I rarely actually cook from a recipe. I think this is because I learned to cook by watching my mom make dinner while I did my homework at the kitchen counter. She would usually throw a bunch of whatever-was-in-the-fridge, plus some spices and herbs into a pan, make something saucy to go with it, and pour it all over some kind of grain with a salad on the side. I really like this style of cooking.
But some people, especially those who didn’t learn to cook growing up, rely on recipes for every meal. This works really well, and you get to learn about great spice combinations that have already been tried and tested. But sometimes you’ve got to throw together something last-minute and you don’t have all the ingredients you need for any one recipe that you know of (even if you’ve tried finding one with supercook), and that’s when knowing how to improvise comes in handy. So here is my guide for making the simplest, most nutritious improvised meal: a grain-based salad.
There are three important components to a grain-based salad.
Grain: you have so many to pick from. Usually I choose quinoa, but it’s not always from the most ethical sources, so consider picking other options from this list. All should be available at bulk food stores, which is usually the cheapest way to get them, and are pretty easy to cook.
- Rice (white, brown, black, wild etc. – pick according to cooking time)
Veggies: You should have about the same volume of veggies as grain in your salad. Pick any veggie you want, and cut it up into small pieces (usually about 1-3 cm chunks). Include as many as you like. Some good options include:
- Bell pepper
- Tomato (drained of its juice)
- Kale or other leafy green (torn into small pieces)
- Carrot (I prefer to grate carrots before adding them to a salad)
- Snap peas
- Frozen peas, corn, or mixed veggies (just stick them in boiling water for a minute and drain)
- FRUITS if you’re feeling confident and adventurous
- Apples, pears, and mandarin pieces can be successfully incorporated into a savory salad
Protein: Many grains have some protein in them, but you’ll probably need more than what’s in there. Add any of the following.
- Feta cheese
- Edamame (shelled)
- Tofu (cubed and marinated)
- Nuts or seeds (sunflower seeds are my personal favourite)
- Egg (scrambled and mixed in, or fried and plopped on top)
Two more additions can bring your salad to the next level:
Flavourful additions: Small amounts of these can make the flavour of your dish pop
- Green onions
- Red onions
- Fresh cilantro
- Fresh dill
- Fresh parsley
- Fresh basil (if you have none, throw some pesto in the dressing)
Dressing: Not all salads will need a dressing, but it can make the texture better and the flavours hang together. Mix an acid like vinegar (apple cider, balsamic, etc.) or lemon juice, with an oil (olive is best, sesame can be used in small quantities for flavour), and optionally add some flavouring like honey, jam, garlic, spices, or herbs. There are plenty of homemade dressing tutorials online. You can also do very well without adding the oil. I finish off most of my grain-based salads with just a squeeze of lemon juice.
Let me know if this was helpful and if you’d like me to continue this series with other kinds of improvisable dishes! Folks who already cook like this, what are your favourite things to put in a grain-based salad?