Gosh, it’s been almost 3 months since my last post, because as many of you know, I’ve been under a rock writing a cookbook. The publisher approached me with a fantastic idea they had, to create something for people with heart concerns with every dish ready in under 30 minutes, using 10 or less commonly available ingredients. Say 125 recipes? In say, 2 months or so. Easy, right?
If you notice any new wrinkles or grey hairs when you see me next, now you know why.
But I couldn’t agree more with this mandate. People living with heart disease (or elevated cardiac risk) are younger and more likely to still be working and/or caring for young or aging family members. For some, spending an hour or more preparing food just isn’t an option. And like everyone else, they still want satisfying, delicious food.
So I put my head down and wrote and cooked. And leaned on many friends and family members to cook. A lot. I spent Mother’s Day weekend in a hotel room. I set my alarm for 4:30am and wrote before everyone else was awake. Along the way I jotted down lessons learned. Here are ten that have helped me shave time while keeping flavour and nutrition where I wanted them:
- There are so many more frozen vegetables than I realized. Stir-fry blends, butternut squash, sliced bell peppers… They might not be the best stand-alone sides, but many are pretty good in mixed dishes: curry, chili, soup, etc. What you might give up in texture you gain in convenience, affordability, and nutrition, at least compared to some fresh vegetables that may not exactly be just off of the farm.
- You can buy frozen diced onions! What a timesaver. If you’re a good cook you probably don’t think anything of chopping an onion to start a savoury dish, but for those of us who aren’t Gordon Ramsay, or who just ran out of onions, a little bag of frozen diced onions is a handy addition to the freezer.
- Last one about frozen vegetables I promise… you can roast them! It’s a bit tricky to get them crispy without burning them, but just toss in a high smoke point oil like canola, cook them hot enough (400F at least), and turn often. For broccoli and cauliflower at least, this has been a game changer in our house.
- Stir-in garlic and herb pastes are pretty good. I have used the basil one in tomato soup and a pizza, the garlic one into pasta and in marinades. They do have salt and oil too, so adjust accordingly. And full disclosure: I don’t have a super-sensitive palate. I’m sure there are cooks who wouldn’t dream of using these, or frozen vegetables for that matter, but if you have a career and a life and also want to cook most of your food, sometimes you have to compromise a bit.
- The produce section can also be a goldmine for time-saving veggie options. My favourite new ones are coleslaw (used in fish tacos and fried rice), kale slaw (used in an energy bowl), and broccoli slaw (used in a salad with tuna, cashews, and whole wheat couscous). Less time washing and chopping and… dinner’s ready.
- There are more sub-30 minute whole grain options than I thought. Did you know you can make risotto with (wait for it)… quick-cooking steel-cut oats!! Be still my heart, savoury oats. I’ll share a recipe when the book is ready, but in the meantime, here’s an example of what I mean.
- Pearl barley has about twice the fibre of brown rice and can be ready in about 30 minutes. I used to think pearl barley was the white rice of barley, because it’s outer bran layer is removed. But actually most of the fiber and other nutrients remain, unlike when the bran is removed from kernels of rice or wheat. (I included just a few minerals here to show you that they’re mostly retained too.) And I love the texture. If you want barley in a meal in 30 minutes, start it first, and heat the water with the lid on so it boils faster. As my friend, dietitian Kristyn Hall says, “If you have time to cook rice, you have time to cook barley.”
- If you want brown rice, you can have it ready in as little as 2 minutes. The cooked brown rice in vacumn-sealed pouches (e.g. Uncle Ben’s Bistro Express) is available with no added sodium and it’s just as good a source of fiber and other nutrients as dry rice. The only downside is the cost, which is at least twice as much as dry rice. A happy medium is parboiled (e.g. Minute Rice or Dainty Time Wise or this Uncle Ben’s product), which takes 10-20 minutes, depending on the product. Interestingly, both parboiled and pre-cooked rice in a pouch have lower glycemic indices, if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes. And truly, the texture of the cooked rice in the pouch was superior to the parboiled, so if you don’t use a ton of it, I’d go that route despite the cost. Or if you do use a lot, just cook a big batch of regular brown rice and freeze in small portions.
- A nod to Mrs Dash. When I was trying to get food to taste good without too much salt, without including too many different herbs and spices, Mrs. Dash did the trick. I don’t much like the original, but the Southwest chipotle seasoning blend worked well for chili and tofu scramble, and the extra spicy blend is good at the table when some like their food spicier than others.
- Finally, since I was trying to keep most of the recipes below 500mg of sodium per serving, I was pleased to find that whole mozzarella is low in sodium, as cheese goes. Goat and swiss cheese too. So if you get the book and you’re wondering why there’s a classic caprese salad, and goat cheese in several recipes, now you know why!
What has your experience been with these ten ingredients? What’s worked well? Which ones have been duds? Your insights always welcome. Comments here.
As always, none of this is sponsored. When the book comes out this fall, I’ll be able to start sharing some of the recipes here. In the meantime, I hope this helps you save time and relax in the kitchen a bit. Here’s to a bit more of this, right?