After a long day at work, it might seem easier to zap a frozen dinner in the microwave than to cook something on the stove.
But it doesn't have to be like that, says Leslie Cerier, an Amherst-based vegetarian chef and educator with more than 40 years of cooking experience.
"For me, it's about being creative, flexible - and stocked," she said.
Cerier, 65, runs the blog "The Organic Gourmet" and has taught culinary workshops around the world, as well as locally, at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge and for the Northeast Organic Farming Association in Amherst. She has also published several cook books.
In her own cupboard, Cerier says she stocks quick-cooking grains like kasha, amaranth, roasted buckwheat, quinoa and teff, a fine grain about the size of poppy seeds. Those grains are particularly good for fast meals because they're packed with protein and carbohydrates on their own, Cerier says. Red lentils are another good option.
Using those staples, Carier says she's able to make seemingly complex dishes like coconut curry lentils and quinoa pasta with cilantro pesto in about 15 minutes.
"I'm always thinking about nutrient-dense, nutritious food," Cerier said. And if a dish doesn't have enough protein or carbohydrates on its own, she adds in seeds, nuts, or veggies.
"If I make eggs, sometimes I'll make an omelet with veggies, and cheese, and that's delicious and quick. Or if I fry up two sunny side eggs and put some dulse next to it and have that with chai tea, I'm pretty happy."
Buy in bulk so there's always something in the cupboard, she advises. And in order to maximize the shelf-life of grains, which can keep for months at a time, she suggested moving uncooked grains into progressively smaller and smaller jars as they're used to minimize oxidation.
To add flavor, Cerier stocks a diverse array of spices and herbs that include parsley, rosemary, dill, thyme, dried cayenne, fennel seeds, coriander, cumin, curry powder, black pepper and high quality sea salt, to name a few. Herbs and spices can be a good way to reinvent familiar dishes, Cerier says.
"That helps me make the same meal twice if I want to, or change it," she continued.
Planning ahead and incorporating leftovers into future meals is equally important. Don't think of leftovers as another round of the same meal, Cerier says. Instead, think of them as ingredients for the next meal.
"Let's say I just made a pot of beans. One way to make a new dish with those beans, is to turn those beans into a dip, a stew, or add them to a salad," she said. "I could get local organic tortillas, refry them with spices, and eat them as a taco with cilantro."
Ultimately, Cerier said cooking fast requires an understanding of each individual ingredient and its cooking attributes.
"For me, I'm very sensual - I want to taste it, smell it, see it, engage with the food, and then, when I have a relationship with the food, be quick with it," Cerier said.
To that end, Cerier said it's important to experiment with flavor combinations, try new foods, and learn to enjoy the process.
"So many people who come to my class have never tasted amaranth, or made a peanut sauce. (Students) will immediately leave class and go shopping. All of a sudden, they're tasting things they've never had. ... People should always cook from their hearts," Cerier said. "Your joy of cooking is also the nutrition."
Andy Castillo can be reached at [email protected]
For more information, visit Cerier's website at lesliecerier.com. She periodically puts on local cooking workshops at her home in Amherst, and has some coming up over the next month: Eating Your Way to Strong Bones, Sunday, Nov. 4, from 10:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.; Vegetarian Express, Quick Meals with Real Whole Foods, Sunday, Nov. 11, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. To sign up for a cooking class, which costs around $95 per person in advance and $125 at the door, call Cerier at 413-259-1695, or email [email protected]
The red palm oil and red lentils give this soup a beautiful orange color. Feel free to use any greens you like - spinach, collards, kale, mustard greens or even nettles. You can also swap ghee or extra virgin coconut oil for the red palm oil.
Serves 4 to 6
3 tablespoons red palm oil, ghee, or coconut oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
1 cup red lentils, rinsed
1 cup onions, coarsely chopped
5 cups water
½ cup organic coconut butter (Cerier uses Nutiva's Organic Coconut Manna)
¼ teaspoon turmeric
2 cups tightly packed spinach, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon sea salt
Heat the oil in a 6-quart stockpot over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds, fennel seeds, and chili pepper flakes. Fry for about a moment until the seeds begin to pop. Add the lentils, onions, water, manna and turmeric.
Bring the ingredients to a boil; then reduce the heat to medium low. Simmer covered for about 15 minutes, or until the lentils soften and begin to melt.
Stir in the greens and salt. Taste and adjust seasonings, if you like. then ladle into bowls and serve.
This gluten-free vegetarian entrée is quick to prepare and easy to love. The red palm oil brightens the orange yellow corn grits and, with the kale, makes a beautiful mosaic pattern. I recommend using goat cheddar or organic, pasture raised raw milk Cheddar. And you can swap other oils or health fats like ghee or extra virgin olive oil for the red palm oil, if you like.
2 tablespoons red palm oil or ghee or extra virgin olive oil
1 cup sliced red onions or scallions
1 cup corn grits
2 cups chopped kale
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 cups boiling water
¼ cup fresh marjoram, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh sage, coarsely chopped
1¼ cups grated cheddar cheese (about 5 ounces)
Heat the oil in a large saucepan or skillet (one with a tight-fitting lid) over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté for about 5 minutes, until it begins to soften. Stir in the kale, grits, and salt. Lower the heat; then slowly pour in the water. Cover and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, until all of the water is absorbed. Stir in marjoram and sage.
Add the cheese, cover, and let sit for about 3 minutes, until the cheese melts. Use the edge of a spatula to cut the dish into wedges. Serve immediately.
The marriage of hemp seeds and cilantro creates a sensational vegan pesto. Serve on sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, green salads and pasta. Hemp adds Omega 3s, and the umeboshi vinegar offers a delicious lemony and salty flavor. Enjoy!
Makes 2 ½ cups (8-12 servings)
3 cups cilantro (fresh, rinsed, and tightly packed)
1¼ cups hemp seed
½ cup water
¼ cup hemp oil
6 cloves garlic
5 Tablespoons umeboshi (also called plum) vinegar
Blend all the ingredients in a food processor. Taste and adjust seasonings if desired.
Amaranth is a tiny, nutty-flavored grain, one of the few that is a complete protein with more fiber and iron than most grains. It's delicious cooked in combination with other grains, in pilafs, puddings, and porridge. Here, I have used amaranth flour in combination with corn flour and vegetables for a scrumptious, healthy, gluten-free croquette. When I teach this recipe in my cooking classes, the croquettes get eaten before we set the table!
This croquette is easy to make, and it's a great accompaniment for just about any soup or stew. Because it's so festive and colorful, it also makes a great appetizer.
Serves 3 or 4
1 cup organic amaranth flour
½ cup organic corn flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup lukewarm water
cup minced organic onion
½ cup minced organic red or green bell pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons organic ghee, virgin coconut oil or sesame oil
½ cup (about 2 ounces) grated cheddar cheese (optional)
Coat a work surface with ¼ cup amaranth flour or corn flour.
Combine the amaranth flour, corn flour, salt, and water in a bowl. Mix until the dough comes together, then add the onion and bell pepper and mix them in. Transfer the dough to the work surface and knead for a few minutes, until slightly sticky. Use your hands to shape dough into flat rounds 2 to 3 inches in diameter.
In a small skillet, heat the ghee on medium-high heat. Once it melts, swirl it around to coat the pan. Fry the croquettes until browned and crisp, about 3 minutes on each side. If using cheese, sprinkle a bit on top of each flat croquette and let it melt. Serve warm.
Variation: Add a few tablespoons of cooked corn kernels for a colorful and tasty variation.