A World-Famous Chef Shares 6 Secrets To Making A Healthy Weeknight Dinner, Stat

Image by Anna Jones / Contributor

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Anna Jones has become synonymous with "gorgeous vegetarian food." The Jamie Oliver–mentored chef now writes a popular column in the Guardian and has penned three cookbooks, including the new The Modern Cook's Year (which mbg recently named one of the best healthy cookbooks of the year, calling the 250-recipe tome destined to become "the vegetarian Joy of Cooking").

She's also delightfully unfussy—she wants to make meals that people can create and enjoy on a typical night. We sat down with her recently in Brooklyn to get her top tips for creating a healthy weeknight meal—stat. Here's what she had to say:

1. Keep a selection of spices on hand.

Jones keeps five spices on hand for instant flavor. "Smoked paprika is a great way of adding smoke, that note to especially vegetarian and vegan food because that's quite difficult to come about if you're not grilling stuff," she says. She also loves cumin seeds, which she uses whole for the additional texture and pop. "I love coriander seeds or ground coriander for that kind of lemony, rounded note that it has," she says. Anti-inflammatory super-spice turmeric is another staple. "It crosses continents—I'll use it in North African food, Indian food, sometimes I'll add it when I'm feeling a bit under the weather, a soup or a broth or a miso." Finally, she uses black mustard seeds for their texture and the flavor they add to curries and other spiced meals.

2. Use miso to add gut-healing benefits and extra flavor.

Jones relies on miso to add a "rounded umami note" to her quick dishes. "I quite often use it in dressings with either a bit of lime juice or a bit of vinegar, and either a bit of sesame oil or sometimes olive oil." She'll also roast sweet potatoes or squash and then paint the vegetables with some watered-down miso during the last five minutes of cooking. "They come out with a gorgeous umami but slightly sweet miso crust," she says. It's also a great base for a super-fast dinner. "Make whatever veg you've got in the fridge, a miso broth, some udon noodles, which take like six minutes to cook, and then a bit of chili oil, and you're good to go!"

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3. Consider the size of your chopped vegetables.

Jones has a genius trick for heartier vegetables that take longer to cook. "I'll peel it and slice really, really thin, like two or three millimeters thick," she says. "You can do that with a mandoline or in a food processor. Then you can throw that into a soup and it'll cook in about the same time as some green beans. You can also sauté it, and it'll be cooked in like 8 to 10 minutes, rather than roasting it in the oven for ages."

4. Use last night's meal to make a totally different meal tonight.

To be both more economical and more time-savvy, Jones likes to jus up the previous night's dinner on each following night. "The one I make quite often in the winter is sort of squash, chickpea, tomato, leeks, or onions, and I'll stick whatever other veg I have in my fridge, be it carrots, celery, whatever," she says. "I'll spice it with a North African vibe: a bit of preserved lemon, smoked paprika, a bit of cumin."

The first night, she eats the stew as is, with some yogurt on top and flatbread on the side. "The next day maybe I'll make like an herb oil," she says. "I just bash it in a pestle and mortar, or put it in a small food processor with some olive oil and then actually a bit of orange zest or something, and you'll be amazed how much flavor you get from that, how different that soup will taste."

The third night, she'll cook down the soup until it's a bit drier and serve it with some sliced cucumber and salad leaves, and then the fourth night she'll make a bowl, with the remaining soup. "I'll change it up by making a quick pickle with whatever vegetables I have around, usually a carrot," she says. "I'll put it in a bowl with a little pinch of salt, teaspoon of honey, and lots of vinegar and scrunch that up." She'll put the soup in a bowl with some grains and the pickle, and voilà—four nights in, she has a completely different flavor profile.

5. Make a one-pot pasta.

One-pot pastas save time both on the prep and cleanup side, and they're shockingly easy to make—if you get your timing right. "It's all about working backward," Jones explains. "So, check how long your pasta takes to cook. If it takes 8 or 10 minutes, work from there. If the asparagus is going to take 6 minutes, add it 4 minutes in, and so on." The genius of a one-pot pasta is that the starch from the pasta actually creates a silky sauce that tastes like cream, with no dairy necessary. "That's why Italians add a bit of that starchy pasta water to the pan once it's been cooked—because the starch creates that creaminess, so you don't need butter or cream." She's also big on not being too fussy with cooking anything, one-pot pasta included. "If the pasta doesn't feel cooked, add an extra half cup of water and let it cook for another minute," she says. "Or if there's extra water at the end, drain it off and you're good to go."

Want to try one of Anna's favorite one-pot pasta recipes for spring? She was kind enough to share this gorgeous one-pan pea, lemon, and asparagus pasta from her new book.

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Related Class

One-Pan Pea, Lemon & Asparagus Pasta

This pasta is a complete revelation. It's been one of the most popular recipes from my Guardian column, so I wanted to include it here. The sauce is magically made from the pasta water and asparagus as the pasta cooks—all in one pan. No fuss, and a killer bowl of pasta.

The key to this recipe is to measure your water carefully and use the right pan: You need a large, shallow sauté pan or a casserole dish large enough to fit the pasta lying down. A large, deep frying pan or wok would work too. Keep tossing the pasta as it cooks to keep it from sticking, as there is less water than you might be used to. Make sure your pasta is a type that cooks in 8 minutes; any longer will need water and more cooking.

I use sorrel here. It's a bright green, lemony, almost juicy leaf that I love. Be sure to add it if you can get your hands on it. If not, use watercress. The flavor will be more peppery than the sprightly lemon tang of sorrel, but both work beautifully.

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 3½ ounces (100 g) sorrel or watercress or spinach
  • 2 large unwaxed lemons
  • 14 ounces (400 g) spaghetti or linguine
  • 14 ounces (400 g) asparagus
  • 1 clove of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 7 ounces (200 g) fresh podded or frozen peas
  • 3½ fluid ounces (100 ml) olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon flaky sea salt
  • a small bunch of basil or mint
  • 1½ ounces (40 g) freshly grated Parmesan (I use a vegetarian/rennet-free one)

Method

  1. Fill a kettle with water and boil, and get all your ingredients and equipment together. If you are using spinach or watercress, scrunch it between your hands with a little lemon juice and a pinch of salt.
  2. Put the pasta into a pan. Snap the woody ends off the asparagus and chop the stalks into ¼-inch rounds, leaving the tips intact. Put the tips to one side and throw the rounds into the pan along with the garlic and peas. Grate in the zest of both lemons and add the oil and salt. Add 4¼ cups (1 liter) of boiling water, put a lid on the pan, and bring to a boil. As soon as it comes to a boil, remove the lid and simmer on high heat for 8 minutes, using a pair of tongs to turn the pasta every 30 seconds or so as it cooks.
  3. Meanwhile, remove any big stalks from the watercress (if using). Once the pasta has had 8 minutes, take the lid off and stir in the asparagus tips, the sorrel, and the basil or mint. Squeeze in the juice of 1 lemon and simmer for a final 2 minutes.
  4. Once almost all the water has evaporated, take the pan off the heat and leave to sit for a minute or two, so the pasta can absorb most of the remaining water and form a lemony sauce. Tangle into four bowls and top with a little Parmesan.

Recipe excerpted with permission from The Modern Cook's Year by Anna Jones, with the permission of Abrams Books. Copyright © 2019.

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