Last week, I wrote about vegan cooking tips for anyone who’s a bit reluctant to step foot in a kitchen and make friends with their pots and pans. After writing that piece, a veg-curious bestie of mine asked about vegan side dishes. As she’s transitioning to a plant-filled life, she wants to make a variety of interesting veggie sides that involve a little more than steamed veggies but still aren’t too involved for a new (and busy) cook.
I’m embarrassed to say that I drew a blank for a minute. Usually my dinners involve a big salad and a single vegan main dish, and I don’t normally think of making a side (perhaps out of laziness!). Vegan sides are a wonderful way to introduce more vegetables and whole foods into your diet, however—especially if you or a family member still thinks of meat as the necessary main. (Whatever your health goals, I applaud small steps and large leaps alike!)
The following are a few ideas for creating easy vegan side dishes that please your body and your taste buds:
Consider the whole meal. As with main dishes, I encourage getting creative and resourceful with your sides. By creative and resourceful, I mean using what’s already in your pantry/fridge and preparing it in such a way that complements the rest of the food your serving. Here are a few ways to do that:
1. Consider color: You’ve probably heard that advice that you should be “eating the rainbow,” and no, that doesn’t mean Skittles. An earth-toned meal could be livened up with a bright side of sautéed carrots, red bell peppers, and spinach, for example.
2. Consider taste profiles: I like to have a good balance of fat, sweet, and acid in any meal. For example, sweet potato (which is sweet, of course) can be complemented by balsamic vinegar (acid) and toasted almonds (fat)—both of which I usually have in my pantry.
3. Consider texture: I like vegan food of all textures, so I’m not too picky about texture, but it never fails to combine something crunchy with something creamy. Think blue corn chips and homemade guacamole. Crisp romaine salad with a side of puréed butternut squash soup. Jicama, cabbage, and carrot slaw with an Asian peanut sauce. Mmm…
Variety is there if you look for it. Remember your options for veggies: raw, blanched, steamed, sautéed, roasted, or soup-ified. I may be forgetting some here, but suffice it to say there are multiple ways to prepare vegetables. For example, beets would be excellent in a raw slaw or pâté; alternatively, they are delicious when roasted and sprinkled with chopped nuts.
It may be helpful to get familiar with basic ways to prepare vegetables. Although Google can be handy on the fly, I found it helpful to flip though Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables, a vegetarian cookbook that lists vegetables in alphabetical order and details the ways they can be prepared. The Good Housekeeping Cookbook is also good for this purpose (especially its guide to roasted veggies including oven temp and roasting time).
Keep it simple (but elevate it!). For weeknight meals, sides shouldn’t require grand efforts on your part—but they can still be phenomenal. Let’s say I want to make roasted asparagus. So far, I’ve got three ingredients: asparagus, oil, and a dash of salt. I roast them at 400F for 15 minutes or so until they’ve slightly browned. Simple, right?
Although they’re already delicious as is, you can take them up a notch with a few tricks. Some of my favorite cooking advice comes from Sarah Britton’s My New Roots:
“You can easily take your dish to the next level simply by finishing it off with one, two, or all three of the following: citrus zest, fresh herbs, and lightly toasted nuts or seeds.”
She goes on to point out that the combinations are endless, and your roasted asparagus topped with lemon zest, parsley, and sunflower seeds is a different meal than your roasted asparagus topped with lime zest, basil, and sesame seeds! Like I said, variety is easily found with a little creativity!
And there are always grains legumes, and lentils. I seem to be focusing on veggies quite a bit here, but there are tons of options for grains, legumes, and lentils—and grain-legume/lentil-veggie combinations. Some delicious and healthy grains include brown rice, pearled barley, millet and quinoa while mung beans, black beans, and red or green lentils are versatile bean and lentil options. To make weeknights easier, I make a big batch of a particular grain or bean and incorporate it into my meals for the rest of the week. You can easily add a little extra flavor to them by adding crushed garlic, bay leaves, spices, veggie broth, and/or tamari to their cooking water. Sometimes the best sides are a simply prepared grain topped with a flavorful vegetable.
Cook “dirty.” Another piece of beloved cooking advice comes from a skincare book oddly enough!
In Skin Cleanse, Adina Grigore writes: “A friend of mine is a vegan chef who gets really upset when she hears people say that vegan food can’t taste good. She always says, ‘Vegan food is great if you cook dirty.’”
“Cooking dirty” means using a generous amount of fragrant herbs and spices—think garlic, ginger, turmeric, cumin, basil, cloves, cinnamon, smoked paprika…Add some of these to your side dishes, and you won’t regret it! Quinoa is especially binge-worthy with tamari, cumin, and coriander, for example.
Check out Peaceful Dumpling’s appetizers and side dishes for inspiration! If I may shamelessly brag about PD, we’ve got a diverse collection of vegan recipes from people with different cooking backgrounds and skillsets, so I like the think there is a little something for everyone 🙂
Do you have a favorite side dish for your easy weeknight meals? Please share!
More vegan cooking tips: Tips for the Reluctant Vegan Chef
Get more like this–sign up for our newsletter for exclusive inspirational content!
Photo: Mary Hood Luttrell