A week ago I met an impressive professional at a philanthropic luncheon in Houston. She was smart, elegant, successful in her career. She explained that out of concern for her health she limits her intake of meat, fat, and gluten but has a hard time figuring out what to eat, especially since she isn’t a good cook.
I am no chef either and remember dinners I cooked for guests that turned out poorer than planned: a butternut squash soup that didn’t quite taste like butternut; a callaloo soup that was too thin because I had forgotten to squeeze the water out of a pack of frozen spinach; quinoa that tasted bitter because I hadn’t rinsed it.
My takeaway from these experiences? It is okay to make mistakes, not least because we learn from them. Second, you don’t need to master the art of haute cuisine to prepare healthy, well-tasting meals. Simple can be beautiful.
Take a look at what I ate last Wednesday. I made those dishes without pots or pans, and they required hardly any prep time. Although simple, they were varied and delicious.
Fruit in the morning
My usual breakfast is Müsli with fruit. On Wednesday morning I shook things up a bit. I skipped the grain and tripled the fruit, shredding an apple and a pear, adding banana, a handful of grapes, and soymilk. The result was an enormous bowl of food that truly stretched my stomach. This photo depicts about half the amount. On the side I had green tea.
I did have snacks at various points in the day. They were a banana, a glass of Pepsi-plus-water-kefir (Pepsi ain’t health food, I know!), and dark chocolate high in cocoa and low in added sugar. The low sugar content is what keeps me from feasting on chocolate until I feel sick.
Legumes for lunch
Our fridge is always stocked with legumes. I buy them dried, soak them, and cook them in a slow cooker. The work involved is minimal, and with proper cooling the beans stay fresh for five to six days. Each day I figure out ways to use them – as salad dressing, vegetarian chili, a dip, an Indian dal preparation, or a soup. The pay-off for the effort is substantial: Not only are legumes packed with nutrients. Our gut microbes also convert legume starch into butyrate, a substance that protects us from colorectal cancer, insulin resistance, and stroke.[i]
My legume batch for this week consisted of pigeon peas. I turned them into lunch by dressing 1.5 cups of these still slightly crunchy seeds with nutritional yeast (a vegan condiment), plenty of garlic powder, soy sauce, a bit of walnut oil, and Tabasco sauce. Preparing this dish takes five minutes at most, and I could eat it again and again. That’s how deliciously it is seasoned.
In the afternoon I had four persimmons.
Aren’t they ugly? Because they look so unappetizing, it is hard to find them in grocery stores. It took me a trip to Chinatown to locate these.
If you wonder why on earth anyone might want to eat fruits that have turned black, look at this:
That’s the inside of a ripe Hachiya persimmon. The flesh is brightly orange. Its consistency resembles that of jello, and the flavor is enjoyably sweet. Can anyone blame me for eating four in one sitting?
The great thing about eating sweet fruit is that they come with plenty of fiber. One persimmon has six grams of fiber, which is a fourth of a woman’s daily need and a sixth of a man’s needed intake.[ii] Fiber slows your digestion of the attached sugar. So by eating sweet fruit you avoid the sugar spike you’d get from, say, a Snickers bar.
A light dinner
For dinner I had a salad made from pantry and fridge ingredients. These turned out to be king oyster mushrooms – bought during my trip to Chinatown and microwaved for four minutes –, an avocado, a yellow bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, and cilantro. The dressing consisted of balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, black pepper, a bit of soy sauce and Tabasco.
The fanciest ingredient was the freshly grated turmeric I sprinkled on top. I had found it in Chinatown, but for a good markup you can also get it from Whole Foods. Turmeric has amazing health benefits, especially when combined with black pepper. Dr. Bharat Aggarwal of the M.D. Anderson Cancer describes them:
Turmeric owes its preventive and curative skills to its active ingredient: curcumin, a compound so diverse and powerfully rich in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory actions that it has been shown to protect and improve the health of virtually every organ in the body. To date, thousands of animal and human studies from around the world have found that curcumin can combat more than 70 maladies, including some of the biggest health threats, such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. And the list just keeps on growing. [iii]
Perhaps you have tried a pinch of dried turmeric powder and recoiled from its bitterness. Fresh turmeric is quite different, with a floral aroma. It gave my salad a slightly unusual, pleasant flavor.
A few small tricks
That was my culinary day – devoid of butter, cheese, or cholesterol, but filled with taste. Preparing the day’s food items took little time, no pots or pans, and no need to consult a cook book.
So how does it work? The first trick is to have plenty of fresh fruit at home – bananas, pears, apples, persimmons, grapes, and more.
The second trick is to use high-quality produce: sweet cherry tomatoes instead of bland plum tomatoes; somewhat expensive but very edible Jazz apples instead of thick-skinned and mealy Red Delicious apples. The point is that skimping on produce is a bad idea, because if you don’t like it, you won’t eat it, and it won’t benefit you.
Trick number three is to acquire or develop ten easy-to-make recipes that you enjoy.
Trick number four is to have your pantry stocked with the staples and condiments necessary for assembling your go-to recipes.
Beyond that, all you need is willingness to experiment with the flavors you’ve got available. And if an experiment fails, no matter. Just try again.
[i] Canani, Roberto Berni, M. D. Costanzo, Ludovica Leone, Monica Pedata, Rosaria Meli, and Antonio Calignano. “Potential beneficial effects of butyrate in intestinal and extraintestinal diseases.” World Journal of Gastroenterology 17, no. 12 (2011): 1519-1528. Available online here.
[ii] Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein and Amino Acids. . Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005. (Table S-3, page 7). Available online here.
[iii] Aggarwal, Bharat. 2011. Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday And Exotic Spices to Boost Health And Beat Disease. New York, NY: Sterling Publishing.