Once you understand the syntax of basic plant-based dishes, you don’t need to spend hours on Pinterest anymore.
When I started cooking only plant-based food, I relied on recipes a lot. As a type-A uber-organized busy professional with a family to feed, I was already a devoted meal planner. Now I spent extra time poring over the slick pages of my two vegan cookbooks (including the wonderful Isa Does It), deciding what would make an acceptable dinner for my husband and toddler, and obsessing about getting all the right ingredients.
Three years later, I found myself writing those recipes. I had pivoted my career from research management in academia to creating my own tiny business in which I offered a vegan meal planning service. I figured that if I was going to be so organized, it might as well benefit others. My goal with the meal plans was not to wow my subscribers with exotic new dishes every week — because who’s got time for that? Rather, I hoped to make it easy and accessible for busy folks like me to cook a variety of familiar, delicious, and nutritious plant-based meals, without headaches.
After a few weeks, I came to a sobering realization: all recipes are the same.
If all recipes are the same, then why does an Internet search for “vegetarian chili recipe” yield 1.5 billion results?!
Because recipes sell ads. And cookbooks. (I have a lot more than 2 of those now.)
But the truth is: all of those vegetarian chili recipes are more or less the same, whether they are “homemade,” “actually the best,” or “the ultimate.”
They all start by sautéing a diced onion along with some other vegetables (usually carrots, celery, and bell peppers) and garlic. Then, they’ll add beans or some other protein-dense food, along with liquid ingredients (mostly vegetable broth and often tomatoes). Some additional seasonings will follow. Simmer for a while and, tada! Veggie chili is ready. Sprinkle with your favorite toppings and you’ve got a classic dish.
Various bloggers and cooks have various ideas about the relative quantity of seasonings, the color of the beans, and the type of liquid they use in their chili. I personally love dark beer instead of part of the broth. Others add soy sauce for umami. But really those are just preferences, and I would suggest that you experiment and find out what works for you. Assuming that you taste ingredients before adding them, keep the heat under control (from the stove or from spice), and avoid dropping the entire salt box into the dish, it’ll be fine. Pay attention to what you did, notice the results, and adjust for next time.
Now, wait, it gets better:
You can use that chili recipe above to make curry. Yes!
You’ll be using different seasonings, but the process is more or less the same. Going wild, you might change the order of the steps to make an India-inspired tadka and add the oil-tempered tempered spices and aromatics on top of the dish at the end. That’s a variation, not a revolution.
Once you have learned the technique by doing it once, and paying attention as you go, you won’t need a recipe to do it again.
Use more herbs like basil, parsley, and thyme, and a bit less liquid, and you’ve got something like a veggie-based Bolognese sauce. You can serve it with pasta of course, but also use it to stuff vegetables and roast them, or create your own Sloppy Joe open-faced sandwiches.
Add more liquid instead, and you’ve got soup.
I’ve just given you one recipe and you can make an infinite number of dishes from it (without the aid of the Internet).
You might get bored from this, so you can try something else: the stir-fry. It also offers infinite variations, always with lots of heat and speed, but with various ingredients. Endless possibilities (again).
Then there are slow simmered grain-based dishes such as risotto, paella, jambalaya, and various porridges. Different cultures have put their different spin and names onto their traditional dishes, reflecting their language, history, and cookware, but the general logic underpinning the dishes remains the same.
To those basic three (stews/soups, stir-fries, and simmered grain dishes), I would add loaves (which can also be shaped as burger patties or as balls) and roasted things (sheet-pan dinners). There, you have it: five general recipes that you can use to improvise endless dinners.
Of course, there are many dishes in the world’s culinary repertoire that are not exactly based on the blueprint above, and you may want to grab a cookbook to learn about them sometime. But, on a day-to-day basis, when it comes to cooking to feed yourself and your family some enjoyable meals that have all the nutrients you need to thrive, it doesn’t need to get so fancy. Those five recipes will do.
So what’s the point of my meal plans then?
Just like my mom used to say, the worst thing about cooking remains deciding what’s for dinner. I find that dedicating a time to meal planning enabled me to use my imagination more to come up with diverse meals that use a broad range of plant-based ingredients, with extra flavor. Otherwise, I get stuck in a rut and we have spaghetti all the time. Now that the work is done for a full year, I have a collection of 260 dinners I can run through every year without getting bored — and without having to look at the steps or think too much.
How many more recipes does one need, anyway?
Brigitte Gemme is a vegan food educator, meal planner, and coach. After a PhD in sociology of higher education and a 15-year career in research management, she got impatient with the slow pace of planet-friendly change and decided to help individuals live a gentler life. If you need help deciding what’s for dinner, check out her meal plans at VeganFamilyKitchen.com. If you need personal guidance and accountability to embrace a gentler lifestyle, consider signing up for a free week with her using coupon code BRIGITTEWEEK on coach.me. Brigitte loves nothing more than helping more people eat more plants.