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Making bland health foods taste good on the cheap??

I recently started cooking for myself and am simply overwhelmed with all the amazing things you people do with food!

It's like you guys are haute couturiers of the food world and I'm simply struggling to find a way to get quality separates in my life.

I'm learning quickly with meat-based foods, like chicken rice and veggies, steak potatoes carrots and peas... Simply make the meat spicey, lube the veggies and you're good to go.

Mexican - cumin, ancho/chipotle, lime juice, cilantro, oregano
Indian - garlic, ginger, cumin, turmeric, coriander, cardamom.
Chinese - sesame oil, soy sauce, fish/oyster/plum sauce, garlic, ginger
East asian - mirin, soy sauce, dashi, 7 spices, etc
Thai - coconut milk, lemongrass, chili paste, soy/fish/oyster sauces
Greek - lemon, oregano, garlic
Scandinavian - caraway, dill and fennel
Italian - basil, oregano, thyme, and parsley

I also have been learning how to make good basic marinades and such, which will definitely come in handy this summer.

The thing I really want to know how to whip up are bulky vegan salads and soups. These are the type of complex carbs that really give me the best energy throughout the day.

I love to make my own traditional, leafy green salad dressings but need to learn the basics to make a really good bean/legume/grain/pseudograin/veggie recipes!

And soup! It can be frozen! It's super healthy if you make the stock! I can always add more carbs/ protein if I want!

I know many recipes are tailored to the specific ingredients, how they meld together, the texture, etc... but I just need some basic mixtures to tailor to my booooriiiing diet. Any insight, resources, etc is greatly appreciated!

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  1. Since you are specifically asking about vegan dishes, you should post on the Vegan & Vegetarian board.

    1 Reply
    1. re: greygarious

      Holy moly! I didn't know there was such a diverse set of boards. Thanks a lot.

    2. you don't always need a ton of seasonings, especially if you start with decent ingredients. a simple grilled/roasted protein can be wonderful with some salt and pepper.

      what you might want to learn are some fundamental stocks and dressings, but that all depends on your palate.

      1. This post seems perfectly fine for this board. I'm a meat eater, and I eat plenty of so-called vegan salads that don't contain meat or dairy.

        Chocoremedy, you've made a great start with the spices for your meat dishes. They'll work well for beans-and-grain salads as well.

        In addition, please consider your new best friends: fresh-squeezed lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, and garlic. And Dijon mustard - a small amount makes a wonderful impact in salad dressing. Oh, and good quality olive oil. It's worth the extra money.

        You can vary salad ingredients based on your mood and available food, but here are some starter ideas:
        - Chickpeas with spinach and farro (or bulgur) in a lemon-olive oil dressing
        - White beans with baby kale and sun-dried tomatoes
        - Black beans with quinoa, lime, cherry tomatoes, cilantro, and cumin (my current favorite - I make a big batch every weekend)
        - Lentils with walnuts and caramelized onions in an olive oil - red wine vinegar dressing with lots of black pepper
        - Brown rice salad with shredded carrots, zucchini, spinach, and red peppers (here's where a Dijon/olive oil dressing really shines)

        Check out Eating Well's bean & grain salad recipes, such as this example:

        My only tip for non-meat soups: onions. Lots and lots of onions. You can buy veggie stock, but add onions. Especially onions skins, which we all usually throw away. Then add the same ingredients as you would for a bean-and-grain salad. Yum, soup!

        2 Replies
        1. re: AnneInMpls

          Oughfgjshfgk so helpfullll thank you!!!! I'm just opening up my eyes to the variety that you can achieve with all these foods, and not needing to always find a recipe with complex ingredients. Thank you again so much!!!

          1. re: AnneInMpls

            I'd like to add freshly ground pepper and coarse salt to these lists.

          2. My favorite "almost instant" dressing for a green or grain salad:

            2 tsp Dijon mustard
            1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
            1 - 3 Tbsp olive oil
            Salt and pepper to taste

            Whisk together the mustard and balsamic vinegar until well combined. Then slowly whisk in the olive oil (drip by drip) until the dressing is thick. Continue to whisk until no oil is visible. This dressing stores well in the fridge for about a week - give it a final whisk before using.

            P.S. To whisk the dressing, you can use either a fork (which works well, with a little extra muscle) or you can splurge on a small whisk like this one:
            Me, I splurged because I make this dressing all the time.

            1. The beauty of soups and salads is you really don't need to follow recipes. It seems like you've figured out some nice flavor profiles, so just toss in whatever seems like it will taste good!

              My favorite veggie soups I've made were just ingredients I had on hand. I always start with a base of onions, carrots, celery, and garlic, sautéed in a bit of olive oil until soft (add garlic later to prevent it from burning). Cooking the mirepoix prior to adding the stock adds lots of good flavor to the soup.

              I'll then add anything from cubed potatoes to grains to green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, spinach/greens, tomatoes/tomato paste, fresh herbs... Whatever you have in your fridge--chances are it'll work.

              My mom always made chicken soup with homemade stock, then shredded the chicken and added sliced onions, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, white rice, and TONS of fresh cilantro. That was comfort food growing up--not by any means traditional or fitting a specific "type" of cuisine's flavor profile, but it was so so good. We stirred in hot sauce. Totally random.

              For salads, I agree with using a base of a nice neutral oil or olive oil you enjoy + lemon or vinegar + garlic. Salt and pepper to taste. Add some mustard, honey, maple syrup, even mayo or pasteurized eggs if you want to emulsify or have a creamier dressing.

              Fresh herbs, chopped fine, are a wonderful addition to a salad.

              As for the salad itself--choose a cooked grain (quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, white rice, pasta, etc.), some greens (red leaf/romaine/butter lettuce, bitter greens like arugula or radicchio, spinach, kale, etc.), fresh veggies AND/OR cooked veggies, chopped herbs, maybe some cheese or leftover meat, or beans/nuts/seeds.

              Roasted or grilled veggies are great in cold grain salads. Perfect for leftovers from dinner. I love roasted veg mixed with rice and some sort of sauce/dressing/vinaigrette. Depending on what the veg are, I'll drizzle with BBQ sauce, lemon/garlic vinaigrette, etc.

              I used to make a cold rice salad people loved--cooked and cooled rice, black beans, sweet corn, chopped tomatoes, roasted peppers, grilled onions, all chopped the same size then tossed with cilantro and a vinaigrette made of oil, lime juice, cumin, garlic, and some sort of pepper (chipotle, cayenne, or regular black pepper).

              1. My favorite soups always seem to have a bay leaf added for a long simmer. Recently I made a Mark Bittman recipe for Red Beans and Rice which started with the leftover bone and meat from a spiral ham. But I used dry pinto beans soaked over night and the rice is cooked separately. Put a scoop in a bowl land then top with soup. The rice flavor was still there instead of being overcooked. I think starting with dry beans also added to the flavor instead of using canned beans. It's not hard to remember to start beans soaking the night before.

                I wonder if you have recently changed your food habits so right now your taste buds haven't acclimated. Your ideas sound good so your diet shouldn't be boring. Once you get used to a simply salad dressing, the flavor of the salad ingredients will be more noticeable. You might need to make some changes such as buy romaine lettuce instead of iceberg (I think iceberg is too watery and tasteless). I like to add something crunchy like chopped broccoli. Tomatoes aren't very good in winter so for sweet and red I choose red peppers. If you are able to shop at a real farmers market, I think you'll also find tastier food. Here in NH, swiss chard grown in unheated high tunnels has a wonderful sweet flavor because of the cold weather. Not like summer grown chard at all. I've noticed that in the supermarket, spinach sold in bunches has more flavor than bagged spinach. No idea why that is.

                Roasting veggies also changes the flavor. Roasted winter squash (I prefer kabocha variety for flavor) with couscous or other grain or dried bean is a nice combination. Last night I tried adding preserved lemon for the first time. It was easy to make my own preserved lemon. Golden raisins added sweetness, raw almonds some crunch. Fresh parsley was a nice flavor contrast as well as color.

                Sweet red pepper, winter squash and dried beans make a good base for a soup or a salad. Their flavors go well together. Vary the flavor of red pepper by roasting it first.

                1. Try for five veggies in a soup or a salad, or four veggies plus one grain. The variety seems to be what makes it satisfying for me, and makes more of a difference for me than the dressing or broth-base.

                  I almost always have tomato in some form in my soups or salads. Cooked onion is magical, but I've learned that raw onion never tastes good to me so I omit that or substitute chopped chives. Try everything twice, but don't be shy about omitting ones that don't taste good to you.

                  A squeeze of fresh lime juice just before eating adds a nice finish for either soups or salads.

                  A handful of nuts or sprinkle of chopped nuts adds crunch and nutrition.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: MidwesternerTT

                    +1 on this, my best "salads" have been randomly thrown together but hit the sweet spot of having several textures - which seems to keep your taste buds more engaged. Crunchy, chewy, soft, creamy...and always have one item in the mix with a "bland" or "background" taste (like a plain grain or just lettuce) to balance.

                  2. Avocados bring a creamy texture and needed fats to vegan dishes that could otherwise lack satiety

                    fermented foods like kimchee can bring that extra zing

                    1. You're getting some great advice so far. My favs (some repeats of what others have said):

                      - A splash of lemon or lime juice at the end
                      - Make sure your food is properly seasoned with enough salt and early enough in the cooking process (keep tasting!)
                      - Roasted vegetables are totally addictive
                      - Cook your grains in a little vegetable stock to give them a little oomfph
                      - I really like wild rice salads. If you get the hand harvested/hand parched kind, it has a bit of a toasty flavor I like that is more appealing than the cultivated variety of wild rice.You can also experiment on your own with toasting your own grains in the skillet or oven to boost their flavor, millet, barley, amaranth, quinoa. http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/RCP02112/... (I'm not necessarily recommending this particular recipe as I've never tried it, just linking you to the concept of toasting the grains...
                      )-Also, sometimes, you can mix different grains in a salad to make it more interesting.
                      - It you can add some nuts, etc. try toasting them a little.
                      - I love toasted sesame seeds and sunflower seeds to sprinkle on just about everything. Or gomasio.Also, sadly out of season pomegranate seeds.
                      - Also, you can experiment with some healthful fats, like walnut oil. Use in moderation of course.
                      - mushrooms are fantastic for a bit of umami. Not vegan of course, but even a strip of bacon can go a long way.
                      - Not vegan of course, but a bit of parmesan cheese can add a lot of flavor. Or use your parm cheese rind (or ham hocks--also not vegan) in soups.
                      - Other interesting ingredients to experiment with: sundried tomatoes, preserved lemon, capers, olives, maple syrup, red pepper flakes,


                      1. As others have said, roasted vegetables add another dimension to taste. I use them as a base for soup, roasted cauliflower, squash, potatoes/sweet potatoes, onions, skinned tomatoes. Toss w/ olive oil, salt, pepper, spices (I like cumin and curry flavors). An immersion blender is your friend here.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: chowser

                          +2 on the roasted vegetables. As I've posted many times on these threads, a roasted mirepoix puree base is something I make and keep in my fridge that gets added to soups, beans, rice dishes, etc. There is a TON of flavor in it and a great starting point to add to.

                          I also like to keep Tandoori seasoning blend, Caribbean jerk seasoning blend, crushed mustard seeds, no salt lemon pepper, Zaatar seasoning, fresh ginger and coconut milk as well as saving most veggie scraps for stock.

                          One dish that I love to make is a Caribbean black eyed pea/sweet potato/spinach soup that normally has chicken & chicken stock to start but you can use vegetable stock and skip the chicken. Start with chopped onions, garlic, celery and carrots; sauté in a little oil and add diced sweet potatoes and sauté for a few minutes to get a little caramelization. Add soaked dried black eyed peas and veggie stock then simmer until nearly tender (or use a couple of cans peas, drained and well rinsed with the veg stock). Add a can of coconut milk and either a prepared dry jerk seasoning blend or a mix of cinnamon, allspice, thyme, dried ginger, cumin, salt, pepper, and onion powder along with jalapeno or habanero chopped, and scallions.

                          Simmer 10 minutes then add fresh spinach; thicken with cornstarch slurry, simmer another five minutes then re-adjust seasonings. I love this soup; the combination of coconut milk and Caribbean spices are perfect and the soup is pretty much healthy. Plus the longer it sits, the better it is.

                        2. Lots of great ideas here.

                          A couple of suggestions for meals that I enjoy..

                          Roasted <insert vegetable here> soup - my current favorite is carrots and onions. I chop both into large chunks, roast with a bit of salt and a few cloves of garlic and eat for dinner. Then the next day I add just enough stock to cover the leftovers, simmer, and then use an immersion blender to liquify everything and season. I intended to go with the classic of ginger/carrot combo the first time I did this, except I couldn't find my container of powdered ginger so I subbed in chinese 5 spice powder WOW! Instant new favorite. I served with a little bit of sour cream swirled in the soup, but you could easily omit that and it would still be fantastic. Try this with just about any other veggie - I've done caulifower with cumin, broccoli, tomatoes, etc.

                          Another thing I like to make are either couscous or quinoa salads. Prep a batch of the grain of your choice, and mix with an assortment of veggies and beans. I often do a can of artichoke hearts, a can of kidney, black, or garbanzo beans, diced up red and/or green peppers, some corn, some cucumber, lots of tomatoes (fresh in season, sundried out of season) - I aim for a total of about 1/3 or less grain, 2/3 veggies. Include whatever other veggies/herbs you have on hand, cooked or raw - this is a great way to clean out the fridge - and then make a vinegrette of some sort to drizzle over and toss. I can eat off a batch of this for 3 - 4 days, and it just gets tastier as all the flavors meld together. Sometimes I'll add a bit of meat to it, other times make it without. The combinations are endless - you could make the flavors fit any profile you want using the ingrediants in your orignal post - thai, chinese, italian, greek, etc.

                          Another way to make healthy and cheap is to make your own basic ingrediants. You can buy sun dried tomatoes, but they're expensive and I find they always have a somewhat chemical like after taste to them. Instead I buy tomatoes superr cheap at the peak of summer when they cost $1 for 3 lbs and dehydrate them in my oven. 5 lbs of romas can fit into a single sandwich sized ziplock baggie, which I then freeze. I probably dehydrate about 15 - 20 lbs of tomatoes each summer and use them liberally through the rest of the year any time a dish needs tomatoes rather than paying $3/lb for crappy tomatoes. You can do the same with plenty of other items too. i

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: JasFoodie

                            LOTS of veggies can be dehydrated for later use...I have dried tomatoes, onions, garlic, celery, sweet potatoes, peas, herbs...you can buy when affordable or grow your veggies and dry for later use. I use an electric dehydrator

                          2. I already replied on the veg board but a really delicious cheap condiment is reduced basalmic.
                            I buy a big bottle of the $5 stuff, dump in a pot and let simmer for a long time until its about 1/3 the original volume.
                            Crack the window, the vinegary fumes can be intense.
                            Then i add a bunch of cracked pepper and pinch of salt. I keep in the fridge (its good for......ever??) and use on plain veggies, rice, whatever needs some help. A little goes a long way!

                            1. I have to comment on your title. Since gradually beginning to like vegetables more and more over the years, I've come to regard meat and starch as being bland and vegetables as having more flavor. Just sayin'.


                              1 Reply
                              1. re: sandylc

                                I've been wanting to say this but the thread did offer great ideas. I love veggies and rarely feel the need to cover their bland flavor because I enjoy them for what they are. There are many days I literally crave steamed broccoli, for example. But again the ideas here are great.

                              2. A judicious use of salt and healthy fats (e.g. olive oil) go a long way to enhancing the natural flavors of food, including stratifying their inherent complexity.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  as does acid. most home cooks under-use both salt and acid.

                                  not every dish needs to be a cacophony of flavors.