I shared with you our reasons for transitioning towards a plant-based lifestyle in my last post. When we decided to stop eating dairy, followed by meat and fish, it took me some time to work out what we could eat. I’d been vegetarian during my teens and early twenties, and we were never big meat eaters by any stretch, but most of our meals were at least seasoned with a touch of Parmesan, yoghurt, feta, butter, pancetta or anchovy, and we were certainly partial to decent steak, sushi and roast chicken. Making nutritious, balanced meals without any animal products was a challenge, and I had to work out how to put together breakfast, lunches and dinners in a whole new way.
I knew that I wanted our family to eat healthily, which for us meant no animal products (save for a few eggs from our chickens and a little local honey), no refined sugar, less reliance on wheat (and corn and soy) and an interesting variety of plants. I love cooking (and eating) and wanted to continue creating exciting dishes that were full of flavour, without spending a ridiculous amount on food each week.
It took a little trial and error, which included subsisting on mainly courgettes and aubergines from the vegetable patch last summer and coming up with creative ideas to use up the many opened packets of different grains and seeds in the pantry, but I think we’ve finally nailed how to eat well. Now that we know what we like to eat I can make dishes based around our favourite foods (no mean feat with almost 5 year old and a not-quite toddler), and it makes both meal planning and shopping a cinch.
I want to share with you the ingredients I stock in my healthy, plant-based wholefoods pantry, starting with what I think of as the backbone (no pun intended) of my cooking: grains and pulses.
What is a wholegrain?
A whole grain is a complex carbohydrate, meaning they’re wrapped in fibre and take longer than refined grains for our body to digest. This slower absorption rate helps to regulate glucose levels (blood sugar) and balance us, which minimises blood sugar spikes, crashes and food cravings.
Whole grains are high in B vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc and magnesium, and contain antioxidants and phytochemicals that can help prevent disease. Here are some of the grains I consider essential in my kitchen:
- Brown Rice: For me, its nutty flavour took some getting used to, but now I much prefer the texture and taste over white rice. I tend to keep long grain or Basmati as standard, but I love brown sushi rice and brown Jasmine rice too. It takes longer to cook than white rice, around 40 minutes instead of 10 or 12, but soaking the rice beforehand can lessen the cooking time a little. There are some concerns about the level of natural arsenic found in rice, particularly wholegrain, so we try to keep our consumption of brown rice to once or twice a week. We eat it with curries and dahls, in kitchadi (I love My New Roots’ version) and congee, and to thicken the soup we eat for lunch two or three times a week, in place of bread.
- Quinoa: Technically a ‘pseudo-cereal grain’, quinoa (KEEN-wah, in case you’re wondering) has reached a kind of superfood status in recent years that, unfortunately, is reflected in its price. We love it for it’s mild, nutty taste, quick cooking (around 15 minutes) and the fact it is a complete protein, so a great option for vegans. Right now we’re enjoying it in bowls with sweet potatoes, gentle spices and coconut milk, with black beans, roast carrots and guacamole, and fried with pineapple, cashews, peas and a spicy peanut butter and soy sauce. Be sure to rinse well before cooking (and, ideally, soaking) to remove the bitter saponin coating.
- Oats: We eat oats at least once a day, and I love that they contain a decent amount of protein (at 16.9g per 100g, they’re higher in protein than wheat, quinoa and brown rice) and are lactogenic, so a great option for breastfeeding mamas. They’re naturally gluten-free, but if gluten is an issue for you be sure to buy oats that are certified gluten-free, as they can be contaminated during processing, and are often grown next to wheat, barley and rye crops. They’re breakfast for us most days, either as porridge, Bircher muesli or granola, and often find their way into smoothies, flapjacks and cookies.
Other amazing grains to try include pot barley, which yields a chewy texture and is almost impossible to over cook. It is great in hefty winter vegetable soups, and it made for an amazing Christmas eve lunch braise, with chestnuts, parsnips, Brussels and white wine. Millet is delicious and cheap, with a soothing, comforting quality. I like to use it in place of mashed potatoes, to soak up the juices or gravy from stews and braises. Amaranth, like quinoa, is a pseudo-cereal native to South America. It is considered a complete protein and tends to be significantly cheaper than quinoa. It needs careful coking as it’s texture can be a little gummy, but makes a good porridge. I also like to make bread, pancakes and chapattis with rye and buckwheat flours. Rye has a fruity, almost fermented flavour and makes good soda bread, and buckwheat, another pseudo-cereal is used here in France to make delicious thin, lacy crepes that we stuff with roasted veggies.
The low-down on pulses:
Pulses are edible seeds of plants in the legume family. They’re cheap, nutrient-dense and sustainable, and so find their way into our meals daily. Beans and lentils are some of the best food choices we can make with regards to our carbon footprint, according to the Environmental Working Group, and in general, are unlikely to be genetically modified.
It takes a little planning, but I like to buy whole, dried organic pulses. Tinned, cooked pulses are more convenient and, for me, will do in a pinch, but often contain high levels of sodium and the cans can be lined with BPA; a toxic industrial chemical that may find its way into our food. Instead, a couple of times a week I’ll measure out some beans or chickpeas to soak overnight in roughly twice the amount of filtered water, then drain, rinse and put on the stove with fresh filtered water to boil at breakfast time the following morning. You can add aromatics; peppercorns, garlic, bay or thyme, although don’t add salt until the pulses are cooked as it is said to toughen them. I always make more than we need; they keep in the fridge for up to 5 days and I like to store batches in the freezer, ready for quick meals. Here are some of our favourites:
- Lentils: One of the most environmentally sustainable foods we can eat, lentils are high in fibre and protein, with a low glycemic index. I adore red lentils, they’re quick to cook, have the most comforting smell and are great for soups, curries, chillies and dhals. France has amazing green lentils (and the ones from Le Puy have a protected designation of origin status) and we eat them regularly. They hold their shape better than red lentils and have a firm and nutty bite, and add heft to salads, pairing well with beetroot, walnuts, fennel, apple and carrots. I also use them where I’d normally use meat, such as in a Bolognese sauce for spaghetti, or a smoky Barbacoa to load into tacos.
- Chickpeas: One of our favourite pulses, and one that I’d recommend cooking from scratch as they’re bigger, with a firmer texture and nuttier flavour. We eat hummus pretty regularly, and they’re amazing in a ‘no tuna’ sandwich filling with tahini, maple syrup, cornichons and capers. Chickpeas also add bulk and a good dose of protein to curries and tagines, and one of our favourite snacks is to eat them, dry-roasted, with a touch of cumin, smoked paprika, cinnamon and salt.
- Black Beans: Also known as turtle beans, these are good in just about any Mexican dish. We enjoy them on homemade nachos with a ‘cheese’ sauce made from almond milk, garlic and nutritional yeast, and in tacos, burrito bowls and as a topping for roast sweet potatoes, often with avocado, corn, lime juice, mango and chilli.
- Cannellini Beans: Cook with tomato paste, smoked paprika, maple syrup, garlic and a little splash of apple cider vinegar. Home-made (healthy) baked beans. Need I say more?
- Mung Beans: These are the classic sprouting bean which, by the way, is so easy to do at home and a fun project with children. I also use them to make soothing Ayurvedic dhals and kitchadi.
Most pulses must be soaked for at least 8 hours or overnight before cooking, but I try to soak all grains, pulses, seeds and nuts, as this unlocks vital nutrients and makes them easier to digest. I also like to add a square-inch Kombu seaweed to the cooking pot, which again limits grains’ and pulses’ famous side effects, and also has the added benefit of seasoning whatever you’re cooking.
I always buy organic grains and pulses as they’re still relatively inexpensive, especially if you buy from bulk bins at health food stores where turnover tends to be high and, as a bonus, your purchase doesn’t include lots of plastic packaging (I take these on shopping trips). Here in France, I Like La Vie Claire, Biocoop and Le Marché du Léopold. I also buy in bulk from Buy Whole Foods, a UK based company that stock a good range of grains and pulses, plus dried fruit, nuts, seeds, nut butters, miso, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil and lots more. Delivery in the UK is free when you spend £30, and free to France when you spend over €114. Holland & Barrett are also worth a look, as they often have ‘buy one get one half price’ on a large selection of stock, Next day delivery is free when you spend £25, and delivery to France is a flat fee of £6.99. At home I like to store my grains and pulses in glass Le Parfait jars in an open shelf in the kitchen.
What are your wholefood staples? I’m always interested to try new ingredients and recipes, and would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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