Asian Innovation

Ben -- Your Mission: create a healthy, light dinner dish for four in twenty minutes. Oh yeah, and you're low on groceries. And it's got to be vegetarian. Work your magic.

The fact that I inexplicably thrive in these situations sometimes makes me actually think I could do okay on some of these competitive cooking shows, with a little more training. Well a lot more training, but you get the gist.

Here's how I went about this "mission" recently, on a weeknight, after work even.

First, my big thing is to break down what I would like to have in an ideal dinner and see what ingredients I even have for each one. I will not ever pass off a dish as healthy if it doesn't contain my five crucial elements: protein, fiber, vegetables, healthy fats and taste.

So what did I have to work with?

PROTEIN: Black beans, garbanzos, sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, pecans, tofu.

FIBER: The beautiful thing about vegetarian protein: it's almost always loaded with fiber too (save for tofu). Plus, we had brown rice, Ronzoni pasta and whole buckwheat noodles.

VEG: We had fresh spinach, an onion, a tomato, garlic and half a package of wild mushrooms.

HEALTHY FATS: Extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, smart balance light olive oil spread, the aforementioned nuts and seeds, plus a great ginger dressing that was relatively low fat (7 grams per 2 tablespoons) but even lower in sodium, and saturated fat (with less than 1 gram) -- all rarities for bottled salad dressing. It's made by Naturally Fresh, and for several years has been the only bottled dressing I will ever buy, because it tastes so great and is quite good health wise.

TASTE: Well, besides being pretty excited about having some of that dressing around, the taste part is always left up to good pairings and preparation. I also had some dried seaweed sheets (nori) that have great flavor and are very low in fat and good for you (dark color = antioxidants).

So at this point I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to do -- and it only took me a minute to run down this stuff in my head. It's a great idea to know what you have in your pantry and your fridge well, not only so you can use things up, but also so you can maximize the nutrition you put into homemade meals. While I had quickly run through the ideas of a Mexican or Greek dish, or even an Italian brown pasta, I could not resist going Asian, considering what I had to work with.

I immediately grabbed a pot of water and put it on high on a burner. I then grabbed a pan, put a little EVOO in it and let it go on medium. The mushrooms were chopped already and took the longest to cook, so when the pan got hot, I threw them in with a little smashed and chopped garlic (two cloves). While the water was coming up and the mushrooms were sautéing, I chopped up about eight nori sheets into thin strips. When the mushrooms were done, the water was boiling, so I took three bundles of buckwheat noodles and put them in the water and set the timer for six minutes. I removed the mushrooms carefully onto a plate and then used the same pan and a touch of water to toast up the nori. It really brings out the flavor and only takes a minute -- the water keeps them from getting brittle. When that was done, I emptied the nori onto the plate with the mushrooms and put two large handfuls of spinach into the same pan, again with a little sprinkle of water. The pan was hot enough that the spinach wilted down in just over a minute. Now the pasta was done and drained, as were the two veggies and the nori. I put the pasta into a large bowl and then put the spinach, nori and mushrooms on top. I added a large handful of sesame seeds and about three servings (six tablespoons) of the dressing. Then I tossed it all together, mixing it gently but very well.

I served it to great appreciation at the table, and I was hooked myself. The taste was great, only needing salt from the dressing, while combining several nice Asian flavors (soy, ginger, buckwheat and sesame) with a few fresh vegetables. It had plenty of fiber, from the sesame seeds and the noodles, and protein from those two as well. It had the dressing and seeds to thank for its healthy fat profile as well. Plus it was nice and dark with the antioxidants the spinach and seaweed provided.

All in all, it was a delicious work of speed and innovation that I am proud to share. It made plenty, was great cold the next day and pleased all the vegetarians in my life (at least the ones who like the taste of seaweed).

Mission accomplished. I can't wait until next time.

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