Okay, you’re on board with the plant-based diet! Now what’s the first step to becoming healthier than ever? The simplest answer is this: Start cooking. Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and a fellow advocate of getting into the kitchen as the way to eating healthier, sums it up well when he points out that nobody reaches for the bottle of high-fructose corn syrup when they’re in their own kitchen.
Whether plant-based or still omnivorous, your diet will improve the day you start cooking because it forces you to become aware of every ingredient you put into your food and your body. Especially for plant-based eaters, for whom healthy and substantial restaurant choices are often few and far between, cooking your own food isn’t an option, it’s a must.
Many people are afraid of cooking. It overwhelms and intimidates them, and they assume cooking is some magical skill that you either have or you don’t. But the fear is really unfounded. Cooking is an easy skill to learn, and it’s quite rewarding when you combine a few humble ingredients and produce something delicious, comforting, and nourishing. Cooking is also one of the most valuable skills you can acquire, as cooking your own food will save you a tremendous amount of money over the long haul, not to mention make whomever you live with very happy.
How to Start Cooking Today
Here’s the secret to cooking for those who have never tried: If you can follow directions, you can cook. Recipes make it incredibly easy to get in the kitchen and start cooking. Most of them assume no knowledge or cooking ability, and thanks to the Internet, many of them are now available for free. This is pretty incredible—you and I can cook dishes at home that the best chefs in the world spent hours of time and energy developing and at no cost other than the price of the food itself.
In this book, I’ve included my favorite plant-based recipes that aren’t just healthy, but substantial enough for athletes. Several of the recipes are also designed specifically for sports—high-carbohydrate meals for loading up before an endurance event or long workout, energy drinks and gels to keep you going strong, and post-workout recovery smoothies and meals to jumpstart the process of repairing your muscles so you can get back out there soon to do it all again.
In addition to the requirement that the recipes be both delicious and suitable for athletes, I made them as simple as possible. I love cooking and often spend several hours making dinner on the weekend, but I recognize that most athletes would much rather be outside training than stuck in the kitchen.
The recipes are simple enough that you should be able to execute all of them with little or no cooking experience. But the experience will become far more pleasurable as you develop a basic familiarity with common cooking techniques, learn a few time-saving tricks, and avoid potential pitfalls.
To help you move more quickly through the learning curve, in this short chapter I’ll highlight the most valuable skills I picked up in my first few years of cooking, which you should be able to apply immediately to your cooking and save yourself all (okay, most) of the mistakes I made.
The Four Most Important Kitchen Time-Savers
If you just want to get your hands dirty and start cooking, by all means feel free to make some of the recipes before you’ve read this entire section. But the information here will ultimately save you tons of time and mistakes, and taking a few minutes to read and understand it is an investment that will pay dividends immediately.
1. CHOP AND PREPARE YOUR INGREDIENTS BEFORE YOU START COOKING.
Trying to keep up with a recipe can be a little stressful at first, and one of the easiest ways to stay on top of things is to handle all your prep in advance. (This is known as mise en place, which is French for “everything in place.”)
Once you’re comfortable in the kitchen and faster with chopping, and especially once you’ve made a recipe a couple times and you know what to expect, you can do much of your prep while certain ingredients cook to speed things up. But at first, having everything in place before you dive in will save you immeasurable stress and prevent many burned dishes and ruined meals.
2. KEEP A GARBAGE BOWL NEARBY AS YOU PREP.
This is one of the simplest things you can do to speed up the preparation process. It requires almost no explanation: instead of many trips across the kitchen to the garbage can, opening and closing the lid each time, you just toss your scraps into a bowl and empty it into the trash or compost heap once the meal is finished. It doesn’t seem like much, but the five or ten trips to the trash can add up as you prep a meal, and it’s much easier to get into the flow of cooking without them.
3. INVEST IN ONE OR TWO QUALITY KNIVES
You’ve probably heard that you’re more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than a sharp one. The reason is that you have to apply a lot of pressure to get a dull knife to cut, which leads to slips. If the knives you currently own haven’t been cared for (or are cheapos), you’ll probably want to get some new ones.
I’ve found that a single, large (8- or 9-inch [20 to 23 cm]) chef’s knife and a small paring knife are all that I need. There are a few occasions where a mid-size utility knife comes in handy, but it’s certainly not essential for a home cook.
Your new knives will be very sharp at first, and you’ll wonder how you ever got by with anything else. But that sharp edge won’t last forever, so for any knife you’re using regularly, I’d recommend having it sharpened by a professional every few months, and that assumes you keep it honed with a sharpening steel before each use.
You should get a sharpening or knife steel (that long, thin rod that comes with a knife set that almost nobody uses) to keep your knives honed between sharpenings. Although it doesn’t technically “sharpen” the knife by removing metal from the blade, it lines up the molecules to produce a thinner edge. Get in the habit of running your knife along your steel a few times in each direction before every use, there are well-established methods for chopping specific ingredients, but a general chopping principle is to first cut thin strips, then line up those strips and make uniform crosswise cuts from them. Think of carrots and celery, to which most people do the complete opposite by making crosswise cuts first, and then chopping over the whole pile of cross-sections. Instead, you want to cut even strips first, then run down the pile of strips once to get uniform dice in the fewest amount of cuts.
There are a few simple safeguarding techniques, such as hand position, you can use to prevent the major injuries that are possible in the kitchen, but it will be far easier for you to learn these methods visually than it would be to try to decipher them from text in a book. There’s a thorough series of video- and photo-aided tutorials on basic knife skills, including knife safety, at the following website: http://culinaryarts.about.com/od/knifeskills/tp/knifeskills.htm.
4. LEARN TO QUICKLY ESTIMATE AMOUNTS OF INGREDIENTS.
Bill Buford, in his book Heat, says it best (you’ll have to excuse the glaring non-veganism of the following excerpt, or replace the dirty words with “tofu”):
Do you really believe the Babbo cookbook when it tells you that a linguine with eels takes four garlic cloves, that a lobster spaghettini takes two, and that the chitarra takes three? No. It’s the same for each: a small pinch.
Meticulous measurement is one of the biggest time-killers in the kitchen, so unless you’re baking, when exact measurements are crucial, stop measuring! Really, just stop. Those round numbers in recipes are just estimates anyway, and you’ll learn a lot about flavors and gain some confidence by making a few mistakes in your own estimates.
For example, instead of measuring out a teaspoon of a spice each time a recipe calls for one, learn just once what a teaspoon of ground spice looks like in your hand or how many cranks of your pepper grinder it takes to grind a teaspoon of black pepper.
For oil, a good rule of thumb is that one drizzle around the pan is equal to about a tablespoon (15 ml), but it’s instructive to actually measure out a tablespoon (15 ml) of oil and see what it looks like in the pan. Once you’ve done that, you can skip the measuring part—a tiny bit more or less oil isn’t going to make a difference.
For solids, like nut butter, coconut oil, or anything semi-solid, 2 tablespoons (28 g) are about the same size as a ping-pong ball. You can find many more handy estimation tricks in my blog post at www.nomeatathlete.com/kitchen-time-savers.
Most Importantly: Get Started!
I can’t overstress the importance and long-term positive impact on your health, and that of your family, of becoming comfortable in the kitchen. Don’t let fear keep you from jumping in!
And just in case you’re still apprehensive, rest assured, there are absolutely no cooking techniques in this book that a real chef would consider even remotely advanced. We’re talking basic, cooking 101 stuff here. Anything else would miss the entire point of providing you with simple, healthy, delicious, plant-based recipes to support your training—I know you’ve got plenty of other places to spend your time and effort than in the kitchen.
Congratulations, You Know What It Takes. Have You Taken Action?
With that, we’ve reached the end of the nutrition section of this book, save for the recipes in the next chapter. What this means is that you’re armed with all you need to make your plant-based diet work! In fact, you have more information than most new vegetarians and vegans have and far more than I knew when I decided to make the switch.
My hope is that by now you’ve already gotten started and taken the step that matters—the action. Reading and acquiring information is fantastic, but it doesn’t mean a thing unless you put it to use. And for many people with all the best intentions, action will be the one step that doesn’t happen.
Now is the time to start. There’s no reason you need to finish Section 2, the running and fitness section of the book, before you can start your new, plant-based diet or your unique process of getting there—whether that means starting with just one plant-based day a week or going with the “fewer legs” approach described earlier. Choose a few recipes from the next chapter and use the tips in Chapter 2 to make this way of eating a habit, if you haven’t yet.
And when you’re ready—once you’ve started—I’ll see you in Section 2: Running on Plants, where we’ll dive into the fitness component of the No Meat Athlete lifestyle. See you there!