A friend of mine has recently gone vegetarian, and was asking me for recipes for healthy, cheap, tasty vegetarian meals. This is a question I often get asked a lot – actually, he’s asked me in the past, as he cooked for me a lot – and my answers aren’t always that helpful. This is in part because it’s really easy to make tasty, cheap vegetarian meals – often it just means substituting some other kind of protein for the meat. However, it is also really easy to make veggie food that tastes like shit just because you’ve never worked with the non-meat protein of choice before. And vegetarian cook books aren’t a lot of help; they usually include a lot of fancy vegetables, sauces, and seasonings that you wouldn’t usually buy and/or which are hard to obtain and expensive and/or take ages to prepare.
And fuck that for a laugh, right?
So, I’ve decided to take some ownership here and say that if there are myths about veggie foods I should provide the goods to show people how not to make the easy mistakes and how to cook food you’ll like cheaply. I’m not good at following recipes, so many of these dishes will be of my own concoction and will not have names (or at least, no names I’m aware of), but the food itself will be the sort of food that I, someone with little patience for cooking and no funds for expensive ingredients, would be happy to make at least semi-regularly.
Today’s meal is literally what I just had for lunch, and it tastes amazing.
Pasta, Vegetables, and Pesto
Makes three, but can be expanded easily with more pasta or veg. Just remember: if you keep upping the pasta and not the veg you’ll need to make sure you have some more veg in one of your other meals to make up your five a day.
Estimated cost per serving (standard version): 96p
Estimated cost per serving (with extras): £1.10
You will need:
Some pasta (two handfuls per meal, so six handfuls for three meals – I used fusilli, but rotini, penne, conchiglie, farfalle, or any smallish pasta shape should work)
1 red onion
1 bell pepper (sweeter is better (orange, red, yellow); green will work OK, but it’s a bit bitter for the mix and you’re gonna put other green vegetables in)
Spinach – several handfuls; this stuff will wilt down to nothing, so don’t be timid, I wouldn’t use more than half a bag, though
Mushrooms – you can really dress this dish up by using a fancy mushroom, but closed-cup will do; at least six to ten, more if your budget allows
1/3 of a jar of pesto (or whatever, you can vary for taste or budget)
1-2 tablespoons of olive oil – ahahaha, only kidding, I don’t measure this shit! I just put ‘some’ in, but I estimate 1-2 tablespoons; whatever you’d usually use for a fry-up job
1 clove of garlic
3-5 broccoli florets
2-3 cauliflower florets
Or whatever the hell you fancy.
I say these are optional because I would usually put broccoli in (broccoli is full of so much good shit I don’t even know where to begin), and I just tried cauliflower and it was fine, but I know it’s not an intuitive pairing, and if you’re not used to experimenting with vegetables it may seem strange. I imagine julienne cut parsnips or carrots would be awesome, but I haven’t tried it.
Get a large saucepan and fill it with water (you can heat the water up in the kettle first to save time, if you like). Set it to a high heat and leave it alone for a bit.
Put another large saucepan on a medium-hot hob (3-4 on my electric oven, whatever that means) and put in the oil.
Cut up your onion into longish slices. I usually top and tail the onion, then cut in half lengthwise, then just slice each half lengthwise in strips no wider than my little finger… but I have tiny-ass hands; let’s say 3/4 of a cm to 1 cm.
Swirl the warm oil around the base of the saucepan to make sure it’s all covered, then add the onion. If you’re gonna add garlic, chop it up and do that now. stir periodically to stop it from burning.
You want to move from hard to soft with your other vegetables, so if you’re using broccoli or cauliflower, cut these up and add them next as they’ll take the longest to cook. Break off sub florets so that a) your broccoli doesn’t dwarf all the other veg, and b) they look like tiny trees. Chop up and left-over stalk into thin strips and use that too.
Next the pepper, then the spinach, then the mushrooms. I recommend strip-cutting for the pepper and the mushrooms, mostly for aesthetic reasons and to make them easy to skewer with your fork. The spinach just grab and tear up a little.
At some point whilst you’re chopping your vegetables, the water in your other saucepan will start to boil. Add your pasta and stir periodically.
Now you’re just waiting for the pasta to be done. This should usually take about 10mins from when the pasta goes in.
Drain the pasta when ready and add the pesto to the vegetables. Add the pasta. Stir until the pesto is evenly mixed.
If you’re saving any for another day (it works great cold for lunches) put it immediately into plastic tubs and add the lid to keep the pasta moist and soft.
Most vegetables are a source of protein, especially mushrooms, but meals with lentils, tofu, quorn, and TVP are better, so make sure you’re not trying to get by solely on this sort of light meal.
Also watch out for your iron content. I’ve included spinach, here, but bear in mind that spinach is a source of non-heme iron, which is harder for the body to absorb, and spinach contains other chemicals that inhibit iron uptake. Vitamin C is a good enabler of iron uptake, and broccoli is a good source of both vitamin C and iron, which is why I try to eat a lot of it. Also: MINI TREES. Curly Kale is also recommended as a better source of iron than spinach, but I’m not a fan – and so it goes…
*Note: I am not an expert, and you should always read around a bit yourself and possibly consult your doctor if you are thinking of going veggie, especially if you have specific health needs.