Meal Planning

I’m not by nature the most organized person in the world, I admit. But I have come to realize in my adult life that a certain amount of planning and routine gives me freedom and greater room for creativity. This is something I continue to struggle with in my artistic practice, but I think I’ve mastered it when it comes to food.

The first step for me is to have a well-stocked pantry and freezer. I always make sure to have certain staples around: whole wheat flour and pasta, oatmeal, brown rice, lentils, split peas, and usually a couple other kinds of beans and grains too, plus canned tomatoes and pumpkin puree. A few other things that are somewhat more perishable include onions and garlic, potatoes, and sweet potatoes. In my freezer, I keep plenty of frozen fruits and flax meal for my morning smoothies. I also like to have frozen greens like spinach, peas, corn, and some kind of vegetable blend. Sometimes I store tortillas or an extra loaf of bread as well.

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All of these things on hand make it easy to throw together a quick meal after work or on a weekend morning. For example, I can toss brown rice, lentils, and sweet potatoes in a pot with onions, frozen spinach and spices and have a delicious stew in less than an hour. Or split peas and potatoes, plus onion, carrot, and celery (other staples in my fridge!) I can make a breakfast hash with sweet potatoes, onions, and greens. I can improv a soup with frozen vegetables, pasta or potatoes, and some canned tomatoes. Spaghetti sauce comes together quickly with garlic and canned tomatoes. A baked potato is a great foundation for some steamed greens and leftover beans or lentils, or a spoonful of hummus. Frozen vegetables can be boiled with pasta and tossed with sauteed garlic or a little thinned out hummus. The combinations are endless. If nothing else, I can always rely on a hot bowl of oats, either sweet or savory.

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Favorite meal: Baked potato with hummus and spinach

The other important plan-aheads I do ensure I have healthy meals during the day at work. Every weekend, I prepare a big pot of something (usually a hearty soup or some variation on beans and rice) to pack for lunch every day. I try to have enough to last through Wednesday at the very least, when I ought to have time to come up with something else. Whenever possible, I also plan a snack for some point during the day – an oatmeal bar and some fruit, usually. Sometimes it’s cut up veggies and hummus.

I also prepare my morning smoothie ingredients on Sunday night. I’m kind of brain dead in the morning until after I’ve had my coffee, so I have idiot-proofed my breakfasts. I put my ingredients for each day into an old take-out container: Greens or chopped beets, flax meal, 1/2 banana, and 1/2 cup of berries or other fruit. Sometimes I include a plant-based protein powder, but I don’t think it’s totally necessary. Then in the morning, I can just dump it into my smoothie cup, add almond milk to cover, and blend it up to take with me on the bus. I’m also experimenting with blending up a big batch of smoothie and freezing it in individual cups, but the timing hasn’t been right with the thaw just yet.

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Two blueberry and kale, two mango and parsley, one strawberry and lettuce.

With a little planning and careful shopping, I can be sure to have healthy meals at my fingertips all week long. The more healthy whole foods I have around, the less processed junk or expensive take-out I am likely to eat. The busier I become, the more important this is! Especially now that I’ve gone from working 6ish hours a day to a full 9 hours. Please let me reward you with my current favorite smoothie:

Tropical Beet Smoothie

Ingredients

1/2 a medium beet, cooked, peeled, and chopped

1/2 cup crushed pineapple in juice (or a little more if you use chunks)

1 small thin-skinned cucumber (about 5″ long), in chunks

1 Tbls chia seeds

Juice of one lime

1/2 cup or so of unsweetened coconut milk (the kind in a carton, not a can)

  • Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Depending on your blender, you may need to add ingredients one at a time, or use a little more milk. My old Cuisinart blender probably couldn’t have handled this, but I got a Ninja for my birthday and it makes quick work of the beets and cucumber all at once!

 

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The remains

The Nine to Five

For a long time I really didn’t understand why so many people had such a hard time eating healthy food.  I got up every morning, ate a bowl of oatmeal or leftover soup for breakfast, and later cooked a big batch of something for lunch and packed a portion up for dinner at work.  Once or twice a week on my night off, I’d make a nice dinner for my manfriend, complete with dessert (usually something decadent from Chocolate Covered Katie).  I mean, yeah, I snacked on popcorn or crackers after work most nights, and would have a beer or some chocolate if my shift was stressful, but all it took was a little time and planning to make mostly healthy choices.  I secretly thought that the rest of America was just lazy.  Sorry guys.

This was my routine for years, from the time I was a Brooklyn nanny working after school, to when I moved to Pittsburgh and took an evening shift call center job. I usually worked part-time and although I didn’t have many evenings free to be social, I did have a lot of time to cook and experiment in the kitchen. Fast forward to this February, when I accepted a new position at my job that requires me to work mostly during the day.  I have some flexibility, but it’s a basic Monday through Friday, 9am-5pm job.

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This is Annabelle. I wish she liked cooking from this book as much as she likes eating the cover.

My routine is entirely different now and I don’t have it all figured out yet.  I get up every morning and make coffee and a big green smoothie.  I was beefing it up with a great protein powder from Arbonne for a while, but that’s not currently an option for various reasons, so now I’m adding oatmeal and a handful of almonds to give it staying power.  Lunch at work is usually leftovers or some basic grain/bean/veg combo, the usual stuff I make, although I do occasionally succumb to ordering in.  And dinner is where I struggle.  No matter what I eat for lunch or if I take an afternoon snack, I seem to always come home half-starved and ravenous.  So I snack.  Popcorn, cereal, leftovers, junk food…and by the time dinner time rolls around, I’m too full to cook (a reverse from when I got home and was too hungry to cook).  So I skip dinner and around 8 or so I realize I don’t have anything to take for tomorrow’s lunch and hastily throw a meal together.  It’s usually curried lentils or split pea soup, both of which I’m horrifically bored with, by the way.

I get it now!  This is why people don’t cook all the time.  You’re too tired and you forget to soak the beans before leaving for work and you end up making ramen and scrambled eggs for dinner or ordering sushi delivery, and then don’t pack a lunch and order Chipotle at work then next day.  I get it, I was totally spoiled.  So that brings me to this question:  What do we do about it?

Seriously, what are your strategies for cooking healthy meals on a busy schedule?  Share your wisdom with me, internet friends!

Here’s another picture of my bunny to reward you for your tips:

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Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew

Earlier this week I got a happy little surprise at work:  a $40 gift card for Giant Eagle for doing a good job!  I don’t live near a Giant Eagle, but just a short bus ride away is a fancy-shmancy Market District one.  I’ll just be honest here and tell you that I spent well over $40.  There were so many things!  Bulk bins full of seeds and beans and spices!  Some of the prices were on the high side, but there were also plenty of things I wouldn’t be able to get at my local Shop N Save like red lentils, wheat berries, fennel seeds, and coriander.  It was very exciting.  The sale items were great too, like $.89/lb for kale and collards and $.99 boxes of mushrooms.   By the time I had gotten through half the store (didn’t even get to the frozen foods), I was starving and had to quickly come up with a hearty, guest-worthy dinner for two that would cook up fast since I turn into an angry beast when I get hungry. Inspiration struck in the maze that was the produce section, so I stuffed my canvas bags to the brim and hauled them home on the bus with a little help from my handsome man-friend.

Dinner was to be baked potatoes, sauteed beet greens, and this red lentil soup.  All chosen for ease and speed of cooking.  I turned on the oven and started the water boiling before I even unpacked the bags.  While the lentils simmered, I chopped the sweets and onions.  Once the sweet potatoes were in the pot, I sauteed a shallot for the greens and washed them well (beet greens are impressively dirty).  All the while, russets were baking in the oven.  Altogether, the entire meal took less than an hour to prepare and we were satisfied before I got too hangry.

This is a warm, filling stew that is perfect for crisp autumn weather.

Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew

Ingredients:

2 cups red lentils

2 medium onions

1 large or 2 medium sweet potatoes

1 bay leaf

1 inch piece of fresh ginger

Spices:

I think I used about half a teaspoon each of cardamom, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, turmeric, red pepper flakes, and smoked paprika.  Use what you have.  Curry would also be good in this soup.

Salt and pepper to taste

1.  Start by bringing a large pot of water to a boil, with the bay leaf in it.  Once it’s boiling, add the lentils and simmer.

2.  While the lentils are cooking, peel and finely mince the ginger and add it to the pot.  Then peel and dice the onion and sweet potato and add them.  Put in all the spices, 1/4 teaspoon at a time.  Let it cook a little longer before adding an additional 1/4 tsp or more of all or just some of the spices according to your taste.

3.  Simmer the whole thing for about 40 minutes beginning to end, or for as long as it takes for the lentils and sweet potatoes to soften and the spices to blend.  This is even better leftover because the flavors continue to develop, so feel free to double it to eat all week.

Note about the spices:  If you have the time and feel like dirtying another pan, toast the spices in a skillet over medium-high heat for a minute or so before you add them to the stew.  They taste better that way.  I was too hungry to think about it at the time, but it really does add to the flavor of the soup.

This stew is pretty hearty and would be great served with pitas and a green salad rather than baked potatoes and cooked greens.

Christmas Dinner: Celery Root Gratin

Merry Christmas!  What’s on your dinner table?  I made this, from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.

Delicious and nutritious, just like all holiday meals should be!  This gratin can also be made with parsnips, if you can’t find celery root for a good price.  I think that makes this the first recipe on this blog that actually includes parsnips 🙂

Brussels Sprouts

I have long had a love affair with lightly steamed brussels sprouts dipped in dijon mustard.  At some point, I learned to roast them into crunchy goodness in the oven.  A few weeks ago, I discovered Dijon Roasted Brussels Sprouts.  From there it was only a short step to replace the agave with pure maple syrup.  Try not to eat them all yourself.  Or do!  Cruciferous vegetables are very good for you.

Maple Dijon Roasted Brussels Sprouts

Ingredients:

1 stalk of brussels sprouts, trimmed, large ones halved

1 tsp oil

1 1/2  Tblsp pure maple syrup

1 Tblsp dijon mustard (Use a smoother one, like Grey Poupon, if you have it; it will stick better than the very grainy Trader Joe’s mustard I used here)

salt and pepper to taste

1. Whisk together the oil, syrup, mustard, s&p.

2.  Toss the dressing with the sprouts.  Spread on a baking sheet.

3.  Bake at 400 for 20-30 mins, until the sprouts are golden brown and the leaves are crispy.

Enjoy!

Baked Tofu

Tofu is one of those tricky foods that we enjoy so much when it is deep-fried in our pad thai, but when we try to make it at home, it is often bewildering and intimidating. What to do with this wiggly white block?

Bake it.

Beyond your basic scramble, this is the easiest, simplest way to enjoy tofu. You’ll get a chewy outer coating and silky insides, perfect for chopping into a salad or stir-fry, or even on a sandwich. Plus, it takes very little effort, so if you have the oven on for something else, you might as well throw a few slabs of tofu in there.

You can see I sampled the final product.

Ingredients:

1 block of tofu, firm or extra-firm

soy sauce, or other thin sauce of choice (my mom has barbecued it successfully!)

salt and pepper, or other seasonings (skip the herbs, they burn)

1. Slice the tofu lengthwise into slabs. I made three this time, about 1/2″ thick. You could slice it the other way too, if you want. Thickness is up to you, just be sure to reduce the cooking time if you make very skinny slices. Blot dry with paper towels; no need to be super thorough here.

2. Place the slabs on a baking sheet, either non-stick or sprayed lightly with oil. Brush with soy sauce; you don’t need much. I squirted a little on each and spread it with my fingers. Then sprinkle with salt and pepper if desired (I used Slap Ya Mama of course)

3. Bake at 425 for 30-60 minutes, until a light golden crust has formed. No need to flip them, the bottoms will brown too.

Enjoy! I chopped some of mine into cubes and added them to an eggplant salad. Maybe I’ll share that recipe another day. The remainder will be a yummy sandwich tomorrow.

Lentil Curry Burgers

I may have perfected the Penny Parsnip Patty today.  Me and Dorothy (the food processor–we cook up a storm!) whipped these up this afternoon.  They’re my first lentil burger, and the first I’ve tried to make by machine.  It went well!  Give these a try:

Lentil Curry Burgers

Ingredients:

2 c cooked lentils, well drained (regular brown or green, NOT red)

1/2 c rolled oats

1/2 c cooked brown rice (use up those leftovers!)

1 medium onion, quartered

2 cloves garlic

1 Tbls curry powder

1/2 Tbls cumin

1 Tbls fresh parsley

Salt and pepper to taste (I used some Slap Ya Mama)

1.  Start by toasting the spices in a dry skillet over medium-high heat for about a minute, stirring occasionally, until they are fragrant.

2.  Combine all ingredients in food processor and pulse until you have a nice thick paste.  There should still be some small chunks.  Be careful!  A friend warned me recently that he over-processed some bean burgers and ended up with soup.  Alternatively, you could mash by hand, mincing the onion and parsley beforehand.

3.  Let the mixture rest for a few minutes, then shape into patties.  I make mine about 1/2 c in size. Much bigger than that and they fall apart when you flip them over.

4.  Let the patties rest a few minutes, then heat a non-stick skillet over medium-high and brown the patties, 3-5 minutes for each side.

Eat up!  These would be good with some chutney (I’m working on something) or yogurt sauce, if you eat yogurt.

Train Food

I’m posting from the Ethan Allen Express on Amtrak, traveling from NYC to Vermont. Since you can’t always be sure that there will be healthy or satisfying food on the train or at your destination, I like to pack a meal when I travel. Amtrak tells me there is a vegan burger in the snack car on this train, but I don’t trust it to be any good, or cost-effective for that matter. Add to that my recent memory of a friend having eaten an Amtrak hamburger and promptly throwing it up, I further resolve to never eat the food produced on these trains.

I had to use up some veggies before I left town, so here I sit with the little container of delicious I cooked up this morning. You could use fresh garlic and ginger in the sauce if you wanted to, I just didn’t have any lying around.

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It is hard to take a good photo with a cell phone on a moving train.

Sweet Potato, Tempeh, and Mustard Greens with Peanut Sauce

Ingredients:

1 large sweet potato, diced

1 medium onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1/2 cake of tempeh (I like Trader Joe’s, which is only $1.79 and made from a blend of soy and grains for a milder flavor)

1 bunch of mustard greens, coarsely chopped

Sesame seeds, optional

salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large deep skillet, heat about an inch of water over high flame. Add the sweet potatoes, cover, and simmer for about 10 minutes.

2. Add the onion, tempeh, and pepper and saute over medium heat until the onion is soft, adding a little more water if necessary.

3. Put the mustard greens in the pan. They’ll take up a lot of space at first, but don’t worry, they’ll shrink down a lot. Cover and let them steam a few minutes, then gently stir, cover again, and let them wilt completely.

For the sauce (amounts are approximate; please taste and adjust accordingly!):

3 or 4 Tbls tamari or other soy sauce

2 Tbls apple cider or rice vinegar

2 Tbls smooth natural peanut butter

1 Tbls maple syrup or honey

1 tsp mustard

1 tsp chili powder (could use a pinch of cayenne if you like things hot!)

1/2 tsp powdered ginger

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1. Whisk together all ingredients until well blended, then pour over the hot vegetable mixture, stirring to coat. Top with sesame seeds and some black pepper, if you like.