This versatile sauce adds flavor to a wide variety of basic ingredients, elevating simple meals with ease while adding vibrant color and healthy appeal.
What is the key is to pulling off healthy and delicious meals with ease? (Emphasis on the last two words!)
It’s a question I frequently hear.
When I mention reinventing some leftover “this” or bolstering a can of “that” along with making use of helpful shortcuts, people often ask for specifics, which I am always happy to provide.
In the big picture, one of my most helpful strategies is always have a flavorful dressing or sauce at the ready. When chosen well, something so simple can be the flavorful keystone to a myriad of wholesome building blocks that you enjoy－from vegetables and proteins to legumes and grains, including healthy pastas.
When aiming to make mealtime a little easier, keep in mind that leftovers like cooked rice, roasted or steamed vegetables, or cooked chicken are always fair game.
Store-bought shortcuts can absolutely fill a void, too. For the examples above, a pouch of ready-made rice, a bag of frozen vegetables, and a rotisserie chicken offer convenient counterparts and can be helpful to have on hand.
And remember to make your favorite greens a permanent fixture on your weekly grocery list. Greens complement an incredibly broad range of ingredients and can almost always be incorporated into a meal－whether raw or cooked－where they simultaneously add heft and beneficial nutrients.
My family enjoys when I mix a variety of ingredients into individual “bowl” meals, making a combination of leftovers feel fresh and new. For a Tex-Mex example: a handful of chopped romaine, a scoop of rice, leftover shredded chicken and/or black beans provide a solid base. Depending on what I have on hand, I may bolster the bowl with thawed frozen corn, shredded cheese, chopped tomatoes or salsa, chopped avocado or guacamole, some crumbled tortilla chips, etc.
In the above example, the dressing that pulls all of the components together into a truly satisfying meal could be your favorite ranch dressing, a cilantro lime vinaigrette, or even the salsa and/or guacamole.
To apply this strategy more broadly, look to a variety of cuisines. A base for a Mediterranean-style meal, for example, could include baby spinach, quinoa or couscous, garbanzo beans and/or a cooked and crumbled ground meat of choice. Add-ons like roasted vegetables, chopped cucumbers and tomatoes, sliced olives and crumbled feta will supply additional heft and flavor. Fitting dressings include tzatziki and hummus－and they ramp up protein, too.
An added benefit of grain- and green-based bowls is that you can stretch various ingredients. For example, two leftover chicken breasts isn’t enough to feed my family of four, but when diced and used in combination with some of these other items, a half breast per person is plenty.
It’s amazing how quickly a hearty meal comes together when you add a little of this and a little of that. The approach is an effective way to clean out the fridge, freezer and pantry, too!
As a final thought, I always think to ingredients like nuts and seeds, shredded or crumbled cheese, chopped avocado, dried fruit, crumbled tortilla chips, and so on. Toppings are an ideal way to add more layers of flavor and texture and allow individual diners to customize their meal to taste.
The end result can be a pretty great meal.
The key, however, is to think of a flavorful dressing or sauce as a starting point rather than an afterthought.
After all, FLAVOR is what makes all those healthy ingredients taste good.
And FLAVOR is what makes a reasonable portion truly satisfying.
For its fresh, herby flavor and seemingly endless versatility, pesto is one such example. Many of us use it more frequently in the warm months, when we may be lucky enough to have basil plants flourishing in our backyard.
Throughout the cold months, however, kale offers a viable alternative that’s healthy, too. Though pesto requires a food processor, the actually preparation is quite simple.
For added value, pesto freezes extremely well, so you can always have a small container ready to quickly thaw and add memorable flavor to otherwise basic ingredients.
So many ways to enjoy pesto:
- Mix a spoonful into mayonnaise for an extra fresh and flavorful sandwich spread or topping for simply baked chicken or fish
- Stir some into soup (especially tomato-based soups)
- Use as a sauce alternative on pizza
- Or as a spread on flatbread or an option to the buttery mixture on garlic bread
- Thin and use as a dressing on salads and spiralized veggie noodles
- Toss with freshly-cooked pasta
I prefer a pesto that isn’t too oily, so I use far less olive oil than most recipes. As a bonus, I find the resulting thicker pesto to be more versatile－although it’s easy to thin when needed. (I’ve included various “thinners” in the recipe notes sections.)
Do you sometimes wonder what it means to “firmly” pack a measuring cup?
The amount of any “packed” ingredient can vary widely. There’s a subjective quality to the process for sure. I used to wonder if firmly packing meant to shove in as much as I could, and also if whatever I was packing in should stay when I let go－i.e., should it be level when I’m holding the leaves in with my hand or once I’ve released it?
My interpretation of a firm pack is using decent pressure to pack the leaves into the cup but not pushing with all my might. If some leaves pop out when I release the pressure, I keep what’s still in the cup, even if they dome lightly above the rim. Luckily, this recipe (and pesto recipes in general) are rather forgiving where this ingredient is concerned. I’ve used anywhere from three to four and a half ounces of kale here. I simply find that when I use the higher amount of greens, I like to add an extra tablespoons of lemon juice to balance the flavors (which I note in the recipe).
Other favorite sauces and how to combine:
- I frequently make a double batch of Maple Cider Vinaigrette, which I shared a while back with my Favorite Brussels Sprouts Salad, to have on hand in my refrigerator. It keeps for several weeks and takes well to ingredients like roasted root vegetables (sweet potatoes and beets, for example) and winter squash, quinoa, farro, chicken, white beans, avocado, apples, greens of all kinds, dried cranberries and apricots, nuts and seeds, cheeses like cheddar, feta and blue cheese, and more. You can simply use these ingredients as a guide, incorporating what you like and have on hand, to create your perfect meal.
- Similarly, a favorite balsamic vinaigrette (or a creamy counterpart) will compliment all of the ingredients above…and more! I like to create a meal using a base of hearty wild rice, adding leftover roasted vegetables like broccoli and sweet potatoes, perhaps some baby spinach . Or start with mixed baby greens or arugula, add leftover sliced steak and sautéed mushroom, roasted potatoes or cauliflower, and so on. For the flavor and texture they supply, I could top virtually any salad or bowl meal with chopped avocado and a combination of nuts and seeds. They are so very versatile.
- I use this super easy Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette in my copycat recipe for Sweetgreen’s Guacamole Greens Salad, but it pairs every bit as well with a variety of Tex- Mex staples. Think rice, black beans, tomatoes, avocado, corn, bell peppers, jicama, cucumbers, cheddar or Mexican blend cheeses, and pepitas or crumbled tortillas chips for crunch.
- For all of these concepts, zucchini or cucumber noodles and cabbage or broccoli slaw provide additional vegetable possibilities. Alternative protein ideas include tuna and salmon (canned or cooked), eggs, sliced steak, tofu and lentils.
When grilling or baking meats, prepare more than you’ll need for one night. Same goes for grains and vegetables. I find that having the leftovers on hand (ditto for a box of fresh spinach, a can of beans, a bag of frozen corn…) forces me to think of ways to use them. Once you start planning some of your meals this way, it will become easier and easier and you’ll likely find yourself experimenting with new (and delicious!) combinations.
I have many more seasonal dressing and sauce recipes that you may like to try. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on this blog, let me know. And if you’d like more meal assembly ideas like the ones described above, please feel free to comment below or send an email!