My mother would talk to me while we did the family food shopping. Never buy food that comes pre-wrapped or pre-cut, she would say. It’s not fresh; it will taste flat. She went from farmers’ market to farmers’ market, shopping only where she could touch, feel and smell the vegetables and fruits where she knew the food was fresh. I tell you this not to reminisce, but to illustrate that shopping for the best ingredients your wallet will allow adds pleasure to thinking about and preparing your meals…not to mention eating them!
Natural cooking seems to be shrouded in mystery, reputed to employ strange, exotic ingredients cooked in bizarre ways, like stirring in a clockwise direction while standing on one foot under a full moon. As funny that sounds, you know I’m right. The fact is you can purchase most basic whole foods in your neighborhood supermarkets. You may need to supplement your weekly shopping with occasional trips to a natural foods store, but for the most part, you can find what you need to cook and eat well just about anywhere. Stocking your pantry need not be a safari.
How to Stock Your Pantry
In larger supermarkets and gourmet stores, you’ll find a wide variety of whole grains and grain products, like brown rice, barley, oats, polished rice, corn grits, cornmeal, whole wheat pastas and whole grain flours. Even buckwheat (kasha), couscous and bulgur wheat can be found in gourmet sections of markets. Dried beans abound in supermarkets, everything from lentils, to chickpeas, to black and white beans, to split peas and kidney beans, even tofu. And while these foods may not always be organic (as much as I prefer that), they will nourish you and yours quite nicely.
You also don’t need to go on a quest to purchase good-quality oils and condiments. Most supermarkets carry extra-virgin olive oil and other cold-pressed, unrefined oils. Nuts and seeds are readily available. You can even find good-quality ketchup, mustards, pickles, spices and herbs. Just read labels and try to avoid foods with preservatives or any chemical ingredient that you can’t pronounce!
In terms of seasonings, my advice is to make that trip to the nearest natural foods store. You always want to use the best-quality seasonings, especially salt and salt products like miso and soy sauce. For your salt, you will want to choose a white, slightly moist, unrefined sea salt over any commercial brand. Why? Sea salt is simply dried from the sea, with all its nutrients intact, while commercial brands have been chemically processed to ensure pour-ability and re-enriched with minerals that were stripped away during processing. I must also confess to a deep love for pink Himalayan salt as this delicate quarry salt is delightfully gentle in both taste and effect in the body.
Soy sauce is a naturally fermented soybean and salt condiment. Commercial brands have been artificially processed and colored resulting in nothing more than another processed food. Natural soy sauces, on the other hand, have been traditionally fermented, ensuring that the salt and soybeans have been completely broken down for better digestion and superior taste. Miso can only be purchased in natural foods stores or Asian markets. In the case of any soy product, look for organic to avoid GMO soybeans. And if you have gluten sensitivity, you can find a very good quality gluten-free soy sauce in just about any natural food store.
The fresh produce sections of most supermarkets are like Disneyland now. The demand for fresh fruits and vegetables makes it the culinary darling of the supermarket. Here, you will find all you need to create delicious meals; most supermarkets do an admirable job with organic and locally grown produce. Skip most of the packaged products (seriously, salad in a bag? When did we get too busy to buy a head of lettuce, rinse it under water and hand shred it?). Go for the freshest looking seasonal fruits and veggies you see, organic wherever possible. And skip all the exotic stuff that has to travel far and wide to get to your table. You don’t need them nor does the planet need the heavy footprint that comes with these exotics.
Organic grains, beans, and produce not only taste better (really!), but they retain far more of their vital life force than other foods, more of their vitamin C and minerals than commercial fruits and veggies and so are superior to standard fare. Choosing certified organic products is a way in which you can also avoid eating foods laced with pesticides and fungicides. We have enough pollution to deal with; we don’t need it in our food.
And don’t even think that you can’t afford organic fruits and veggies. The demand has grown so much that prices have fallen very close to commercial brands. And with new studies showing that pesticide levels in our blood are higher when we eat commercial produce, organic takes on more meaning than just our wallets.
But be brave little one. Becoming familiar with your neighborhood natural foods store has its advantages as you become comfortable with a new, more natural way of life. There is a whole community of people to consult for help, support and all manner of information. Many natural foods stores sponsor cooking classes and product demonstrations and provide recipe handouts to familiarize people with products.
If you choose to dive into healthy cooking (and I hope you do), you’ll need to stock your refrigerator with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, of course. But you’ll also need a few other staples in your pantry to get started.
A well-stocked pantry that can ensure plant-based success includes:
Whole grains never to be without:
- Short-grain brown rice
- Pearled barley
- Corn grits
- Oats (whole, steel cut and rolled)
A variety of dried beans, including:
- Cannellini (white kidney beans)
- Split peas
- Black beans
Finally, stock your cupboards with good quality condiments:
- Organic soy sauce
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Cold-pressed sesame oil
- Extra virgin avocado oil
- Sea salt
- Organic herbs and spices (basil, dried chilis, sage, thyme and rosemary)
- Barley or brown-rice miso
- Umeboshi vinegar
- Brown-rice vinegar
- Red wine vinegar
- Balsamic vinegar
- Apple cider vinegar
- Brown rice syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Pure vanilla extract
- Organic whole wheat pastry flour
- Organic nuts and seeds
Stock your fridge with lots of fresh, seasonal veggies and fruit and make sure you always have the foundation ingredients on hand: onions, garlic, carrots, celery, leafy greens, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, salad ingredients and whatever else you love.
With these basics you can walk into the kitchen at any time and create a simple yet delicious meal in no time. A well-stocked pantry allows you to grocery shop without a plan, to buy what looks freshest, to purchase on instinct—with your appetite—and plan your meals accordingly because you know you’re prepared with the essential ingredients to construct a meal.
One last note on your pantry: Shop online for some of the hard-to-find ingredients and make your life easier. You can stock up and not worry about searching. Go to christinacooks.com and check out our store; Gold Mine Natural Foods in California; and Natural Lifestyle Supplies in North Carolina.
Equipping Your Kitchen
Any kitchen, from tiny spaces with barely enough room for a cutting board, to gadget-laden, spacious culinary heavens, pours forth nourishment based on the cook who works in it. The kitchen is where food is literally transformed. The warmth and love that exist in this room make us who we are. All it takes for any kitchen to be productive is organization and order.
Whether a novice in the kitchen or a seasoned chef, you will need a bit of reorganization to make a smooth transition to plant-based cooking. First, clean the kitchen thoroughly. This kind of ritual will help you create a new atmosphere of respect for yourself and the food you will be preparing. And besides, there is nothing better to work in than a clean, orderly, pleasant environment. I personally find cooking to be much more relaxing when everything is in its place.
Create a space in which to organize your ingredients. Empty a cabinet or pantry section to accommodate your dried foods. Create a place where your foods can be organized together, making your job easier. Store dried foods such as grains and beans in glass jars with good seals to maintain their freshness. As much as possible, keep your ingredients close at hand so that looking for ingredients while cooking doesn’t cause you stress. I have found it easiest to keep like ingredients together—all the grains on one shelf in the pantry, beans in their own section, condiments and oils all together; everything is easy to locate.
Lucky for us, plant-based cooking requires very few fancy appliances (unless you love them). The best cookware is stainless steel, cast iron, stoneware or porcelain-covered cast iron. Aluminum and nonstick cookware are not your best choices, in my opinion, since there are conflicting studies about their safety.
The most important tool you will need to cook easily and well is a great vegetable cutting knife (choose stainless steel, carbon steel or my favorite, ceramic). Add to that a sharpening steel, a large wooden cutting board, a colander and a strainer. Pots that you will find indispensable include a large soup pot, a pressure cooker (for grains and beans), a heavy pot for cooked dishes, a large and small skillet (stainless and cast iron) and a couple of medium and small saucepans.
Rounding out your basic equipment list are wooden spoons of various shapes and sizes (like my gorgeous spoons from Jonathon’s Spoons), spatulas, whisks, a vegetable peeler, a ginger grater, a steamer basket, a wok, mixing bowls, measuring cups, a food processor, a food mill and any other kitchen gadget that makes you feel comfortable.
Putting It All Together
A bit of planning can take away the anxiety that often surrounds meals and meal plans, especially when you are new to a style of cooking. Let me walk you through a typical day in my kitchen to show you, from my perspective, how just a bit of forethought can make cooking a part of day to day life.
A lot has changed for us since Christina Cooks so many years ago. Our day still begins early, around 7:00 a.m. in the morning. My husband loves making breakfast (I do not. I like eating it!). A typical breakfast is usually a simple meal of a soft, cooked porridge-like grain, with or without vegetables, with lightly stewed or steamed vegetables as a side dish. On other mornings, there will be scrambled tofu, English muffins, pancakes, but always, always a side dish of lightly cooked vegetables. Once the meal is cooking, Robert jumps in the shower and gets ready for the day, while I put the finishing touches on breakfast and plan lunch for the office staff—sometimes leftovers from dinner the night before can be turned into a soup or stew, veggie burgers or hummus sandwiches, tempeh or tofu salad will be the main course and then a simple, freshly cooked vegetable dish or salad rounds out the meal.
After breakfast, the day begins with both of us going nonstop. After a full day, it is off to the gym for an hour or more with my trainer and then home to get dinner on the table.
I arrive home around 6:30 P.M. Before I even think about cooking for us (remember, I spend my days cooking and teaching ending at the gym), I take a quick shower to help wash away the day and calm my nerves so that I can cook with a clear mind and relaxed heart. The last thing I want to do is incorporate any stress from my day into our evening meal, the time of day we unwind and relax together.
The average dinner in our home begins with a simple soup of fresh vegetables often with beans and grains. Our main meal will include a grain dish of some type—brown rice, millet with vegetables, barley stew, corn polenta with a simple sauce or whole grain pasta with a sauce or vegetables. Since we both train so hard, there is always protein in our evening meal, in the form of tofu, tempeh, beans or a bean soup. I round out the meal with a simple vegetable dish: either a root vegetable stew, fresh steamed greens, oven-roasted winter squash and onions…and always a fresh salad, regardless of the season.
Variety is most important to me, as it’s the key to vitality. However, I don’t have the time to cook seven or eight dishes each time I prepare a meal. While I might only prepare soup, grain, and one or two other dishes, they always incorporate different ingredients and different cooking styles to ensure that we eat a wide variety of foods and get adequate nutrients as a result. This way, it doesn’t matter how simple the meal is; I can rest easy knowing we get variety and proper nutrition for our lifestyle.
Preparing an average dinner in my home usually takes forty-five minutes to an hour, time well spent in my opinion. When we are properly nourished with good-quality food, freshly cooked, we become much more adept at handling all the adventures life throws at us. When planning menus, I combine a variety of ingredients in simple dishes to make sure that we get what we need to stay healthy and strong, choosing from all that nature has provided…whole grain; beans, tofu, or tempeh; and a variety of seasonal vegetables, drawing from leafy greens, root veggies, and sweet ground vegetables and fresh salad ingredients.
Leftovers and cooking ahead play a small, but important part in my cooking. I prefer to cook food fresh as much as possible, but I do not discount the value of having a container of cooked chickpeas, lentils, or other beans to use as a base to create another dish. And bean soups always seem to taste better the next day. Leftover grains can easily be re-steamed or cooked with fresh vegetables to create a quick, simple stew or stir-fry. And I never underestimate the value of tofu and tempeh as bases for quick protein dishes. Dinner can come together in a matter of minutes with some leftovers as your starting point.
For most of us, cooking daily for 45 minutes is not a luxury we have so try some of these quick tips to ensure plant-based cooking success:
- Cook 1-2 types of soups at a time and freeze them in portioned containers. This allows doe variety and ease of meal prep.
- Cook 2-3 varieties of beans and freeze in portioned containers so you always have beans on hand. This allows for freshness, less use of resources (no cans) and you know what’s in them because you cooked them. And the best part is you can saute some veggies, add the frozen beans and water and have soup in minutes!
- Slice and dice a variety of veggies when you have some free time and freeze them in containers or sandwich bags so you have them when you’re ready to cook. A great time-saver and your veggies stay fresh.
- Use leftovers creatively: as the base of a soup or pureed into a creamy pate or dip. Always add a fresh dish to your meal if using leftovers to maintain your vitality.
Finally, breathe in and out. Relax; you’re making dinner, not creating world peace…or are you?
Lead Image Source: Enric Martinez/Flickr