When I’m planning a weekly menu for the cafe, I like to scroll through food blogs and Instagram for inspiration.
I want to make all the things.
When the ingredients look so fresh and simple, I can almost forget — almost, for a moment — how much work actually goes into creating those pretty plates of food. All the chopping, steaming, pan-frying, roasting. All the grains that need to be started an hour ago, the beans that have to be soaked, preferably overnight, then simmered for an hour, then chilled, so I can have that lovely chickpea salad to spoon on top.
Not to mention the cashew cream that will bust the budget of anyone who needs to feed a roomful — or even a household — of hungry people.
Oh, and the cashews need soaking, too.
Does anyone cook like that on a daily basis? Who has the time, or the energy, or the budget?
Right. Me, either.
Not to knock inspiration. Whether we cook for a family, or for a living, we need regular injections of “oh, that looks so good!” But once I’m inspired it’s time to get practical.
Same for you? Okay, then.
So here’s what I do with all that inspiration. I start with two components.
Maybe it’s the bright green of the broccoli set against the deep purple of the cabbage. Maybe the pretty orange of the sweet potato sitting alongside the glossy black beans. Maybe the swirl of noodles in the sparkly golden broth.
Whatever two ingredients speak most insistently to me. That’s where I start.
Then I decide if those two things can carry the meal, or if they need a little help. Broccoli and cabbage are a nice pairing, but they need something to pull them together: a grain, say, or a tortilla to wrap them in. The sweet potatoes and black beans might want a bit of rice underneath. The noodles in broth might need some mushrooms and a handful of frozen peas.
Are you with me so far? Okay. Then I see where the protein might be.
If there are beans in the dish, I’m covered. If I’m considering the broccoli and cabbage, maybe I add a high-protein grain like quinoa or a handful of pumpkin seeds or nuts. If I’m going with noodles, I might want a simple salad alongside, topped with more of those seeds and nuts.
Finally I think about a sauce, a dressing, something savory and delicious to pull all the bits together. We don’t have to get complicated here. The broccoli and cabbage can be tossed with a favorite salad dressing before getting tucked into the tortilla. The sweet potatoes and black beans might get a spoonful of salsa on top. The broth gets a drizzle of chimichurri or sriracha.
And we’re golden.
Where a meat-based dish might begin with the meat and go from there, a plant-based meal can sometimes seem unfocused, a pile of disparate parts in need of cohesion. The two-component idea helps to pull things together, so you can get creative around the edges without your plate looking like a bunch of side dishes.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a bunch of side dishes. Thanksgiving, anyone?
Other two-component starting points: a baked potato topped with veggies. Chickpea stew over rice. A veggie patty on a bun. Pasta with red sauce is a classic two-component dish that I like to embellish with meaty mushrooms or fat chunks of pan-seared zucchini.
What comes to mind for you?