Keeping Meals Creative + Italian White Bean Orzo

Some people rely entirely on recipes when it comes to cooking dishes, but I am not one of those people. While there is nothing wrong with guidance--because let's admit it, sometimes recipes are necessary to provide that perfect balance of flavor--the joy of cooking, for me, comes from testing and creating. It's almost an artistic outlet, for times when I feel like de-stressing and taking my mind off whatever is going on in my life.

That being said, it can be easy to hit a roadblock and run out of innovative ideas, so I thought I would share the breakdown of how I personally come up with new meals. I've mentioned in a previous post what inspires me when it comes to creating, but in this post I'm going to share the thought process that goes through my mind when I think of what I want to cook for dinner.

1. First I get in touch with my senses: What type of cuisine do I feel like eating? Am I craving a specific ingredient? For instance, if I'm craving avocado, I like to think of something Mexican or Caribbean. Or if I'm craving Italian, I'll incorporate lots of tomatoes, garlic, onions, and Parmesan or Mozzarella cheese. But, sometimes my dish doesn't have a certain flavor, and I'll just start brainstorming some combinations of my own. Part of this is intuitive to me, but the more you cook, the more you start to see what goes well together.

2. Next I pick my base, the carbohydrate. Honestly, I do try to limit my intake of carbs, but I have found that most meals feel incomplete without them. Carbohydrates give you energy and keep you full, and I find them essential to my meals. My favorites:
  • Quinoa- Quinoa is great because it provides a complete protein and is easily malleable to many flavors. 
  • Brown Rice: Great for gluten free, but I try to only have brown rice once in awhile because of its high levels of arsenic
  • Whole Wheat Pasta: For when you just need that pasta fix. Sometimes I'll go with the brown rice pasta, but again, trying to avoid the arsenic intake. I've also found spelt pasta to be really good.
  • Barley: Another great, easy to cook whole grain.
3. I pick my protein. While I am not a vegetarian, I do consider myself a flexitarian, a term coined to describe people who only eat meat on occasion. I never cook red meat at home, because personally it just makes me feel sick, but I do recommend eating it once in awhile, as long as it's grassfed (which I do from time to time). Sometimes I will make chicken, and I make fish quite often (my fave!). Proteins I love:
  • Beans-- black, red, white, garbanzo, the options are endless!
  • Fish-- especially low mercury choices such as salmon and sardines
  • Eggs
  • Chicken
  • Tempeh (if there is soy in it, make sure it's organic to avoid GMOs)
  • Turkey
  • Cottage Cheese
  • Buffalo Meat (My choice of red meat)
4. Time for vegetables! I love to load my dishes with as many vegetables as possible. When in doubt, add more veggies! I usually incorporate a mix of these things:
  • Greens: Kale, arugula, spinach, chard, etc.
  • Colors: Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, etc. 
  • Pungent flavors: onions, scallions, garlic, mushrooms, etc.
5. Many times I will also incorporate dairy in order to give my dish some moisture.
  • Greek Yogurt: great substitute for cream, mayonaise, or cheese. I always feel better using Greek yogurt over cheese because it has a higher protein content, lower fat, and is easier to digest. It also works great as a base for sauces.
  • Cheese: I like to keep Trader Joe's Low Fat Three Cheese blend on hand, as well as fat-free feta and regular ole Parmesan cheese.
6. Toppings, for that extra crunch or oomph!
  • Hemp hearts: a mild, nutty flavor packed with omega-3s (you can get these at Whole Foods or even Costco!). Love these on salads
  • Nuts: nice addition to salads or oatmeal.
  • Brewers Yeast: Adds a touch of salty flavor, and provides a good dose of necessary vitamins. Also good on salads and pasta.
  • Chia Seeds: also for salads or sweet dishes.
And now, one of my own creations, clearly inspired by Italian cuisine. I used whole wheat orzo, which looks like rice, but is actually a pasta. This dish can be served hot or also chilled to become more like a pasta salad. Check it out under the cut!

Italian White Bean Orzo

Fresh basil leaves
Sundried tomatoes
White Cannelini beans
Artichoke hearts
Whole Wheat Orzo
Olive Oil
Parmesan Cheese

1. Cook orzo as instructed (usually cooked the same as pasta, 8-10 minutes in boiling water).

2. Finely chop the onions, sundried tomatoes, basil, and artichoke hearts. Sautee in pan until onions are translucent.

3. Rinse and drain beans.

4. When orzo is finished, let cool. Combine all ingredients and add a splash of olive oil, to taste, along with shredded parmesan cheese.

Tip: If you choose to use the artichoke hearts out of a jar,  I like to use a little bit of the marinade in the dish for flavor.

Now get up and cook!