In one of my cookbooks, written by an acclaimed Chinese chef, he writes about his confusion about how Western children can be fussy when it comes to eating vegetables. All his mother had to do, he explains, was to sprinkle sesame seeds over them, and he and his sister would clean their plates every time.
The basic characteristics of a good diet are that it contains no more calories than you need, offers those calories in a healthy way, is high in necessary nutrients (fiber, protein, unsaturated fats, and much more) and finally, tastes good enough to eat every day. It’s no use eating breakfast and lunch that’s good for you but bores you to tears, then ordering a pizza for dinner each night. That having been said, many dietitians recommend that you eat whatever you want one or two days a week – it will help keep life interesting, and the effect on your body is really not that bad, as long as you watch what you eat the rest of the time.
Cooking healthily is like repairing a diesel engine or steering a sailboat, impossible until you understand the principles and know how to apply the techniques. With this knowledge and a little practice, you will be on your way in no time.
Half of learning how to cook is really learning how to taste. Sample everything you make, and learn to adjust the balance of salt, sweet, and sour until the result is to your liking. Following a recipe is a good start, but differences in regional ingredients and individual tastes mean that the best final product will always be the one tweaked to your preference.
Too much sodium (meaning salt) is not very good for you. One way to use less of it is to buy kosher salt, which tastes saltier than the table variety. Another way is to make food interesting by imparting big, bold flavors that don’t need salt to shine through. Mastering this skill will allow you to prepare quick, simple vegetable dishes instead of wasting time on complicated courses that rely on cheese, meat or fat for their flavor.
The easiest way to start doing this is to experiment with lemon juice. Regardless of whether you’re grilling a steak, sautéing a chicken breast or stir-frying vegetables, just a few drops of lemon juice brings out the flavor while using no more than a few pinches of salt.
Understanding what seasonings are available and how they work will also allow you to prepare tasty vegetable dishes that both save time in the kitchen and augment the quality of your nutrition. Eating more vegetables, and a greater variety of them will never be unhealthy. Try the following simple recipe to see what herbs and spices can do for you:
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 large zucchini, 2 tomatoes, 1 large red onion, one yellow pepper, all cut into largish chunks
- half a teaspoon each of salt, black pepper, cardamom seeds, chili powder, dry ginger and ground cumin
Cleaning and slicing the vegetables should take the average cook no more than two to three minutes. Heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a saucepan, fry the spices for a few seconds to release their flavor, and just dump in the vegetables. Keep frying on high heat, occasionally stirring, until the zucchini slices are cooked but still firm. If you had been cooking a chicken breast or piece of fish in another pan while doing this, and perhaps had some new potatoes getting ready in the microwave, you would have taken less than a quarter of an hour to prepare a full, balanced, hearty meal.
Salads are some of the simplest dishes to prepare and can either form a meal on their own or complement a more robust main course. Most of the work involves cutting the ingredients; if you buy them already sliced, it’s mainly a question of tossing everything together.
Vegetables such as celery, spinach, carrots, and lettuce contain almost no calories but are extremely high in valuable nutrients. If you want to eat the salad as a full meal, you can add some protein in the form of cheese, chicken or tuna fish. There’s no rule stating that all salads have to be based on leaves of some sort: try using cooked lentils as a base, or simply leave out the lettuce. Some mixed steamed or quickly boiled vegetables can be a wonderful salad, whether served warm or cold.
Textures, and mixing them, is an important part of cooking and doubly so when trying to make the perfect salad. Adding a few chewy nuts or crunchy croutons can make all the difference. If you find that your salads always turn out bland, there are some hacks to work around the problem. The first thing to try is to add one or two ingredients to serve as a highlight for the others, such as crumbling in a small amount of bacon or adding a protein like smoked turkey breast. Often, however, an uninteresting salad is the result of being too timid with the dressing.
Firstly, the dressing can magnify the impact of the different flavors, or just leave them dull and disappointing. Any salad dressing that you buy in a bottle, no matter how fancy the name sounds, is likely to contain a great deal of sugar, salt, and saturated fat, so it’s better to avoid these. Learning how to make a few delicious dressings will improve your salads a hundredfold.
The first trick is simply to use enough dressing! An overdressed salad is an astringent monstrosity, but one with hardly any sauce at all is just a collection of raw vegetables. The second important point is to invest in a shaker, or at least a glass jar with a lid that seals tightly. Shaking your dressing (as opposed to stirring it with a spoon) breaks up the oil into tiny droplets that can mix with the other ingredients, called homogenization, while other ways of mixing leave them separate.
Basic Vinaigrette: 2 tbsp red wine vinegar, ½ tsp salt, some pepper, 1/3 cup olive oil and 2 tsp good quality mustard. Feel free to add some dried or chopped herbs of your choice.
Ranch Dressing: 1 cup Greek yogurt, ½ cup buttermilk, 1 tbsp dried parsley, 1 tbsp dried thyme, 1 clove garlic and 1 tiny onion chopped as finely as you can, 2 tsp mustard, 1 tsp salt, black pepper to taste and the juice of half a lemon.
Honey Mustard Dressing: 2 tsp honey, the same amount of Dijon mustard, 2 tbsp lemon juice, ½ cup vegetable oil, a pinch of salt and 2 tsp dried thyme.
Oriental-Style Dressing: 1/3 cup olive oil, 2 tbsp sesame seed oil, ¼ cup vinegar, 1 tsp garlic powder, 2 tsp dry ginger, 2 tbsp soy sauce, and 1 tbsp honey.
There are many other types of dressing you can try, but having a repertoire of three or four will enable you to vary flavors from day to day. All of them are as simple as dumping a few ingredients into the shaker and shaking them together, and can be stored in the fridge for up to a week.
Learn How to Present Food
Our first impression of a plate of food is almost always visual. If it looks pretty, we will convince ourselves that it tastes better than it really does, and if it looks like boiled sludge…well, you get the idea.
Take a moment to imagine some green beans cooked in water until their color has just turned a deep and vibrant shade, leaving them tender but still crispy, served with chunks of feta cheese. Served this way, it’s a nice side dish. However, if you mix in a few strips of red bell pepper and toss with just a little-melted butter to make the surface glossy, you have something you would happily pay for in a restaurant.
Arranging food on a plate or serving dish in the most attractive way requires some artistic talent, but making any effort whatsoever will reap benefits. Here are a few tips on getting started:
Combine Different Colors
Aim for some height. You could, for instance, arrange stir-fried vegetables into a little dome, and then let that be the support for a pork chop pointing up at a 45° angle. This is not only more visually appealing than everything lying flat side by side but makes the portion seem larger.
Use garnishes. You don’t need to go overboard and spend ten minutes arranging each plate, but dropping a lemon wedge next to a piece of fish and a sprig of parsley over it takes no time at all while enhancing the dining experience significantly.
Decorate the table. There’s a Swedish proverb along the lines of “flowers go onto the table before food” which bears some thinking about. If the environment in which we eat were not important, half the restaurants in the world would go out of business tomorrow.
Broaden Your Ingredient Horizons
You may just not like kale or be able to spell quinoa, but part of healthy eating is to adopt the habit of variety in your food. Carrots and spinach are both healthy, but if those are the only vegetables you eat because you’ve never learned to cook anything else, you won’t be ingesting the full range of nutrition your body requires.
Beans, especially dark beans, are a wonderful source of fiber, plant protein and some important nutrients. They also cost next to nothing, especially in dried form. It really is a pity that many people don’t like them just because they’ve never tasted them cooked properly. This is in no way difficult and requires little work – you don’t have to stand there watching them while they soak or simmer, after all.
Animal fat isn’t all that good for you, but of course, the fattier cuts of red meat are the easiest to cook with. Learn a few tricks to prepare leaner cuts more quickly without sacrificing taste, figure out a few time-saving dishes with skinless chicken, and definitely learn how to prepare fish.
Most importantly, learn how to use vegetables. This food group is perhaps the key to healthy eating, and how to prepare them quickly and correctly remains a total mystery to many people. Some, like spinach and beet leaves, don’t need to be cooked at all, while others, like cauliflower and artichokes, require special attention and aren’t the best options for when you’re rushed.
Plenty of less healthy ingredients you’ll see listed in recipes can be replaced by something that’s better for you.
Lard, Margarine and commercial mayonnaise are things you should really never eat. Use vegetable oil, butter, and sour cream instead. If a recipe calls for fresh cream in a sauce, try using milk and flour to thicken it instead: 4 teaspoons of flour dissolved in each cup of milk. Heat it on the stove, frequently stirring, until it thickens.
Many deep-fried foods have a near equivalent that can be done in the oven with half the calories, for example, potato wedges in place of french fries or baked breaded chicken that doesn’t need to be drowned in oil.
There are few recipes that call for white flour that can’t be made with wholewheat instead, which is no more effort but much, much healthier.
Soups and stews can be both healthy and delectable, and making a gallon is not really more work than making a cupful. So, when you do have time to cook, make a large amount and freeze what you don’t use right away in portion packets. You’ll be very glad you did the next time you come home late, and you can always vary the impact by throwing together a side salad or quickly grilling some veggies.
For most of us, learning how to cook will be a lifelong journey. If we accept the additional requirements of serving the healthiest food we can, on a budget and without having to spend an hour in the kitchen each weeknight, the learning curve becomes even more difficult, but the rewards even greater. Every new trick we learn extends our grasp and makes our next kitchen adventure easier and more interesting.