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While I was in Costa Rica, I worked with a personal chef on a concept for creating hundreds of easy plant based meals from scratch.  One of the most common things I have heard from many of you is that it is overwhelming to learn a whole new way of cooking. One of the challenges that I have personally faced is that I was dependent on cookbooks and recipes. This requires preplanned grocery shopping and often more brain cells than I have after a long workday!

I had an idea on how to make cooking from scratch so much easier on us, and Chef Stefania was totally in line with this idea. Now I want to share it with you!

What was my discovery?

While traveling and trying out many different recipes, I started to notice that there are many similarities in dishes from different regions in the world. My engineer brain got to work and started deconstructing plant based cooking. Most regions have some version of sautéed vegetables and just add seasoning and other ingredients based on their region – Spanish Paella, Indian curry, Thai curry, Puerto Rican Mofongo, French Ratatouille, Italian sautéed side dishes, etc.

Could it really be as easy as sautéeing our choice of veggies and adding different seasoning to make completely different dishes? YES.

The problem is many of us have no clue how to season dishes without using a recipe.

Overview of this post

I have structured this post with general instructions on how to sauté veggies, followed by a guide to seasoning using flavors from different regions of the world. I would suggest bookmarking this page so you can refer back to it when attempting to cook a veggie sauté from random veggies in your fridge.

If you follow this guide and cook up something delicious, share it with me on Instagram (@cancer.free.lifestyle) or Facebook (@cancerfreelifestyle) and #cancerfreelifestyle.

What does this have to do with preventing and fighting cancer?

Well first of, we know that eating more plants (i.e. veggies) improves our health. We also know from research that people who eat more veggies have a lower risk of developing cancer. Additionally, many herbs and spices have anti-cancer properties.

Check out my posts on a whole foods plant-based diet and top cancer-fighting foods for more information.

What is the basic framework for creating hundreds of different sautéed dishes?

This is so simple! No need to make it complicated or stressful. Just follow these very basic steps and you will be off on your own in no time! Read this full section before you get started.

Pick your veggies

Pick any veggies. You could have a bunch of different vegetables or make it simple with just a few (like onions, mushrooms, and spinach). Some examples of veggies to sauté: eggplant, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms, onions, kale, bell peppers, cabbage, yams, zucchini, squash, spinach, tomatoes, celery, etc. The trick is to keep a variety of these types of veggies in your fridge so you have choices when you are ready to cook.

Cut your veggies

Cut veggies in any style. You can make very different dishes just by changing the size of your cuts. Keep the sizes approximately the same across the different veggies so they cook evenly. I recently bought this mandolin and this julienne peeler and it makes it so much easier to make different types of cuts.

Here is a nice article from WikiHow on different ways to cut vegetables.

Prepare the pan

Add some heat stable oil to the pan (example: avocado oil or coconut oil. If adding oil for flavor, do so only when food is on very low heat or is off the stove. See my post on what types of oil to use here). Option to sauté in water or broth if not using oil.

Sauté veggies

If you are cooking with onions and garlic, sauté those first until onions are soft. Sauté harder veggies (i.e. carrots) before the softer ones (i.e. mushrooms). If you decide to cut your veggies in different sizes, keep in mind smaller cuts will cook faster than larger cuts and softer veggies will cook faster than harder veggies so you may want to adjust the order of adding the veggies in the pan. If you want veggies to be a little more plump and juicy, add a little water while sautéing. If you add the water at the beginning, the veggies will be softer, juicier, and mushier. If you add the water towards the end, they will be a little more crunchy.

Add herbs and spices

Use fresh herbs whenever possible (ex: Fresh basil, cilantro, parsley). You can play around with the timing of when to add the spices. I tend to add some flavor in the beginning to let the veggies soak it up, and then adjust to taste as they cook. Do a few taste tests along the way, and once it is the desired taste and consistency, they are ready to serve! I also like to top my dishes with a bit of the fresh herbs when I’m serving it.

Cook/Prepare desired base for the meal (optional): 

The veggies can be a meal/side dish on their own. You could also add them on top of a base. For example: lentils, quinoa, brown rice, veggie noodles, mashed plantains, greens, salad, tortillas, etc – get creative! Some bases, like rice, take longer to cook so think about what you’d like as your base so you can get that cooking before you start sautéing.

Clean up while the veggies cook:

There will be some downtime when the veggies are simmering and the base is cooking. I use this time to clean up my mess from chopping veggies. Then my kitchen is nice and clean when it is time to eat.

Be playful!

You will make some dishes you love and others that feed you for the night but you probably won’t make it again. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t and have a playful attitude with cooking. Laugh when you accidentally dump the whole bottle of cumin in the pan (I did that in a vegetarian chili that I had simmering for hours and it pretty much ruined the chili.. but I scooped out as much as I could and we all had a good laugh and ate it anyway). You aren’t expected to be a professional chef, so stop putting that pressure on yourself. You are simply feeding your body with good healthy food. It takes practice to master the right balance of flavors. But until then you can make some pretty basic tasty meals with this technique.

What herbs, spices, and seasoning should I try?

Try out these different flavor profiles for variety in your meals! I like to keep a lot of these ingredients on hand so that I can throw together quick last minute meals. I typically either grow my own fresh herbs or buy my favorite fresh herbs (basil, cilantro, oregano) when I am at the store.

Use fresh herbs and fresh garlic (minced) whenever you can.

Use sea salt and ground pepper if you can. Add salt one pinch at a time and add it near the beginning of your cooking. If you wait too late, you will tend to want to oversalt your dish. Taste test along the way and season to taste.

I have included “easy” versions, and in some cases have listed some other options to try and some spice blends from these regions.

Italian

Easy: 

  • Garlic
  • Oregano (fresh)
  • Tomato sauce
  • Chopped olives
  • Extra Virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of brown sugar
  • S&P

Others to try:

  • Basil, Parsley, Bay leaves, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Marjoram
  • White wine vinegar
  • Capers

French

Easy: 

  • Garlic
  • Parsley (fresh), Basil (fresh)
  • Red wine
  • Salt & Pepper

Others to try:

  • Sage, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Marjoram, lavender
  • Extra virgin olive oil for flavor
  • Wine
  • Veggie stock

Seasoning blend: 

Spanish:

Easy:

  • Garlic
  • Parsley (fresh)
  • Chile flakes, Saffron (very expensive so can be skipped, has a lot of flavor if you can afford it)
  • Lemon zest
  • Veggie broth
  • Sea Salt & Ground Pepper

Others to try:

  • Bay leaf (in broth/sauce for flavoring)
  • Paprika, Cayenne pepper (small amount)
  • Lemon juice
  • Extra Virgin olive oil

Greek

Easy:

  • Garlic
  • Oregano (fresh)
  • Tomato paste
  • Olives
  • Red onion
  • Lemon
  • Red wine vinegar
  • Olive oil

Chinese

Easy:

  • Fresh Ginger (minced)
  • Bamboo Sprouts
  • Scallions/Green onions
  • Soy/tamari sauce (organic)
  • Sesame oil (for flavor, low/no heat)
  • S&P

Others to try:

  • Garlic
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Bamboo
  • Hoisin sauce (organic)
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Cinnamon, cloves (small amount)
  • Fennel

Seasoning blend: 

Indian

Easy: 

  • Garlic
  • Coconut milk or veggie broth
  • Cilantro
  • Coriander, Cumin, Cardamom, Ginger
  • Salt & pepper

Others to try:

  • Nutmeg, Fenugreek (very little needed), Cloves (very little needed)
  • Poppy seeds, Fennel seeds
  • Cashews

Seasoning blend: 

Moroccan

Easy:

  • Garlic (fresh, minced)
  • Cilantro (fresh), mint (fresh)
  • Cinnamon, Red pepper flakes (optional)
  • Ginger
  • Tomato paste
  • Dried fruit, diced (i.e. apricot, dates, or raisins)
  • Salt
  • Extra virgin olive oil (flavor)

Others to try:

  • Cumin, Coriander, Cayenne (small amount), Cloves (small amount), Paprika, Ground black pepper
  • Ginger
  • Dried fruit
  • 1 tbs harissa (hot chili pepper paste)

Seasoning blend: 

Mexican:

Easy:

  • Cilantro (fresh)
  • Cumin, Chile flakes
  • Tomatoes
  • Lime

Others to try:

  • Oregano (fresh)
  • Salsa
  • Beans

Seasoning blend:

  • Taco seasoning

Thai

Easy:

  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Cilantro (fresh)
  • Chili flakes
  • Coconut milk
  • Lime juice
  • Sea salt

Others to try:

  • Fish sauce/Oyster sauce (skip if not eating seafood)
  • Scallions
  • Snowpeas

Seasoning blend:

Costa Rican

Easy: 

  • Onion
  • Chile flakes, cumin
  • Sugar
  • Molasses
  • Dijon mustard
  • Veggie broth and water
  • Vinegar (unflavored)
  • Beans, Rice, Plantains

Disclaimer

I do not pretend to be a master chef and know everything about cooking. I am still learning myself. I have put this together based on experimenting and feedback from chefs. I would love to hear if you think I should add an ingredient, herb, etc onto these lists or if you have any other suggestions. Feel free to leave a comment below! I wanted to keep this as simple as possible so we can get started with it today, but I consider it a work in progress.

A million thank yous to Stefania!

A special thank you to Stefania Pittaluga for spending a full day with me in Costa Rica experimenting around this idea.

If you are headed to Montezuma, Costa Rica and want a private chef or want to take some private cooking lessons, send me a message and I will connect you with this lovely woman.

The final result! 

Here are some pictures of the various meals we made in Costa Rica while trying out this approach to cooking from scratch.

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Hi :) Can you help me?

I need a few people to try out this method of cooking plant-based meals from scratch. I would like feedback so I can make improvements.

If so, thank you!! I will get in touch soon!

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