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Before the holidays, many pay extra attention to nutrition, given the rich foods that inevitably are part of festivals. But this preholiday period can be particularly rushed, making it harder to put energy and time into cooking everyday meals.
Still, there are plenty of delicious, easy ways to make late-summer meals more wholesome without devoting much time to their preparation. One way to make meals satisfying and increase their beneficial nutrients is to incorporate whole grains. Some grains cook rapidly; quinoa, bulgur wheat and kasha can be ready in 15 minutes.
Whole-grain pasta is an even faster-cooking choice than most grains. Noodles and all sorts of pasta shapes come in whole-grain versions and cook just as quickly as refined-flour pasta. Fastest of all is whole-wheat couscous, which, like regular couscous, can be ready in five minutes.
One strategy for easy meals is to consider a dish of whole grains as the basis of the entree rather than as an accompaniment. Grains contain protein, which can easily be augmented with the addition of beans, such as canned chickpeas or white beans, cooked chicken, smoked fish or a modest amount of flavorful cheese, like crumbled feta, goat cheese or grated kashkaval. Nuts also contain protein, especially pine nuts, almonds, pistachios and peanuts, which are actually legumes, and are a delicious complement to grains; so are seeds such as pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
Some may find the color of brown rice and other whole grains less appealing than that of white rice but, after sampling, many people enjoy the taste of whole-grain foods and often find them more flavorful than refined-grain versions. Try different kinds of rice medleys and whole wheat breads; you are likely to find plenty that will please you.
Lorna Sass, author of The New Vegan Cookbook, advocates an "as-you-please grain and bean salad" - mix any cooked grain with a can of beans, chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, dill or basil, pungent ingredients such as capers, olives or sun-dried tomatoes, cooked or raw vegetables, dried fruit if you like and vinaigrette dressing.
Ken Haedrick, author of Feeding the Healthy Vegetarian Family, makes a barley and black bean salad with diced red peppers, fresh coriander and an olive oil dressing. For an easy, colorful couscous salad, he adds corn, diced tomatoes and avocado and seasons the medley with sauteed onion, cumin, parsley and wine vinegar.
The chefs at Kashi, a company specializing in whole grain products, have come up with numerous creative ways to combine grains with vegetables. For their tasty Tuscan-style veggie pasta, they combine whole-grain noodles with diced roasted eggplant, yellow squash, roasted sweet potatoes and lentils with a peppery basil tomato sauce and extra-virgin olive oil. To make a Mediterranean medley, they recommend mixing cooked whole grains with toasted pine nuts, diced red and yellow peppers, fresh basil and garlic vinaigrette spiked with red pepper flakes.
Sass cooks whole grains the way she cooks pasta, in an abundance of boiling water in an uncovered pot, then drains them and lets the tender grains steam in the hot, covered pot for a few minutes. This technique often shortens the cooking time by five or 10 minutes. Best of all, "you'll end up with perfectly cooked morsels every time."
BULGUR WHEAT SALAD
WITH BASIL, WALNUTS AND FRESH AND SUN-DRIED TOMATOES
One of the world's first fast foods, bulgur has been a staple in the Middle East since ancient times. Basically bulgur is wheat that has been steamed, dried and cracked in small pieces. This process makes the wheat fast and easy to prepare.
Bulgur wheat's rich, nutty taste makes it perfect for all sorts of salads beyond traditional tabbouleh. You can serve this salad warm, cold or at room temperature. You can add a diced avocado instead of the walnuts.
â€¢ 3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
â€¢ 1 onion, chopped
â€¢ 11â„4 cups bulgur wheat
â€¢ 21â„2 cups chicken or vegetable broth or water
â€¢ salt and freshly ground pepper
â€¢ 1â„2 tsp. dried oregano
â€¢ 1â„4 to 1â„2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes,
cut in bite-size pieces
â€¢ 4 small meaty tomatoes, diced
â€¢ 2 green onions, thinly sliced
â€¢ 1â„3 cup fresh basil in thin strips
â€¢ 1 Tbsp. lemon juice, balsamic vinegar or
wine vinegar (optional)
â€¢ 1â„3 cup walnuts, toasted
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a medium saucepan, add chopped onion and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add bulgur and saute for 2 minutes. Add broth, salt, pepper and oregano and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes or until wheat is tender and liquid is absorbed. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.
Stir in sun-dried and fresh tomatoes, green onions and basil. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding remaining oil and lemon juice if you like. Serve sprinkled with toasted walnuts.
Makes 4 servings.
BROWN RICE SALAD
WITH GREEN BEANS, CHICKPEAS, RAISINS AND PECANS
Fresh mint gives this salad a lovely aroma, and the dried fruit and toasted nuts make a festive garnish. Serve it cold or at room temperature as a vegetarian main course, or substitute 2 cups diced cooked chicken or turkey for the chickpeas. If you're in a rush, use frozen green beans instead of fresh, or use frozen mixed vegetables instead of the green beans and carrots.
The brown rice is cooked in plenty of water like pasta, with one difference - instead of adding the rice to boiling water as you do with pasta, you combine the rice with room-temperature water and bring the mixture to a boil.
To get ahead, cook brown rice and other whole grains in advance and freeze in microwave-safe containers.
â€¢ 11â„2 cups brown rice
â€¢ salt and freshly ground pepper
â€¢ 11â„2 cups diced carrots
â€¢ 2 cups cut green beans (in 2.5-cm. pieces)
â€¢ 1 to 2 Tbsp. herb vinegar or white wine
â€¢ 3 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or canola
â€¢ a 400-gr. can chickpeas, drained
â€¢ 1â„3 cup minced green onion or white onion
â€¢ 1â„4 to 1â„3 cup raisins - dark, golden or a
â€¢ 1â„4 cup chopped fresh mint
â€¢ 1â„3 cup toasted pecans
In a large saucepan combine rice with 8 to 10 cups water and add a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Boil uncovered about 35 minutes or until tender; check by tasting. Drain well. Return to the pan, cover and let stand a few minutes to steam. Transfer to a bowl and fluff gently with a fork. Let cool to room temperature.
Add carrots and green beans to a saucepan of boiling salted water. Boil uncovered over high heat for 5 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender. Drain well.
Whisk 1 tablespoon vinegar with 3 tablespoons oil and salt and pepper to taste. Mix gently with rice. Add chickpeas, carrots, green beans, onion and raisins and mix lightly. Add mint. Taste and adjust seasoning; add more oil and vinegar if desired. Serve sprinkled with pecans.
Makes 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.