Kobochas used to be hard to find, but they are becoming popular with growers. Their small size makes them easy to use, and the buttery bright orange flesh is delicious by itself or in many different dishes. They are usually only about two pounds and come with green, gray-green or orange rinds. Many grocery stores are even carrying them now.

My favorite way to cook kabocha is to slice in half-inch-thick slices and then peel the slices. I toss them with olive oil in a roasting pan and roast at 375 for about 20-30 minutes, until quite soft. For the last 10 minutes, I drizzle with sambal oelek (garlic chile oil – found in the Asian aisle at the grocery) or sriracha for a hint of sweetness. This caramelizes the squash beautifully, blends nicely with the buttery squash flavor, and gives my taste buds a spicy kick. The squash needs absolutely nothing else but a sprinkling of salt to give you melt-in-your-mouth savory goodness. 

Massaged Kale Salad

One large bunch kale (laciniato preferred, but any kind will work)

1 t. salt

1 clove garlic, minced

1 T. olive oil

Juice of one half a lemon

Parmesan cheese to garnish

Remove the ribs from the kale. This can be done by grasping the end of the rib and stripping off the leaves. Discard the ribs. Roll the leaves into a “cigar” and slice into ribbons. 

In a large bowl, douse the kale with the olive oil, add the garlic and salt and begin to massage or crush the kale with your hands. This can only be done well with the hands, so get into it and enjoy it. Your hands will thank you for the olive oil massage. 

Once the kale is dark green and reduced considerably in bulk, squeeze the lemon juice over it. Adjust the salt, add pepper if you desire, and garnish with plenty of freshly grated parmesan cheese. You will find this irresistible!

Root Vegetable Medley

Root hash with a fried egg and sriracha sauce

I had a wonderful dish in a local restaurant shortly after I moved to Asheville. I subsequently found out that root hash is served in many restaurants here, with breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

Fresh parsnips

It was meltingly delicious, heartbreakingly full of umami, so I decided to duplicate it. This time of year root crops are plentiful and delicious – parsnips, carrots, beets, turnips and even radishes. All of these combine beautifully, and when roasted, they take on a subtle smokiness that softens their pungency. 

Carrots, parsnips, beets and garlic ready to chop

Use any combination of roots

You can use any combination of root vegetables, including potatoes and sweet potatoes. Apples give it a kiss of sweetness; onions give it a savory bite. And if you want to really go wild, add celeriac or parsley root. I have to say, the word hash conjures up a gloppy mess, a muddle or mess. Let’s call it a melange, medley, alliage, amalgam or even simply a blend. 

Prep work is key

The key to a good hash is to cut the pieces all the same size and shapes so they will cook evenly. And the smaller the better. It may seem like a lot of work to cut everything into ½” squares, but you’ll be happy you did when they come out of the oven perfectly roasted. 

Chopped roots ready to roast

Roast away!

Once your pieces are pared, you simply need to toss the vegetables with olive oil and minced garlic if you like. There’s no need to salt until they come out of the oven. Roast at 375. Stir them up and turn over a bit after 15 minutes and continue to roast for another 15 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork.

Root hash roasting

Root hash (medley) makes a delicious side dish in itself, or a main dish when sprinkled with feta cheese, toasted nuts and scallions. Pair it with a salad with a pungent vinaigrette dressing and a slab of sourdough bread. I love it topped with a fried egg. 

Roasted Root Vegetable Medley

2-3 cups cubed (½” cubes) parsnips, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, onions, celeriac, parsley root. Just about any combination is delicious. If using large beets, throw them into the microwave for a few minutes to soften them since they are denser than the other vegetables. Red beets will stain the hash, so golden or Chioggia beets will make a more attractive dish. 

2 T. good quality olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

Preheat the oven to 375. Toss the vegetables with the olive oil and garlic. Spread in a single layer on a roasting pan or cookie sheet with sides. Or use a cast iron pan as long as you can make only one layer. Roast about 15 minutes and then stir. Roast another 15-20 minutes until vegetables are tender when pierced with a fork and beginning to brown. Remove from oven and salt and pepper liberally. 

Grain Pilaf – Another quick meal

Millet, steel cut oats, wheat berries, tricolor quinoa, farro

We can all use a little extra fiber and nutrition in our diets, and grains are a delicious way to do this.

Cooked grains on hand make a quick meal

Brown rice and sauteed vegetables

I start my week by cooking a grain, any grain. I then have it in the fridge to use in soups, salads and my favorite, pilaf, for a side dish with just about any meal. There are as many recipes for “pilaf” as there are cooks. Pilaf (pilou is the British term) is technically an Indian or Asian dish of steamed rice with vegetables and meat. But you can make it whatever you want. It’s simply a grain with vegetables added, usually eaten warm but just as delicious at room temperature or cold. Cooked lentils or other beans make a great addition to pump up the protein levels.

Many, many types of grains are out there

The choice of grains is endless these days. You can get millet, quinoa, a plethora of types of rice, farro, Kamut, wheat berries, barley, triticale and umpteen other types. Many are available in bulk at market stores, so you can experiment with only a little bit at first to discover the ones you like. Kashi sells a box of mixed grains they call Seven Grain Pilaf. It has oats, brown rice, rye, hard red wheat, triticale, barley, buckwheat, and sesame seeds.

Grains and lentils

Some grains take an hour or more to cook although an instant-pot certainly shortens this time. When I’m in a time pinch and don’t have any cooked up in the fridge, I turn to bulgur, millet or quinoa which cook in twenty minutes.

Toast your grain

Before you cook any grain, toast it first. You will be amazed at the difference in flavor that a toasty browning gives your grain dish. Simply heat a non-stick or cast iron pan, drizzle with a little olive oil and stir in the dry grain. Stir over medium heat until the grain begins to brown, usually about 5-10 minutes. Then proceed with regular cooking. Use a heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid so you can cover if the directions call for it. After cooking, be sure to put on the lid to let it finish steaming.

For the simplest pilaf, start with your choice of cooked grain. Chop and saute any vegetables you want to add and mix with the cooked grain. Add feta or parmesan cheese if you wish and nuts, seeds and even dried fruit. Make it your own creation. You can have a different dish every night!

Bulgur with roasted vegetables and feta cheese

Bulgur Pilaf

(feel free to substitute your choice of cooked grain)

1 c. cooked bulgur
½ t. salt
1 T. olive oil
¼ c. diced onions
1 small clove garlic, minced
¼ c. diced sweet red pepper
¼ c. grated carrot
¼ c. grated parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Saute vegetables until tender. Mix with bulgur and parmesan; season to taste. Warm gently or serve at room temperature.

This chart is simply a guideline and until you are familiar with cooking a particular grain, keep a close eye on it. If it is too chewy for your taste add more water and cook a little longer. You can also use broth in place of water.

Grain (1 cup) water cooking time

Barley3 cups45 min – 1 hour
Brown rice2 cups1 hour
Buckwheat groats2 cups15-25 min.
Bulgur wheat2 cups15-20 min.
Cracked wheat2 cups25 min.
Millet 3 cups25-45 min.
Quinoa 2 cups15-20
Rolled oats 2 cups15 min.
Steel cut oats 4 cup30-45 min.
Wheat berries  3 cups1 hour, 30 min.


Instant meals

Chopped salad base with beets, green beans, walnuts and goat cheese

We all have to eat. And the higher the quality of food we put in our bodies, the better we will feel. In response to our very busy lives, meal subscription services have taken off in popularity. Despite the criticisms that they are expensive, have too much packaging, and don’t quite give you the choices you’d like, they are still a great way to get reasonably healthy meals without the planning. Grocery stores are beginning to carry instant, complete meals as well, both cooked and ready to cook.

Make your own instant meals

But, instead of paying high prices for ready-to-cook meals, how about making your own. They will be fresher and certainly taste better. It just takes planning, and even if you don’t consider yourself a cook, you can learn to prepare fresh wholesome meals without a lot of prep time or a lengthy list of ingredients. Cooking can become an interesting part of your life instead of a chore. 

Planning is key but keep it simple

Planning is always the hardest part, but if you get in the habit of going to the market once or even twice a week, whether farmers market or grocery, it’s not so hard. Simply purchase whatever vegetables look freshest for the week. Or grow your own. Maybe you take a day on the weekend and prep everything. And most of all, keep it simple. Save the elaborate meals for when you have time on the weekend to spend more time in the kitchen.

Pantry basics

First, make sure to stock your pantry with basics so you don’t have to purchase herbs, spices and seasonings every week. Here are some staples to start with: 

  • Good quality olive oil
  • Balsamic and cider vinegar, rice vinegar and mirin if you like to cook Asian
  • Sea salt
  • Black pepper for grinding
  • Onions
  • Maple syrup – try to find grade B. Deeper flavor, less expensive
  • Fresh garlic
  • Grains: rice, quinoa, other grains you love
  • Pastas: couscous, orzo
  • Broth – chicken, vegetable, beef, bone
  • Canned beans of your choice – garbanzos, pintos, black, navy

Seasonings on hand

Seasonings: chili powder, cumin, dried basil, smoked paprika, garlic powder

Perishables

For perishables, keep basics on hand such as ricotta, plain yogurt, cheeses of your choice. 

Chopped Salad

Broccoli, plentiful this time of year is a good start

Let’s get started with this chopped salad. Shop and prepare it on the weekend, and use it through the week for a quick healthy lunch or dinner side.  

The key to this salad is to make the base of any vegetables that will hold up for a few days after being chopped. 

  • 1 c. finely chopped broccoli
  • 1 c. finely chopped cauliflower
  • ½ c. slivered brussels sprouts
  • ½ c. chopped sweet peppers
  • ½ c. grated carrot

Mix and put in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

When ready to eat

Take out a half cup of the chopped salad and add onion, cucumber, nuts, dried fruits, seeds, cheese or any other ingredient that you have in the fridge. You can add cooked chicken, rice or even leftover pasta. Different ingredients can make it a totally new salad every day.

Dress with your favorite vinaigrette or creamy dressing. Or, simply brighten with a splash of lemon, lime or orange juice.

Chopped “salad” in stir-fry

Or, make a stir-fry

Even though the recipe is for a fresh salad, you can also stir-fry the mixture. Add protein of choice to make a complete meal.