recipes

Grain Salads – Cooking Without A Recipe

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.

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)
  • Couscous
  • Bulgur
  • Farro
  • Millet
  • Pasta

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)
  • Cucumber
  • Zucchini
  • Kale or other leafy green (torn into small pieces)
  • Carrot (I prefer to grate carrots before adding them to a salad)
  • Jicama
  • Radish
  • 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
  • Chickpeas
  • Beans
  • 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
  • Shallot
  • 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?

– Arlie

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Secret Ingredient Mac ‘N’ Cheese Cupcakes

Mac N Cheese Bites

These mouthwatering, portion controlled nuggets of mac n cheese are my go-to potluck dish. Now that we’re in peak potluck season, I thought I’d share my recipe with you. Plenty of recipes exist for mac ‘n’ cheese baked in muffin tins, but this one’s different: you’d never know it, but they include a secret ingredient that lends a beautifully soft and creamy texture, and makes it healthier!

Ingredients

• 1.5 cups dry macaroni
• 1Tablespoon butter
• 3 cups shredded cheese (I use combo of cheddar and parmesan, but you could also include mozzarella for texture or small amounts of other cheeses for flavour), 2/3 c of cheddar reserved.
• 3/4 cup shredded cauliflower (you could easily increase this amount without it being detected)
• ¾ cup milk
• 1 egg, beaten
• 1/3 cup breadcrumbs (plus some salt if your breadcrumbs are unseasoned)
• scant 2 teaspoons olive oil

Instructions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, shred cheeses and cauliflower, and mix breadcrumbs with olive oil. Trust me, do this before you start cooking the pasta. You’ll also need to oil a cupcake tin.
2. Boil macaroni until just underdone, about a minute from al dente. Drain and return to pot.
3. Add butter and cheese except for reserved cheddar, mix until melted.
4. Add cauliflower, milk, and egg, and mix until well coated.
5. Spoon into oiled muffin tins, distributing liquid from the bottom of the pot if left over.
6. Top with reserved cheddar, then breadcrumb mixture. Making sure to cover the top of each with cheddar will significantly improve the texture.
7. Bake for 25 min.
8. Allow to cool at least 15 minutes before removing from the pan, to allow the cheese to set.

Fills 12 regular muffin tins.

– Arlie