I don’t mean thrown in the literal sense, not that I mind a good old-fashioned food fight. But today I’m talking about cooking, specifically, cooking quickly and with random ingredients found around the kitchen.
Today I found myself in that very situation. I had neither onion, nor tomato, nor tofu, three foods that wind up in most of my meals. But I did have leeks, garlic, leftover rice, some frozen chickpeas, and a bit of parsley in the fridge. So I turned the lot into a one-pot meal, served with a salad I cobbled from what vegetables were left in the fridge: a few salad leaves, carrots, celery, white onion, and avocado. The result? Not half bad!
This chickpea medley got me thinking about thrown-together meals. Tim often says that when he looks in the fridge, he usually has no idea how to turn the myriad of random ingredients into something edible. I have a feeling he’s not alone. Sure, it might seem easier to just cave in and order take-out. But when hungry and without a budget (either money-wise or calorie-wise) for eating out, sometimes its better to work with what’s around.
So how do you make a tasty meal out random stuff? Let’s start with the basics.
The three components of a thrown-together meal
That’s right, there are only three.
- Grains – Pasta works well for this, as does leftover rice, basmati rice, quinoa, or even a nice simple piece of toast.
- Protein – Canned beans and tofu are my two favorites.
- Vegetable – Whatever’s around, extra bonus if it’s green. Extra extra bonus if you have onion and garlic.
Hmm, these look suspiciously like the three components of any balanced deal. It just goes to show that you can turn a thrown-together meal into something nutritious and delicious!
How to turn these components into something edible
Here’s my number one piece of advice for all occasions: when in doubt, stir fry. I don’t necessarily mean an Asian stir fry, though that would do. I mean cook on a stove in a pan with some oil. Everything tastes good when stir-fried. This is where having that bonus onion really makes things delicious.
- Start cooking your grains – skip this step if you have leftover grains or are having bread or toast. Otherwise, boil a pot of water and add your pasta, rice, quinoa, whatever you’re working with. While the grains cook, do the following:
- Prepare your veggies – slice that onion, mince the garlic, floret the cauliflower, chop the parsley, you get the picture
- Heat up some oil in a large frying pan
- Add your veggies – If you’re using onion and garlic, saute this first. Add veggies in order of decreasing cooking time. Note: it is worth saving some veggies for the last minute, such as tomato, frozen peas, spinach, and chard. If you add them too soon they will overcook and get nasty.
- Add your protein – chickpeas, cubes or crumbles of tofu, an egg or two, whatever’s going. (Note: if you’re using meat here, I have no idea what the right thing to do is in terms of food safety. Perhaps a carnivore in the audience can enlighten me?) [Update for meat-eaters: BD clued me in on how to do this: “When stir-frying or sauteing meat, you add it just after the onion. Cook until brown or almost done, then add the veggies as you listed above. Meat needs more time to cook than veggies do. One-pot stir fries, vegetarian or not, are one of my regular meals.”]
- Add grains (optional) – If you have leftover rice or pasta, adding them to the stir fry is a great way to heat them up and make them delicious. Of course, you can always serve the grains separately.
Tips For Making It Easier
Here are a few things to keep on hand to make the most of your thrown-together meals:
- Herbs and spices – basil, oregano, mixed herbs, curry powder, crushed red pepper… dried herbs can really bring a thrown-together meal to life.
- Soy sauce – always good to have around, especially if you’re working with tofu
- Oil and vinegar – The oil is essential for stir fries, and good olive oil and balsamic vinegar can turn most veggies into a delicious salad
- Frozen veggies – I always have frozen peas and corn in the freezer, and if I spot some of my fresh veggies about to lose it before I’m ready to use it, I chuck them in the freezer.
- Frozen beans and tofu – When I cook beans, I make them from dry in big large batches, then freeze the leftovers in handy portions. Same goes for leftover tofu.
- You can’t go wrong with simple, whole ingredients – take my chickpeas and rice as an example. There was no way it was going to taste lousy or bland. But if I had sprinkled it with some dubious pre-made spice blend or stir fry sauce, it could have been disaster. I’m not knocking all pre-packaged sauces, it’s just that most are too salty, sweet, or unexpected. I’d rather use ingredients I know and avoid sad surprises.
Thrown-Together Meal Ideas
- Tofu Scramble with toast – Scrambled tofu is my go-to thrown together meal, in case you haven’t noticed. Veggie combos that work well: onion, potato, bell peppers, tomato, basil or parsley; onion, carrots, peas; onions, carrots, kale or kavalo nero; onion, red pepper, broccoli, parsley; onion, mushroom, tomato, kale; onion, cabbage, tomato, celery seed, caraway seed
- Omelet with toast – Omelets were my staple food in 2005/2006. Stir fry an onion and some veggies, add a whisked egg or two, wait a little bit, and you’re done. Vegan? Try a tofu omelet or a besan cheela!
- Asian stir fry with rice – Some vegetarians live on stair-fries. I barely make them. I don’t know why; I guess my tastes tend
more towards Indian or “European” rather than Chinese or Japanese. But sometimes I’m keen, and stir fries are handy when the random fridge ingredients include garlic, ginger, chili and tofu. I season mine simply with sesame oil and soy sauce. Cassie at Veggie Meal Plans is a master of simple stir fries.
- Pasta with veggies – Pasta and chickpeas are a great combo and go well with just about any kind of veggie. Check out Andrea’s kitchen sink pasta for more delicious ideas
- Rice and beans – What could be simpler? And more simply delicious? You can go mexican themed with black beans, corn, bell pepper, maybe some salsa, cumin and chile. Or experiment, as I did with chickpeas. It’s really hard to mess up!
- Bean soup – Beans, lentils, veggies, stock, maybe a tin of tomatoes, some mixed herbs. It’s that easy. Green lentils work really for this because they cook fast! See my recipe for fast and easy green lentil soup for inspirado.
- Fried rice with egg or tofu – If you’ve got leftover rice, onion, ginger, and some eggs or tofu, fried rice is deeeelicious. And why stop at rice? You can do the same with other grains, like quinoa or farro!
Hit me with your best thrown-together meal ideas in the comments!