It’s no easier for me, as a chef, than for anybody else– to decide what to make for dinner at home. If anything, it’s more difficult, having too many options! I notice, however, over time, many of the same plant-based dishes naturally appear again and again at my table. We are creatures of habit, after all.
The Big Three
Every week there is at least one Italian dinner on my menu. Depending on time and motivation the dishes will range from simple pasta marinara or a quick flatbread pizza to something more labor intensive like lasagna or BAKED ZITI
The main flavor is provided by the savory, sweet red garlic and herb SAUCE combined with vegetables and some kind of protein. This could be TOFU RICOTTA or housemade ITALIAN SAUSAGE from the freezer or Gardein meatballs. Even chickpeas. Whatever.
Pasta is optional. Zucchini spirals or slices are a great base for Italian dishes, or a big bed of lettuce mix. Polenta is easy to make and works quite well, too.
If you’ve ever visited Taco Bell you know there are endless variations on the theme of beans, corn and tomatoes. Cheap and filling, these pantry staples never let me down in terms of pulling together a hot meal in no time.
Tacos, Burritos, Quesadillas, Chili, Nachos. Think Chipotle restaurant, but way, way cheaper in the long run.
When I have time at the beginning of the week, I will cook up a pot of dried beans, usually pinto or black beans, season the cooking water well with salt and let them cool in the water to infuse them with flavor. You could also add garlic, cumin, whatever. A pot of rice cooks up in a few minutes. With beans and rice as your foundation–what can’t you do??
If that’s not enough, cook up a skillet of TACO MEAT in just a few minutes, sprinkle in some frozen corn, cooked rice, beans, diced tomatoes, scallions–hey, be creative! Tempeh makes a great crumble substitute if you grate it on a large-holed box grater.
A good SAUCE or salsa helps to pull everything together, so don’t forget to either buy or make one! You won’t miss the cheese!
I like to vary these selections between traditional Chinese dishes such as a soy sauce- based stir fry or noodle bowl,
Thai peanut or coconut curries with lots of vegetables and the endless variety of Indian dal and vegetable-potato stews and curries, both spicy and mild.
The Big Three alone, with all its variations could actually keep us full and satisfied throughout the week. I just keep rotating and switching it up so it doesn’t feel like we are eating the same actual dishes over and over.
The Wild Cards
Once I’ve exhausted the Big Three rotation I circle back to the familiarity of American regional cooking. This is the food I grew up on, only with a slight twist…it’s plant-based!!
There’s nothing wrong with an old-fashioned burger and fries night. There are several brands in the market freezer, but it’s so easy to make your own once you settle on a good recipe or two that you can improvise with. No, I don’t make my own fries, either. Frozen was good enough then and it’s good enough now, especially at the end of a long week!
SLOPPY JOES are a variation on burger night. I like to serve them with a crunchy, fresh coleslaw. Again, you can use tempeh or frozen crumbles, even cooked lentils. It’s really all about that sweet tomato, brown sugar, garlic flavor combination.
Loaf. Yes, I grew up on meatloaf. My Nana’s was better than my Mom’s, but they were both equally good slathered with Hunt’s ketchup! These days, my favorite combination is lentils, veggies and walnuts. But I still top it with a ketchup glaze!
Barbecue. It’s a southern thing. For many new to the plant-based diet, it’s cheese they have a hard time giving up. For me, I think it was barbecue, more than anything. It took some time and experimentation and distance from traditional barbecue that helped me figure out that, for me– it’s really mostly about the sauce!
So…either buy or make a really good, rich plant-based sauce and then apply it to whatever texture means barbecue to you. I like to do barbecued navy beans and tempeh planks, soy curls like pulled pork for sandwiches, bake, then grill chewy seitan ribz.
Cajun. JAMBALAYA is a great way to use up leftover rice. Saute onions, celery and green bell peppers, add a bit of garlic, toss in the rice with maybe some kidney beans or crumbles or even homemade ANDOUILLE SAUSAGE from the freezer. Spice it up with Emeril’s Essence for a smoky, spicy kick! I also like to make a nice VEGAN GUMBO now and then and freeze half for later.
Macaroni and Cheeze. Ah, the quintessential American comfort food. After trying many, many recipes, I have found the best results with a cashew-based sauce. Add some green peas or steamed broccoli and you have a complete meal. Extra nutritional points if you use whole wheat pasta.
STROGANOFF. Oh, this one is so easy and delicious. Takes me back to the old Hamburger Helper days. Use crumbles or large chunks of mushroom for a great texture. I like to throw in garden peas and lots of fresh parsley for color.
BUFFALO SAUCE. When I’m in the mood, I make up a batch of buffalo sauce and everything tastes new again! Drizzle it over salads, noodles, macaroni and cheese, nachos, and of course, roasted cauliflower!
And then there are the elegant, restaurant classics. Yes, we can have our French wine sauces, our Picatta, Marsala, our rich, creamy risotto. Thick (and delicious, thanks to Hampton Creek ) mayonnaise remoulade and aioli. We have come so far, my friends.
If fancy, impress-your-friends food is in your wheelhouse, sub vegan butter (Miyokos is excellent) and use cashew cream for heavy cream. I especially like a thin-sliced Portobello steak with brandy peppercorn cream sauce.
So…what’s for dessert? Well, that’s another post for another day, but don’t get me started!
I hope you find my ideas and recipe links useful. Bookmark them for the next time you hear that question:
“What’s for dinner??”