5 Pro Tips for a Better Veggie Bowl from Hetty McKinnon, Salad Whisperer

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Hetty McKinnon)

As a vegetarian of over 20 years and the founder of a plant-based salad company, Arthur Street Kitchen, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to cook vegetables and grains creatively so that they are not only delicious, but also nourishing and completely filling. I’ve found that the key to creating delicious, satisfying plant-based veggie bowls is to look at vegetables as a blank canvas.

When I look to vegetables to build a main meal, I approach the dish as a multi-layered adventure. Within every layer, I look for ways to incorporate interesting textures and depth of flavor. Here are the five simple steps I follow to create a veggie bowl that is bursting with flavor.

(Image credit: Elizabeth Stark)

1. Pick one seasonal hero veggie and let it shine.

Observing the seasons is a great way to branch out and discover a new vegetable that you wouldn’t normally cook with. Maybe it’s time to make leafy broccoli rabe the star of your next outdoor cookout, or discover the possibilities of grilled spring onions in your next salad? Be seduced by nature’s stunning hues, accent your greens with pretty-in-pink watermelon radish, or turn to golden baby beets to add a pop of color to your next veggie bowl.

Shopping by the seasons will also give you the best-tasting vegetables, not to mention best value for money! Head down to your local farmers market or grocer to acquaint yourself with the season’s farm-fresh produce.

  • Springtime crops are often perfect eaten raw or with minimal preparation. Look out for asparagus, artichokes, fava beans, or peas.
  • In the summer I feast on tomatoes, corn, figs, cucumber, and eggplant, and incorporate stone fruit into my bowls.
  • Come fall there’s a lot of versatility in winter squash, sweet potato, Swiss chard, mushrooms, figs, pears, and persimmons.
  • In the winte, it is all about roasting earthy veggies like Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and turnips to unearth their natural sweetness.

Shape-Shift Your Veggies for New Tastes and Textures

Reveal the full potential of your vegetable simply by cutting it into a different shape. Big, hearty chunks afford you more surface area for cooking, allowing for greater caramelization during roasting or even stir-fying and producing a sweeter taste. Roasting vegetables like squash, sunchokes, carrots, potatoes, and sweet potatoes in their skin creates more texture. Rather than boiling your vegetables, roast them for sweetness, or char-grill them for smokiness. Consider eating your vegetables finely shaved and raw for a juicer, lighter dish. Even sweet potatoes can be enjoyed grated for a hearty slaw.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

2. Add grains or legumes for a more satisfying bowl.

Nourishing grains such as quinoa, millet, rice, pearl barley, farro, spelt, freekeh or bulgur wheat are great high-fiber choices that will keep you feeling full, while providing a comfort-food quality to your bowl. They all have their own unique textures and flavors. For example, pearl barley and spelt tend to retain a chewy bite; freekeh offers a green, earthy flavor; and quinoa has a slight bitterness. Experiment with different grain and vegetable combinations to see how the flavors change.

Some of my favorite pairings are char-grilled broccoli teamed with quinoa or millet, cauliflower paired with farro or bulgur wheat, shaved raw zucchini matched with robust pearl barley, and wok-tossed eggplant with fermented black beans and brown rice.

Treat Your Grains Like Pilaf

One of my favorite ways to inject grains with flavor is to cook them as a pilaf. Briefly roast the grains over medium heat, about 1 minute, to bring out their nuttiness; add some fat (oil or butter), along with a finely chopped garlic clove to coat the grains; and cover with vegetable stock (the amount will vary according to your grain).

Once it comes to a boil, reduce heat, cover with a lid, and simmer until the grains have absorbed all the liquid, adding more water if necessary. These grains will now be full of flavor, and the perfect accompaniment for your vegetables.

Legumes are the other veggie bowl game-changers. They impart a creamy texture and flavor, while also providing a nice hit of protein to your bowl. While cooking legumes from scratch can be a time challenge during the week, I am an enthusiastic advocate of canned legumes as a quick and tasty way to prepare a veggie dish quickly. Cannellini, garbanzo, borlotti, and black beans are a few of my staples. I prefer to cook my lentils from scratch, as they have more flavor than the canned variety. Plus, they only take around 20 to 30 minutes to cook.

For extra flavor when cooking lentils, add one clove of peeled garlic, a big pinch of sea salt, and a bay leaf to your water. When your lentils are ready, drain, discard the bay leaf, and mash up the garlic and stir through the hot lentils.

Cooking Beans or Lentils from Scratch?

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

3. Add sauce for robust flavor.

Your sauce — be it a vinaigrette or a creamy tahini dressing — is the single string that will tie your veggie bowl together. Get it right by building in the flavors slowly and incrementally.

While we are often told of the classic salad dressing ratio of one part acid to three parts oil, I don’t necessarily agree with this formula. Rather, I am a proponent of tasting your dressing as you whisk. Start off with equal parts oil and acid, add in any aromatics (such as chilies, garlic, shallots, or fennel seeds), drop in your emulsifier of mustard or egg yolk, and then whisk this all together.

Next comes the crucial step: tasting! Taste, then adjust amounts of oil and acid, season with sea salt and black pepper, and taste again. Keep going until you have achieved a balanced dressing. If it is too acidic, drop in a half teaspoon of sugar or a whisker of maple syrup to tame the tartness.

And don’t just stick to oil and acid with your dressings!

  • Venture further afield with Asian-style sauces that incorporate ginger, tamari, rice vinegar, and sesame oil. One of my favorite sauce additions is mirin, a Japanese sweet rice wine, which adds a gentle acidity and sweetness.
  • Pesto is an endlessly versatile sauce that can incorporate a myriad of flavors. Along with traditional basil pesto, you can use other herbs such as cilantro or parsley, or perhaps use the greens from your bunch of carrots, radishes, or beets. Smashed peas or fava beans also make an intriguing, flavorsome base for pesto as well.
  • My all-time favorite veggie bowl sauce is tahini. Its earthy nuttiness is irresistible. I love to add maple syrup and sesame oil to my tahini to make a sweet sesame dressing, or mix it up with handfuls of herbs for a complex green tahini. Teamed up with yogurt and lemon, it makes a zesty, creamy sauce that you will want to splash on everything.
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

4. Be brave and generous about your herbs.

I am never shy with herbs since they add so much texture and freshness to any plant-based dish. Every week I purchase at least two bunches of herbs. I go for whatever is in season and looks green and vibrant. From spring into early summer is when soft herbs like basil, mint, chervil, dill, thyme, cilantro, and sage are in abundant supply. In summer oregano and marjoram appear, and for the rest of the year, parsley is usually readily available. In my view, a veggie bowl is not finished until you have scattered it with a handful of herbs.

5. Use nuts to boost your veggie bowl’s flavor and texture.

Not only do nuts add a lovely crunch and texture to your dishes, but they also completely elevate your dish’s satisfying flavor power, thanks to their rich fat content. My pantry is always stocked with plenty of pre-toasted nuts. My favorites are almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and nigella seeds. Scatter a few over your bowl before serving as a power-up before you dig in.