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.

Triage or Rescue Cooking

So what do you do when you have too many vegetables? Whether you have a CSA membership that provides a box every week with more than you can possibly eat. Or your garden is providing a plethora of tasty produce that is inundating your fridge. Or friends offer extras from their own gardens. How do you avoid wasting?

My answer is to roast! Whenever I have loads of extra chard, mushrooms, leeks, onions, zucchini and eggplant, instead of succumbing to feeling overwhelmed, I toss them all into a roasting pan.

Red and yellow tomatoes, onions and garlic

Make delicious soup

It is amazing how combining roasted vegetables of all types with plenty of onions and garlic turns them into savory creations. I like to roast until everything is quite soft and then purée with a little stock if necessary. Freeze the pureed vegetables to use later as a soup base or pasta sauce. Or, to make a hearty one-dish meal immediately, add some evaporated or coconut milk, chopped sauteed vegetables of choice, cooked beans and/or cooked grains or pasta. A great result of this process is that the sauce never quite tastes the same.

A sauce made of mostly tomatoes is great for traditional pasta sauce. Sauce with spicy chiles added makes a good base for chili.

It’s easy to adjust seasonings according to your tastes. Add basil and oregano for an Italian twist; add cumin and chili powder for Mexican; add marjoram, a hint of cayenne and basil for Mediterranean.

Here’s a recipe, but be prepared to change and adapt according to whatever vegetables you have on hand.

Tomato Glut Sauce

Film a large roasting pan with olive oil and cut up about six pounds of tomatoes – this is a great time to use those that have blemishes or splits because you can simply cut that part away. Chop and add one or two cups of whatever vegetables are coming in at the time such as onions, carrots, zucchini and Swiss chard.

If you plan to use a food mill, you don’t have to take out tomato cores. If you plan to use a food processor, core the tomatoes before cooking. You can also blanch and peel and/or seed the tomatoes if that’s your taste. Throw in several cloves of garlic, some sprigs of fresh thyme, oregano, basil, parsley. Splash with balsamic vinegar and roast for about an hour. The sauce will cook down and lose a good bit of moisture, and the vegetables will start to caramelize. Run through a food mill, salt and pepper to taste, and use immediately or freeze.

Or to be more specific:

6 lbs. tomatoes, cored and quartered (if you don’t have tomatoes, you can use canned pureed tomatoes)
1 ½ c. coarsely chopped carrots
1 ½ c. coarsely chopped celery
1 ½ c. coarsely chopped onion
9 cloves garlic, chopped
6 T balsamic vinegar
1 bay leaf
1 ½ T fresh thyme, oregano, basil, parsley
1 ½ t. salt
1 T. pepper

Roast 45 minutes or until vegetables are soft. Process briefly to leave slightly chunky, freeze. Makes 2 quarts. You can use any combination of vegetables and herbs – each batch of sauce comes out a little different.

Potager or Kitchen Gardens

Red and green lettuces planted with violets and swiss chard

What exactly is a kitchen or potager garden? In essence, these trendy terms basically describe a garden filled with vegetables, herbs and fruits. All food gardens are technically kitchen gardens, but this term is often used for a garden planned for beauty as well as function. 

Potager garden

peas, radicchio and calendula flowers

Kitchen gardens have been around for hundreds of years. The French call it a potager garden, coming from the word potage for soup. Faced with usually small garden spaces, they have learned to grow enough vegetables to feed their families. And flowers to cut for the table. 

Cottage garden

British cottage gardens include ornamental plants combined with all manner of vegetables, fruits and herbs. They’re filled with lettuce, chard, sweet peas supported on twig trellises, and plump cabbages that are beautiful in their own right. Add the herbs such as purple leaf basil, lemon thyme and garden sage for cooking delectable dinners.

A kitchen garden can be precise and orderly, blowsy and tangled, or even a garden made up only of containers. But the effect is the same – vegetables and fruits grown with flowers and herbs, limited only by your imagination.

Lettuces and mesclun in rows for a potager garden

This type of garden is not used so much for large-scale production, canning and putting away for the winter, but more for immediate use in the kitchen. It can range from a small hanging basket of oregano and lettuce outside the back door to a full garden with roses, shrubs and perennials coupled with vegetables and herbs. Fruits and edible flowers certainly have a place here as well.

Why plant a kitchen garden?

We are usually inspired to start a kitchen garden because we want to taste fresh food that’s not available at the market. There is nothing quite like picking and tasting your own ripe, perfumed melon or warm raspberries right off the shrub. Greens such as arugula, radiccio and mesclun are rarely available from the grocery or farmers market, but are amazingly simple to grow. Heirloom squash and beans are easily be grown in the home garden. 

Radiccio

The freshest food

We all love having beauty around us – that’s generally why we garden in the first place. Edible plants can be artistically combined with ornamental plants to create a beautiful garden that pleases eye and palate. 

Some vegetables that lend themselves to a smaller space garden: 

The vegetables

Green beans – Come in green, purple and yellow types, in bush or pole types which produce later in the season. Plant scarlet runners, purple and yellow wax beans together on a trellis for all spectacular accent. 

Haricots verts

Eggplant – These delicious fruits come in every color and shape imaginable, from white to yellow to striped lilac to red to black, and in oblong, round and cherry-tomato sized. The compact plants make beautiful accents with striking purple flowers, dusky green-purple leaves and jewel-like fruits.

Kale – This nutritious vegetable comes in a myriad of sizes, colors and leaf textures. Unlike the familiar flowering kale, the new varieties are sweet and tender, and come in all shades of blue, purple, pink and red. Best of all, they produce all summer.  

Winterbor kale, pretty as any flower

Lettuce – there is no end to the colors and textures, not to mention the countless types of greens mixes. These make beautiful bed edging and thrive in baskets.

Batavia lettuce

Pepper – Peppers come in all colors, shapes and sizes, jewel-like fruits hung on ornamental plants. Choose orange, red, white, purple or brown bell peppers, scarlet cayennes or jalapenos, tiny upright mirasols, rich golden bananas and cubanelles or even tiny but potent maroon scotch bonnets. 

Cayenne peppers

Tomatoes – Grow cherries on trellises or patio tomatoes in the ground or in containers. There are methods to prune and pinch and train them onto a single stake, taking up much less room than in a tomato cage. 

Classic Salad Niçoise

This salad is a classic French dish and can be adapted to any seasonal vegetables and your favorite vinaigrette. Add edible flowers like calendula petals, nasturtiums or violets to make it pop.

Your choice of vegetables: 

sliced steamed baby potatoes 

green beans

artichoke hearts

small cooking onions or scallions

hard boiled eggs

tomato wedges

sliced sweet peppers

grated carrots

cooked edamame

shredded beets

olives

capers

Set in rows on a bed of bibb; drizzle with vinaigrette of choice. 

You can also add seared tuna or grilled flank steak. 

Simplicity

Bright Lights Swiss chard

I don’t do resolutions. But I do love the idea of a fresh start for some things in my life. So, here is my resolve for all of us. Just start.

I’ve been reading so many gardeners’ and cooks’ resolutions that my head is spinning. But the one thing that seems a common thread through all of these is the desire for simplicity. 

I’ve touted this for years, that simple gardening and simple cooking will bring us back to the garden and kitchen in a restful, pleasant way. And if it becomes meaningful or artistic, all the better. But mostly, we just need to start. Start small, start easy and most of all, don’t pressure yourself to create a masterpiece. 

Gardening

For gardening, perhaps it means getting two pots, filling them with soil and planting lettuce. When the lettuce is done, plant carrots. Or a pepper or a tomato. If you are successful (meaning you get something on the table, even a simple salad), then ask yourself if you want to go further with your garden.

Bowl full of Batavia lettuce

Cooking

For cooking, try this: 
Chop a sweet pepper, a sweet onion and a small zucchini or a couple of leaves of chard. Saute them in olive oil until tender, season to your liking, and serve over cooked rice or pasta. Simple! And delicious. Cooking doesn’t have to be hard. And, you can always embellish as your heart leads you.

Sauteed peppers and greens

For a bigger challenge:

Saucy Greens

1 small bunch of Swiss chard or other greens

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ c. onion, sliced

1 T. olive oil

1 T. balsamic vinegar

1 t. Sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

½ c. chopped tomatoes

2 T. sour cream or plain yogurt

1 T. sriracha sauce if desired

2 large eggs if desired

Rinse the greens liberally and remove tough stems. Stack the leaves and roll them into a “cigar” and slice thinly. Add garlic and onion to olive oil in heavy pan and saute until tender. Fry eggs in separate pan if you intend to use them. Add greens, vinegar and sugar and saute about 5 minutes until greens are tender. Turn off the heat and stir in tomatoes and sour cream or yogurt. Salt and pepper to taste.

Most of all, have a wonderful 2020 and don’t be afraid to play!