When we are on the go, Healthy Cooking often seems an impossibility, and the logistics of healthy cooking quite impractical. We all find ourselves, occasionally and sometimes not so occasionally, in situations that bring us apart from the comfort of our kitchens and the amenities that surround us daily: a vacation week, a business convention, a year away in college, even a week under the weather. All too often, a quick look at the room we end up in makes us think our meals will consist of very meager pickings for the next few days or weeks (or months: Yikes!)
Not surprisingly, I am constantly asked the obvious question: what made me choose cooking, and more to the point, healthy cooking, as a profession? At the risk of sounding sentimental, I would answer without hesitation that it was the relentless tinkering that took place in my college room that did it, and here’s why: I didn’t know it then, but I was getting the most valuable training, when still a teenager and a few lean years beyond: I was an accidental artisan training in a rarefied environment, with none other than myself as the young but exacting improbable master, equipped with a set of tools that seemed designed more to tie your hands behind your back than to help you hone any skills: an almost unimaginably low budget; the scantest and most rudimentary utensils (one leaky gas range, 1 battered skillet, one warped pot, one overheating toaster, one cracked blender, and very little else if anything); a room so cramped that if your toast went a shade beyond dark, the dorm security crew would be pounding at your door; no knowledge of food and cooking other than the inescapable memories of modest but fabulous home meals prepared daily by my mother (the original and enduring master!)
I trust you get the picture. There’s only one missing link in the chain I have described, and it’s the link that provides the answer: No matter how much of a pauper I was, never having ever eaten any junk food, I knew that food had to be nutritious no matter what, and that nutritious food needed not be expensive. To this day, when we are away and even when I am feeling lazy or harried, or when I get surprise guests, I go for broke and pretend I have only a handful of ingredients and utensils to cook with. I don’t premeditate any part of these meals, and go shopping with a blank slate in mind, preferring to see what zero-maintenance produce and groceries I will find first. And believe it or not, the results are a real feast. No chopping, no frying, no prepping whatsoever. What will strike you is certainly not that the cook was working on a shoestring budget, but how the integrity of the flavors comes through and how satisfying they are.
As I am sharing the following my quick and healthy cooking “creations” with you, I am also sharing the fond memories of what made me a cook: they are among my favorites to this day. When going shopping, only the freshest, and unprocessed or very minimally processed (short ingredient list means less or no junk). No recipes to speak of, more like all aboard and ready in no time. Since my college friends used to clamor for these offerings, they all come ample enough to serve 8 to 10 guests.
I have just given a cooking demo on just this subject, to a nice group of happy campers, and here is the whole dinner:
In a medium sauce pan on a medium flame, cook 1 cup steel-cut oats (or any other medium-ground whole grain: bulghur, coarse cornmeal, buckwheat etc…), 3 cups water, 2 cups milk, rice milk or soy milk, 1/2 cup maple syrup, 1/2 cup golden raisins, 1 diced green apple if you’d like, 1 tablespoon cinnamon, a handful flax meal, good pinch salt. Stir occasionally and cook about 10 minutes. Stir in a little more water or milk if you like it thinner.
Throw in a pot, placed on a high flame: 2 1/2 quarts (10 cups) water, 1/3 cup olive oil, 1 15 oz can drained chick peas, 1 15 oz can drained red beans, 1 15 oz can drained lentils, 2 10 oz boxes frozen puree butternut or other red squash (or 1 large can 100% pumpkin), 1 quart jar marinara sauce, not too much salt, a little pepper, a little oregano, a little turmeric. Bring to a boil, then cook another 20 minutes.
If you have very little on hand: place in a large skillet: a little olive oil, tilapia or other thick-fish fillets fillets, fresh or frozen straight out of the freezer, a little water a few drops lemon juice, salt and pepper. cover and cook about 10 minutes. Or, a little more elaborate but almost as quick, add to the above: thinly sliced plum tomatoes, thinly sliced zucchini, frozen or fresh sliced shiitaki, cover and cook 10 minutes.
Place in a stainless steel or glass bowl: One cup couscous, or bulghur, or barley couscous, or brown rice couscous (if you are on a gluten-free diet), one cup boiling water, a little salt and pepper, and mix. Cover tightly with foil and let the mixture rest and swell 10 minutes, then fluff it with 2 forks. Eat as a side dish, or use in salads.
Prewashed salad greens, and any quick additions of your choice: couscous, chick peas, chopped nuts, toasted seeds, sliced olives, diced tomatoes or tiny grape tomatoes. Dress the salad with a mixture of olive oil, cider vinegar, salt and pepper.
Dessert: Chocolate Oats Pots de Creme
Bring to boil in a sauce pan: 1 cup old fashioned or steel-cut oats, 1 cup coconut milk, 4 cups water, 1 tablespoon instant coffee powder, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, good pinch salt. Lower the flame and cook 10 more minutes. let the mixture cool, and serve it at room temperature
Snack or side dish: Sweet potatoes
Place a few unpeeled medium size sweet potatoes in a plastic bag, tie the bag and microwave 12 minutes, or a little longer if needed.