Healthy vegetarian meals with few ingredients
While all travel has pretty much ground to a halt and we’re asked to stay at home, I’ve been trying to stay healthy and cook healthy vegetarian meals with few ingredients to minimise my shopping. Here in Germany, every one waited with baited breath for 19th April – to have the “no contact” restrictions extended for a further two weeks. While we have done fairly well in comparison, given our high infection rates and low death rates, I do not expect life to return to normal. Far from it.
We are lucky that there are no strict curfew rules other than you must keep a safe distance. Only two person are allowed to be out in public together, more if you can prove you live in the same household. I go out for work every day and could theoretically shop every day, but I limit my shopping to once a week. Perhaps one more quick visit to a nearby supermarket to buy bread if we run out. I pick up groceries for a neighbour at the same time I do my own shopping. Still, plenty of family or couple trips to the supermarket here. And while I really appreciate you may not be able to leave your small kids alone at home of you are a single parent, I really don’t get the couple trips out to the supermarket.
So I thought I’d share some of my cupboard staples and how I manage to cook healthy vegetarian meals with few ingredients with my once-weekly grocery shop. Even if rules are relaxed, I will keep shopping trips to a minimum for the time being – we’ll only know the impact of relaxation of current distancing rules a few weeks down the line.
You get most in a good supermarket. In our case, we expected more severe measures in mid-March and bought a few supplies from a large Turkish supermarket which was at the time extremely well stocked.
My favourite Turkish supermarket sells good quality chickpeas in very large packages. So I always make sure I have a couple of kg in the house. They usually have a shelf life of over a year. And although I like my fresh vegetables organic, I am somewhat less selective when it comes to dried goods.
The medium grind is the most all-purpose one, ans that’s what I normally buy. Again, a kg bag or two is plenty. If you cannot find bulgur, you could try couscous.
We just want to make sure we never, never run out of olive oil! I like to have a bottle or two of good quality extra virgin oil which goes into prepared dishes or salads only. I have taken to using a different (cheaper) olive oil suitable for frying or coconut oil if I want to fry at higher heat. That’s because of the low smoke point olive oil has – but low or medium temperature shallow frying should be okay with any type of olive oil.
Another bulk buy. Here I get the organic, unhulled sesame seeds and look for special offers – about 2 Euros for 500g if I’m lucky.
Nuts in their shell work best. If you can get walnuts in their shells somewhere, they will keep for years. Otherwise, any whole nuts like walnut, hazelnut, pine nut, cedar nut, even peanuts. Buy them unroasted and roast when you need them
Beans (any kind, dried or canned)
Tomato passata or tinned tomatoes and/or tomato puree
I find plain passata works best with what I am cooking, and I look for organic more than any particular brand
Yup, I got that too. It was on short supply for a little while here as people started bulk-buying longlife goods! I’ve tried the bronze-die artisanal types, but the most common variety found in many supermarkets is de Cecco, which I like very much and always have a couple packets at home.
Spices and Herbs
Again, a well-stocked spice rack is indispensable. There is no need to have tons and tons of spices, but good quality spices are important!
Salt and Pepper
I’ve take to trying to buy organic Tellicherry peppercorns. I also brought some Cambodian Kampot pepper home when I stayed in Kampot, which lasted for well over 5 years. Other than that, trial and error, but I would always try to buy organic pepper.
Garlic and ginger
I try to buy them fresh. They keep in the fridge for several weeks if kept dry.
Dried herbs (Oregano, thyme, basil) of fresh
You don’t need them all. There are recipes that call for a specific herb, but I find they taste fairly similar in their dried form and I would rather buy a packet of the best quality rather than a variety. Also, they don’t age that well, so just buy what you need. I try to have some fresh herbs, too. I grow my own rosemary and sage – these two are pretty easy to cultivate in pots big enough in a sunny spot even on a windowsill, and so does basil
A Middle-Eastern spice that you usually find in Asian supermarkets. I tend to buy mine on holiday, preferably the dried sumac berries. I just used up some I bought in Istanbul five years ago. You have to separate them from the kernels in a food processor, which can be a bit messy, but buying them whole rather than ground means they have a longer shelf life. But I bought plenty of ground sumac, too, and use it up in a year or two. On my last trip to Jordan, I found that local supermarkets had huge loose spice sections, and bought a lot of spices there, as well as some (more expensive) one in the market.
Another spice that hails from the Middle East. I like to buy them whole, and either use a food processor or a mortar and pestle.
Paprika and Chili flakes
A “nice to have” and in our house, another holiday souvenir!
What I look out for when shopping for healthy vegetarian meals with few ingredients
Right now, as I only do a “big shop” once a week, I basically look for what’s fresh and seasonal. I always make sure I have some potatoes at home. And apples – for dessert. I sometimes make an apple crumble from just apples, raisons, a bit of flour, butter and sugar, and oat flakes of I have them.
Tomatoes, peppers and cucumber always goes in my basket, along with some green leafy salad. If there are radishes, they go in too, as they zest up any salad! Same for some lemons and carrots – they liven up so many dishes.
Then I look for good quality veggies at reasonable prices! My favourites are broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and aubergines. If I have eggs, I buy a big celeriac and turn it into schnitzel. Right now, asparagus is beginning to come into season. I bought lots of really nice green asparagus, which I pan fry in olive oil with a bit of garlic
Then, on the now rare occasions I go to an Asian supermarket, I look for bundles of fresh mint and flat leaf parsley, as well as flat bread. I regularly freeze the bread. If I am out of mint and flat-leaf parsley, I use frozen parsley except for tabbouleh. No fresh herbs, no tabbouleh…
My inspiration cook books
Beware! I rarely cook anything strictly by the book, and a lot of the recipes in these call for lots of different ingredients.
Yotam Ottolenghi’s books probably serve as my top inspiration. I first bought “Plenty” because it is a vegetarian cook book. Then I liked it so much and was so pleased when I got “Plenty More” as a birthday gift.
I also like “Every Grain of Rice”, a Chinese Cook book, the emphasis being on “simple”. This sadly has rather a lot of meat in it, so I will need to substitute a lot with tofu or whatever vegetarian protein I have at home.
And.. last not least, a true classic I had in my cupboard for a long time, is “Sundays at the Moosewood Cafe” which is also mostly vegetarian and a good all-round basiccookbook
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The winter flu Bulgur Fry
I first made this when ill with the flu what seemed like most of February. I had some leftover cooked bulgur, from making tabbouleh (see below), and I thought if you can fry rice, you can sure fry bulgur. So, I tossed some garlic and chopped carrots in a pan with olive oil added cooked bulgur, fried it for a couple minutes, then added some green or red pepper and a few cubes of feta cheese. Topped it with fresh mint and parsley, stirred, added salt and pepper. a great meal in five to seven minutes. At some point, both me and my husband were really ill, but one of us would always summon enough energy to go into the kitchen and cook this.
If the bulgur needs to be cooked, then just put a cup of bulgur in two cups of water, bring to the boil, turn off the hob and leave for 15min. Aside from the ingredients above, some aubergine and courgette will work well, too, or small pieces of broccoli.
My easy Hummus and falafel combo
I lump these together because both require that you soak the chickpeas for about 24 hours. When I cook this, I use about 250g chick peas for 2 people for either dish, of 500g if I want to make both which will then be plenty for 4 people.
If you want to make falafel, there is no need to boil the chick peas after soaking. For hummus, boil the chick peas with a pinch of baking soda for 20-30 minutes. Check frequently – the baking soda makes them soft really fast!
Now, with the chick peas nice and soft, set a few aside to decorate. Then put them in a food processor with about two table spoons of tahini, salt, a clove or two of garlic, a glug of olive oil, and a few pinches of cumin. And process. A stick blender will also so but a food processor makes the hummus smoother. Usually I need to add water at this point. I read somewhere ice water makes the hummus fluffier, so I add ice water. And I must admit,t he hummus does become nice and whippy like that. Then I put it in bowls, top it with oil, and the whole cooked chickpeas. Sometimes I put some dry roasted pine nuts on top as well. Apart fromt eh 30-min cooking, a very fast easy meal!
I always thought I cannot make falafel at home because I don’t have a deep fryer. Some early attempts fell apart but once I used raw chickpeas, my falafels come out beautifully! Again, you need a stick blender or food processor. Put the soaked uncooked chickpeas in there with salt, cumin, pepper and a few cloves of garlic. If I have any green herbs like mint or parsley (fresh or frozen) they do in too. Adding a bit of baking soda makes them fluff up. And I use a table spoon or two of plain flour as a binding agent. Blend, then form little balls. I shallow fry mine in coconut oil. Any falafels that I don’t fry I freeze and fry them later!
The full-of-important nutrients fattoush
Another favourite first tasted in Lebanon – I think this is where my love of Middle Eastern Cuisine stems from! I first take one flat bread from the freezer, break it onto little pieces, pour some olive oil and salt into a frying pan, stir and slowly roast it at a low to medium setting, stirring frequently. The flat bread croutons become really crispy this way! I make a dressing from a lemon, a few garlic cloves and add oil to taste.
I chop a green leafy salad like romain/cos, slice a bunch of radishes, chop some tomatoes, cucumber and pepper, add, salt, pepper and mix. Before serving I liberally sprinkle sumac on it and top it with my flatbread croutons. If you use plenty of croutons, this makes a whole meal and is still reasonably healthy!
And while we’re talking salad…
Greek salad is a default staple. IN fac,t one of my first blog posts is about Greek salad – but in all honesty you need no recipe to assemble one! And while we’re here… a highly nutritious tabbouleh salad that will keep for a day or two is easy to assemble.
When there is a fresh basil for sale, I but it and make my own pesto! You really just need three ingredients, olive oil, and salt! I use pine nuts, cedar nuts or walnuts, just over one third. Same amount of basil. I chop both my basil and nuts because I don’t like pesto that looks and feels like a green mush. Sightly smaller amount of Italian hard cheese. I tend to use quality organic Parmesan cheese. Sadly, parmesan is never vegetarian, because as it uses animal rennet. Gran Padano and pecorino, other Italian hard cheeses suitable for pesto, are also made with animal rennet. Looking for Parmiggiano Reggiano alternative made with vegetarian rennet is one of my aims to eat less “hidden” animal products.
Then I just boil some spaghetti or whatever pasta I want and mix in the pesto.
There are plenty recipes online for pesto made with wild garlic and rucola but I never tried them.
Is where I made great progress with non-dairy sandwich spreads! It all started when I wanted to make hummus, but the small town I lived in had no ASin supermarket to buy tahini. I did, however have a packet of sdewsame seeds, so after a quick look through some recipes, I dry roasted the sesame in a frying pan, added salt and olive oil and stick-blended it into a spreadable paste. After this, Ihave not bought a bit of tahini ever again. It is so easy! I make a batch of tahini from about 250g of sesame seeds and put it in a jar I immersed in boiling water (to reduce bugs), put some oilive oil on top and that tahini sits int eh fridge happily for 2-3 weeks but usually it gets eaten way before! I love to have it on bread and have greatly reduced my use of butter and cheese!
And while we’re making permutations of salad, if you manage to get some walnuts, how about using the same method to make a walnut paste? You can roast the walnuts in a pan without oil or leave them as they are. Then you can make a wonderful crunchy Georgian Salad – similar ingredients to Greek Salad but a somewhat different taste.
Other quick and healthy vegetarian meals with few ingredients
These are my favourites! I must admit I have a selection of about 10 meals I cook on rotation. Anotehr favourite is making mashed potatoes from scratch, then serving them with broccoli that I pan-fry in olive oil , then toss in some breadcrumbs. Pan-frying broccoli is the bees knees! I also pan-fry by brussel sprouts with a bit of chili and garlic, too.
I have a rotation of Chinese-inspired meals, too – just garlic, fresh ginger and chili fried, then I add some Chinese mushrooms and pak choi /tofu and aubergine/ aubergine and broccoli then braise with vegetarian oyster sauce or mushroom sauce.
And I make a nice chili with vegan mince, with passata and lots of beans and carrots! Usually it’s dark by the time I cook, so no photos of chilli.
And while I’m at the mince-tomato sauce, I might make a bechamel sauce and make lasagna (with pasta sheets) or moussaka (with aubergines).
I often oven-roast potatoes with olive oil and garlic cloves and some fresh rosemary from the garden – just add whatever fresh vegetables there are.
So, where’s the home baking?
I apologise. While I am a fairly competent cook, I suck at baking. I can make simple sugar cookies, a Bundt cake, a German-style yeast dough cake topped with fruit and streusel. And I can make a pretty good crumble and tiramisu, although tat probably doesn’t qualify as ” proper baking”. Like so many people, I am thinking of making my own sourdough bread once I can procure a decent amount of flour so I don’t need to go to the shops to buy fresh bread so often. But baking tips? Look elsewhere, folks, please.
The cost of cooking healthy vegetarian meals with few ingredients
Since I do all our shopping at present, I have found it quite easy to keep tabs on our food expenditure. Not taking into account the occasional cocktail and our once-weekly restaurant takeaway, our food spending is no more than 70 Euro per week. That’s 5 Euro per person per day! That even includes treat like chocolate (my favourite is a cheap dairy-free mint bar) or an occasional supermarket bottle of wine. I must add, though, that we purchase 90% of our wine online or bring it from holiday, and I also buy our coffee beans online. That adds a maximum of 10 Euro per week.