Improvise in Your Kitchen
Start Simple: Eleven Everyday Ingredients for Countless Weeknight Meals
By Lukas Volger
Harper Wave, 2020
Finding a recipe, making a list of ingredients, then shopping for them doesn’t make a lot of sense right now when many people are trying to shelter in place. In his new vegetarian cookbook, Lukas Volger cleverly shows how to change up that daily-shopping approach to cooking by building recipes from 11 basic ingredients found in most pantries: sweet potatoes, tortillas, eggs, cabbage, hearty greens, beans, winter squash, mushrooms, tofu, summer squash, and cauliflower. Volger offers 140 recipes for cooking up those basics in simple, creative, and tasty ways with minimal additional ingredients. All recipes are vegetarian, and most can be easily tweaked for vegans.
I made the simple quick-cooking Spicy Bean and Greens Polenta from the Beans Canned and Dried chapter (recipe below). Starting with dried pinto beans (Rancho Gordo, the heirloom beans in bags, basic beans in bins, anything sturdy will work), I soaked and boiled them according to instructions provided. You can also use canned beans, skip right to seasoning them in a skillet with harissa and garlic, mix in chopped kale (other greens can be substituted), top with a little Parmesan, and you’re ready to serve.
While the polenta was cooking, I quickly assembled the Smoky Chickpea Salad, a simple dish made with canned chickpeas, olive oil, garlic, parsley, smoked paprika, and a pinch of red pepper (recipe below). It was simple, easy, hearty, and filling. We scraped the serving bowls clean for every last bit. Other recipes in the book I’m ready to try next? Ancho Bean Chili; Eggs Baked in Kimchi; Cheesy Cabbage and White Bean Soup; Toast with Spinach, Smoked Paprika Oil, and a Fried Egg; and Gingery Maple Pudding Cake.
Edible East Bay’s book editor Kristina Sepetys is eager to share her ideas and book recommendations with our readers.
The recipes below are from Start Simple: Eleven Everyday Ingredients for Countless Weeknight Meals by Lukas Volger and photography by Cara Howe, Harper Wave, 2020, republished with permission.
SPICY BEANS AND GREENS OVER POLENTA
Here’s a simple but decadent main, where a pool of soft, freshly cooked polenta is the vessel for savory, brothy beans and wilted greens. The spiciness comes by way of store-bought harissa, the Tunisian chile paste that’s sometimes sold in a super-handy aluminum tube (the one made by Entube is my favorite). I find harissa to be such a great back-pocket ingredient, especially for simple dishes like this that welcome an assertive flavor direction. For the beans: “meaty” beans like gigante beans or big limas make an impression, as do any jewel-like heirloom bean you might be saving for a special occasion. Omitting the Parmesan garnish makes this an easy option for vegan guests.
1 cup polenta
½ teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for cooking
2 teaspoons harissa
3 cloves garlic, sliced
5 ounces spinach, baby kale, or stemmed Swiss chard, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 cups Brothy Beans (see recipe below)
Grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper
Prepare the polenta: In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and add the salt. While whisking, sprinkle in the polenta and keep whisking until the polenta incorporates into the liquid (rather than sinks to the bottom), 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest setting and simmer uncovered, whisking periodically to prevent the bottom from scorching, until the polenta is thick and the grains are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Make sure to taste as you go, but use caution—it’s very, very hot right out of the pot. Whisk in the olive oil.
Meanwhile, warm a splash of olive oil in a medium skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the harissa and garlic. Cook until the garlic begins to soften, just about a minute, then add the greens and cook until wilted. Pour off any liquid in the pan and transfer the greens to a plate. Add the beans and their broth to the skillet and heat through, bringing the liquid to a simmer. Just before you’re ready to serve, stir in the wilted greens. Divide the polenta among 4 shallow serving bowls and spoon the beans over the top. Top each serving with cheese, if desired, and serve, passing the pepper at the table.
With home-cooked beans on hand in the refrigerator, this fueling and variable type of breakfast comes together very quickly. It utilizes the beans and the broth: Rather than using a slotted spoon to scoop out the beans, use a ladle, so as to collect the broth along with the beans. Substitute onion for the scallion, and incorporate all manner of leftover vegetables to embellish or replace:
This is practically a one-stop meal—it needs no other accompaniment except maybe a few slices of garlic-rubbed toast on the side. I prefer the smaller, firmer lentils like Puy and beluga lentils to the standard brown or green ones in this dish because they retain their shape and some firmness, but either will work. But if you opt for standard brown and green lentils, be aware that they typically cook more quickly.
Makes about 6 cups of beans with broth
1 pound dried beans, soaked overnight (or not)
1 tablespoon salt, plus more to taste
¼ cup olive oil
Place the beans in a large pot and cover with about 2 inches of water. Put over high heat and bring to a boil. Add the salt and olive oil and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, stirring every now and then and skimming off any foam that gathers on the surface. Start checking for doneness after 30 minutes—either by tasting a bean or by cutting it in half. If the beans start to poke above the surface, add more water to keep them submerged—there should be enough liquid for the beans to be covered, but not swimming around. As you taste, also check for seasoning, adding more salt as needed. Before removing from the heat, make sure to taste several beans, all of which should be thoroughly tender. To store, let cool, then transfer—both the beans and their cooking liquid—to airtight containers and keep in the fridge for 3 to 5 days.
SMOKY CHICKPEA SALAD WITH OLIVES AND LEMON
For this salad, you’ll first create a super-flavorful oil, in which you’ve bloomed smoked paprika and added aromatic lemon zest and garlic to sizzle. Then it gets poured over the beans, cloaking them in flavor. Just before serving, whole parsley leaves are folded in—they mimic salad greens but have much more flavor. Add a split soft-boiled egg on the side and you’ve got a very satisfying lunch.
Serves 4 as a side
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced
12 good olives, such as Kalamata or Castelvetrano, pitted and coarsely chopped or torn
¾ teaspoon smoked paprika
Pinch red pepper flakes
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
¾ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup whole parsley leaves
Use a vegetable peeler to remove 3 thick strips of zest from the lemon. Combine them with the olive oil, garlic, olives, smoked paprika, and red pepper flakes in a small skillet and set over low heat. Let warm and gently sizzle for 5 to 10 minutes, until the garlic is tender.
Place the chickpeas in a large bowl. Pour the oil and contents of the skillet over the chickpeas and add the salt and several grinds of black pepper. Add half of the juice from the lemon, taste, and add more if necessary. Before serving, toss with the parsley leaves. You won’t eat the lemon peel, but I usually leave it in the serving dish for decoration if dishing out at the table. Serve warm or at room temperature.