The first step to creating healthy meals is to make sure you’ve got wholesome ingredients on hand. Because the choices can seem overwhelming and simply having a pantry full of food doesn’t mean you’ll be inspired to cook, the key to success is to shop for ingredients that give you the best nutrition and flavor for your money and that are convenient to use. In this article, I’ll describe some of these must-have foods, along with tips for choosing and using them.
1. Beans and Legumes
Star Qualities: Beans are tiny bundles of energy, providing abundant protein as well as soluble fiber, calcium, iron, and B vitamins, particularly folate. They come in such a variety of colors and flavors and can be transformed into so many different dishes—from patties to purées, from stews to salads—that you could eat beans every day and not get bored.
At the Market: Choose canned beans when you’re in a hurry. Black beans, chickpeas, white beans, and kidney beans are particularly versatile for last-minute meals. It’s worth purchasing organic brands because they usually have less sodium. Frozen beans, such as lima beans and shelled edamame (green soybeans), are another nutritious option. Among dried legumes, lentils are most suitable for weeknight dinners; they don’t need soaking and they cook in 15 to 30 minutes.
In Your Kitchen: Make store-bought soup more nutritious by adding a can of beans. Add white beans to tomato sauce for pasta, or purée them with garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and spread on toasted country bread. Sauté lima beans or edamame with corn kernels, diced tomatoes, and onions for a quick succotash.
2. Whole Grains
Star Qualities: Whole grains have their nutritious bran and germ intact. They’re a good source of protein, B vitamins, and minerals like iron and zinc. And unlike refined grain products, whole grains are rich in beneficial fiber. Whole grains are filling and have a satisfying texture.
At the Market: When you’re pressed for time, turn to quick-cooking grains like bulgur (cracked wheat), instant polenta (corn), and quick-cooking barley. If the thought of cooking with whole grains intimidates you, try quinoa. This ancient grain from the Andes has an appealing nutty taste and a delicately crunchy texture, it cooks quickly, and it’s suited for everything from hot breakfast cereal to pilaf. Plus it has a balanced amino acid profile, which means that it’s an excellent source of protein. Other nutrient-dense whole grains include amaranth and tef.
In Your Kitchen: Many grains, including quinoa, benefit from the following cooking method: sauté grains in a little oil for a minute or two before adding cooking water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer. When the grains are completely cooked, remove from heat, leave the lid on, and let the grains steam for about 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.
3. Brown Rice
Star Qualities: This whole grain is so nutritious and versatile it deserves a category of its own. Rice is a good source of iron, protein, and B vitamins. White rice is milled and polished to remove its bran and germ, but brown rice (like other whole grains) retains these nutritious components so it has twice as much fiber, as well as a good amount of vitamin E. Brown rice also has a wonderfully chewy texture and slightly nutty flavor.
At the Market: Quick-cooking brown rice is a good choice when you don’t want to give up convenience for nutrition. When you have a little more time to spare, try whole-grain versions of your favorite white rices, such as fragrant basmati and jasmine and creamy arborio. Whole-grain rice comes in many shades besides brown, and each variety has its own unique flavor. Experiment with these delicious, exotic-sounding varieties: Black Japonica, Camargue Red, Bhutanese Red, Forbidden Black, and Wehani.
In Your Kitchen: Try brown rice as a hot breakfast cereal—you can make it sweet with honey and dried fruit or savory with tamari, sesame seeds and shredded carrots. Use earthy, sweet red rice in pilafs and stuffings. Make great risottos, desserts, and side dishes with nutty, soft-textured black rice. Note that it’s important to keep whole-grain rice in a cool, dark place so it won’t go rancid. Buying in bulk is fine, but don’t purchase more than you can use in a month or two.
Star Qualities: Most nuts are rich in monounsaturated fat, which helps to lower levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol while maintaining levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol in the blood. (Walnuts are high in polyunsaturated fat, which is also heart-healthy.) Nuts contain arginine, an amino acid that helps keep arteries clear, and magnesium and potassium, which have been associated with lowering blood pressure. And nuts provide other important nutrients, such as fiber, calcium, and vitamin E. Because nuts have a high satiety value, adding a modest amount to your diet can help you feel full and not overeat.
At the Market: Because nuts include oil, it’s crucial to buy them fresh. Shop at a market that has a rapid turnover. If you buy from bulk bins, use your sense of smell to determine freshness; don’t buy if you detect any unpleasant odors. Also, buy whole nuts and chop them yourself; small chopped pieces are vulnerable to oxidation (exposure to air), which can make them stale.
In Your Kitchen: Add chopped almonds to pilafs and homemade veggie burgers. Sprinkle walnuts or pine nuts on salads instead of croutons. Blend cashews and water to make a thick purée and use it to add a creamy richness to soups and pasta sauces. Although nuts are good for you, there’s no denying that they’re calorie-dense, so portion control is important. One ounce, or about a quarter-cup, is one serving of nuts. In recipes, make the most of a modest amount of nuts by lightly toasting them first to intensify their flavor. Stir them in a dry skillet over medium heat or bake them at 350 degrees until they turn golden brown and fragrant. Store nuts in a sealed container in the fridge or freezer to help keep them fresh.
5. Dried Fruit
Star Qualities: Dried fruit provides vitamins, minerals, and fiber like fresh fruit but in a concentrated and convenient-to-store form. It’s a quick, naturally sweet source of energy. A handful of chopped, dried fruit adds flavor, texture, and antioxidants to a wide range of dishes, from cereals to stews.
At the Market: Choose plump dried fruit with a uniform color and without signs of sugar crystallization. Be aware that many dried fruits are treated with sulfur dioxide to retain their color. (This is why golden raisins, for example, remain light-colored.) This preservative aids the retention of certain vitamins (beta carotene) but diminishes others (thiamin), and it can trigger headaches and asthma in people sensitive to it. Check the label if you have concerns.
In Your Kitchen: You can toss just about any kind of dried fruit into hot or cold cereal or yogurt, but breakfast isn’t the only meal that gets a boost from dried fruit. Dried cranberries make a nice addition to spinach or arugula salad. Currants, dried cherries, and golden raisins go well with couscous and other grain dishes. Dried plums and apricots are delicious with beans and lentils, especially in stews.
6. Tofu and Tempeh
Star Qualities: Soyfoods are a valuable source of protein as well as plant chemicals called isoflavones. Isoflavones are being studied for their cancer-fighting, heart-protecting, and bone-building abilities. Tofu and tempeh offer the benefits of soy in traditional, minimally processed forms. Tofu’s smooth texture and mild flavor make it endlessly versatile. Tempeh has a hearty flavor and chewy texture.
At the Market: The two basic kinds of tofu are silken tofu and regular tofu. Both varieties are available in different firmnesses, although regular tofu is generally firmer. Many stores also carry tofu that has already been baked and seasoned. Tofu can be high in fat but you can buy reduced-fat tofu (sometimes called enriched tofu). Also check the label for the calcium content; some tofu is processed with calcium, making it a good source of this bone-building mineral. And if you want to avoid genetically modified soybeans, choose organic tofu.
Tempeh is made from cooked soybeans to which a culture has been added. It’s extremely high in protein and has a somewhat nutty and yeasty taste. For a robust flavor choose all-soy tempeh. If you want a milder flavor, purchase tempeh made with a mixture of soy and grains.
In Your Kitchen: Silken tofu blends well into sauces, smoothies, and dressings. Firm or extra firm tofu is good for scrambles and stir-fries. Use slices of baked tofu in sandwiches or dice it into salads. Crumble tempeh into chili or slice and marinate it in barbecue sauce and heat, and then serve in a sandwich.
Try pressing tofu to make it firmer and give it a pleasantly chewy texture. Cut a block of tofu in two equally thick slices, put them in large dish, cover them with a piece of plastic wrap, and place a couple of pounds of weight on top—cast-iron skillets or a cutting board with some heavy pantry items work well. Let tofu drain for half an hour while you prepare the rest of your meal.
7. Whole-Grain Pastas
Star Qualities: Whole-grain pastas bring you the goodness of whole grains—protein, vitamins, and fiber—in a convenient, familiar form. Hearty whole-grain pasta and sauce is a quick and easy meal that satisfies vegans and meat eaters alike.
At the Market: Japanese soba noodles, found in the international aisle at many supermarkets, are made with buckwheat flour. Spelt pasta is made from an ancient relative of wheat that’s high in protein and easy on the digestive system. Other healthy pasta varieties blend durum semolina with corn, quinoa, amaranth, or Kamut.
In Your Kitchen: Pair whole-grain pastas with robust tomato, mushroom, or other vegetable sauces. Roasted vegetables go especially well with whole-wheat pasta. Corn and quinoa pastas taste best with lighter sauces. Try corn pasta with fresh diced tomatoes, fresh chopped cilantro, and minced jalapeño to taste. Be sure not to overcook whole-grain pastas; their lower gluten content means they’re apt to fall apart unless served al dente (still slightly firm).
8. Olive Oil
Star Qualities: Olive oil is high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat and contains the antioxidant vitamin E. Extra-virgin olive oil is minimally processed, for optimal flavor and health benefits. It’s not subjected to heat or cleaned with chemical solvents like bland, colorless cooking oils are. A drizzle of oil is a nice finishing touch for many dishes, and it’s a healthy alternative to butter (or margarine) on vegetables, bread, and rice.
At the Market: Extra-virgin olive oils come in a wide range of prices. Buy a moderately priced oil for everyday use and splurge on a spicy, fruity, good-quality oil for salads and dipping. It makes sense to buy organic if you can afford it, because extra-virgin oil isn’t cleaned before bottling. You can also purchase olive oils that have been infused with citrus, herbs, or spices.
In Your Kitchen: Naturally flavorful extra-virgin olive oil needs only a splash of vinegar and a sprinkling of salt and pepper to make the perfect dressing for green salads. Infused oils quickly add layers of flavor, making a simple meal taste like you spent hours in the kitchen. Try lemon-infused oil on steamed vegetables, drizzle basil oil on beans or pizza, or brush garlic oil on bruschetta. Unless they contain ascorbic acid or another preservative, oils with herbs or other ingredients added to them should be stored in your refrigerator and used within a couple of weeks, to reduce risk from botulism-producing bacteria. All oils should be stored away from light and heat.
Star Qualities: Vinegar is a low-sodium, low-calorie flavor builder that can enhance a wide range of vegetarian dishes.
At the Market: Try rice wine, sherry, and Champagne vinegars. Look for full-strength vinegars—you can always dilute them yourself. If you find yourself using more vinegar, invest in a couple of good-quality vinegars like traditional balsamics and wine vinegars made by the Orleans method (the label will say so). Stay away from flavorless distilled white vinegar.
In Your Kitchen: Drizzle a few drops of high-quality balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream or strawberries. Splash sherry vinegar into black bean soup or gazpacho. Perk up steamed vegetables with wine vinegar. Use rice vinegar in vinaigrette—its mild flavor means you can use less oil. Also, add vinegars, especially better-quality ones, at the end of cooking so their flavor isn’t dissipated by high heat.
Star Qualities: This fermented soybean paste is a rich source of the isoflavones genistein and daidzen, believed to have a protective effect against cancer. Unpasteurized miso contains beneficial enzymes that aid digestion. Miso has a savory quality (called umami in Japan), which is valuable for meatless cooking. It provides depth of flavor to soups, sauces, and dressings.
At the Market: There are many varieties of miso, including barley, rice, soy, and chickpea, but there aren’t any rules about which one to use. Just remember that, generally speaking, dark misos have been aged longer and have a more assertive, saltier taste than lighter ones. Look for unpasteurized miso in tubs in the refrigerated aisle.
In Your Kitchen: Use light miso in a savory salad dressing or spread it sparingly on sandwiches. Try dark miso in split pea soup or a casserole with mushrooms. Miso is very salty, so add a little at a time, tasting as you go. If you’re using unpasteurized miso in soups or stews, add it at the end of cooking to preserve its healthful qualities.
11. Garlic and Ginger
Star Qualities: Garlic promotes circulation and lowers cholesterol. It also contains sulfur compounds, such as allicin, that may prevent cancer cell growth. Ginger is famous for its ability to quell nausea and contains a compound called gingerol that may lower blood pressure and improve circulation.
At the Market: If you have access to an Asian market, look for young ginger. The skin is translucent and almost pink instead of papery beige, and the root itself is less fibrous, so it’s easier to chop. If you buy mature ginger, choose specimens that look smooth rather than wrinkled and watch out for mold. When buying garlic, look for heads with firm, plump cloves and no green shoots.
In Your Kitchen: Braise or roast garlic cloves until soft to give dishes a mellow richness rather than a sharp garlic flavor. Add fresh grated ginger to gingerbread. Chopped crystallized ginger puts zip into fruit salads. Minced garlic and ginger are classic aromatic stir-fry ingredients. To preserve their health benefits and flavor, wait until your other stir-fry ingredients are nearly cooked, then clear a space in the middle of the pan and add the aromatics.
Allicin develops upon exposure to air, when garlic is chopped. To maximize its effect, peel and mince garlic ahead of time and let it sit about 10 minutes before cooking with it.
12. Herbs and Spices
Star Qualities: Although you use them in small amounts, herbs and spices make a big contribution to your meals. For example, quercetin in oregano, carnosol in rosemary, and curcumin in turmeric are all antioxidants that have been studied for their cancer protective effects. In any form, herbs and spices add flavor without adding calories.
At the Market: If you’re an occasional cook, stick to a small selection of herbs and spices so that you’ll use them up more quickly. Whole spices stay fresh longer, but if you’re not likely to grind them yourself, it’s better to buy them in a form that’s easier to use. Soft herbs such as basil, cilantro, and parsley taste better fresh, but tougher herbs like oregano and rosemary hold up well when dried. It’s handy to have a spice blend like garam masala or curry powder on hand; they provide a quick and easy way to liven up meals.
In Your Kitchen: Mix up sweet and savory flavors: try a pinch of cinnamon in couscous or a smidgeon of black pepper in gingerbread. Nutmeg and cayenne both go well with greens like spinach and chard. Thyme has an affinity for mushrooms, basil is a nice addition to salads, while oregano makes a wonderful accent for beans, eggplant, and olives. Be adventurous—the possibilities are endless!
Remember, even dried herbs have a shelf life. If you have to look at the label (rather than relying on your nose) to tell you what’s in that herb or spice jar, it’s time to replace it.
This article is provided by Cheryl Redmond and The Vegetarians of Washington (www.vegofwa.org). For more information, please see their new book Veg-Feasting in the Pacific Northwest.