One of the questions I ask myself all the time as a vegan is what do I eat?
I have a shelf full of cookbooks, many of them vegan, but I still find myself standing in front of the refrigerator at dinnertime, starting to get hungry, asking myself what I’m going to prepare for dinner. I don’t want to get excited about a recipe and find out that I’m missing two of the ingredients and all the stores are closed for the night and did I mention I’m hungry?
So I’ve developed recipe patterns: meta-recipes1, if you will. My go-to pattern for dinner is this: pick a grain or starch. Mix in vegetables and sauce/condiments. Enjoy.
A lot of recipes fall into this pattern. Fried rice is white rice plus cubed carrots/peas/onions plus a bit of garlic and soy sauce. Pasta primavera is wheat pasta plus asparagus/peppers/carrots plus a light oil-based or cream-based sauce. Back when I lived in the US and had access to a Trader Joe’s, I loved to mix their Harvest Grains blend with kale/mushrooms/onions/peppers for a one-dish meal. A great vegetarian curry is couscous plus potatoes/carrots/mushrooms/pineapple and a sauce of coconut milk plus curry spices.
But the nice thing about meta-recipes is that you can mix and match combinations based on whatever you can dig out of your pantry and/or depleted refrigerator. Here are some ideas.
- White or brown rice
- Pearled barley
- Pasta, fresh or dried
- Ramen noodle blocks
- Soba or udon noodles
- Fresh rice noodles (if you can get them from an Asian grocery)
- Mashed or roasted potatoes
I use whatever fresh vegetables I have on hand. You can also find tasty items in the back of the pantry or fridge to add a special kick to your dish:
- Dehydrated or canned mushrooms
- Sundried tomatoes
- Frozen corn
- Sliced tofu
- Cashews or walnuts
Here is where you get to be creative. For a Chinese-style dish, try mixing some soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and a touch of oyster sauce. For Italian flavorings, try opening a can of tomato sauce and adding herbs like basil, oregano, and fresh garlic. For a Thai peanut sauce, try peanut butter with soy sauce, lime juice, ginger, garlic, and cilantro. Or try mixing up a curry with a base of vegetable broth, curry powder, cumin, and cornstarch or flour for thickening (I admit I still haven’t developed a recipe I like for curry; I usually cheat and use curry blocks). I like to look in cookbooks and see their sauce combinations to get ideas for new flavors.
Here are some of the sauce ingredients I keep on hand:
- Soy sauce
- Hoisin sauce
- Fermented soy bean sauce
- Oyster sauce2
- Sushi vinegar, rice vinegar, apple cider vinegar
- Shaoxing rice wine
- Tomato paste and premade tomato sauce
- Garlic, ginger, scallions
- Sesame oil and sesame seeds
- Coconut milk
- Vegetable boullion cubes and dashi soup packets2
- Peanut butter
Example: Sesame soba with vegetables
I made this last Thursday night when I got home around dinnertime and didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about dinner. Ingredients:
- Two small bundles of soba noodles (130g each)
- 1 head of broccoli
- 2 small yellow onions
- 4 radishes
- 1 red pepper
- 1/2 can button mushrooms
- 1/4 head of cabbage
- 2 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 Tbsp mirin
- 1 Tbsp sushi vinegar
- 1 Tbsp sesame oil
- 1 Tbsp sesame seeds
Set a large pot of water to boil while you prepare the vegetables. Once the water is boiling, add noodles and cook as directed on the package (typically 5-7 mins).
Meanwhile, chop the veggies into bite-sized pieces and sauté them in batches, grouping together those with similar cooking times (onions with peppers, cabbage with radishes). I parboiled the broccoli in the pasta water. And the canned mushrooms are pre-cooked, so I added them at the end since they only need to be heated through.
When the noodles finish cooking, drain the water and put the noodles back into the big pot. Add the cooked vegetables and the sauce ingredients, stirring to combine. Sprinkle with sesame seeds.
Next time, adjust the flavorings until you like what you taste. This dish also tastes good cold the next day!
I hope you enjoy this meta-recipe! What other ingredients do you stock on hand for your own meta-recipes?
1. Technically speaking, neither oyster sauce nor dashi soup packets are vegan. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place where you can get vegan versions of those items, I envy you. For me, if a dab of oyster sauce is the only animal protein I eat all week, I will count it as a successful week.