As the time to leave Cambridge and relocate to medical school draws nigh, I've been thinking more about how to decrease the number of pots used and the time spent on creating a certain dish, even if it requires rather drastic modifications of the form of that dish (see: kale rolls, prev. post). Tonight's dinner took a small frying pan, small pot, and medium pot, but I can absolutely see combining it all into the one medium pot and calling it a day.
I made a sort of riff on abgishte miveh, or ash miveh (I think that's how you might spell it), a Persian dried or fresh fruit stew. Usually, there is a lot more fruit than the combination of chickpeas and either lentils or white beans that shows up in the stew, especially if the fruit is fresh. I altered that ratio and made it more about the lentils. The nectarine, peach, and two plums I chopped and put in gave everything a fruity aroma and, in the absence of tomatoes, brought in a nice acidity. I also put in raisins and pistachios, as well as the usual garlic/onion/carrot base. Next time, I think I'll reserve some fruit to put in for the last ten minutes of cooking so that there are larger fresh fruit chunks rather than just stewed, squishy bits. I didn't add too much chopped fresh chili, but there was a lot of turmeric and cumin in there (and a few other spices as well), and one star anise "flower" provided a bit of an anisey finish without smacking you in the face as soon as you took a bite.
The one-pot system failed when I used another pot to make saffron rice and a small pan to mix that rice with some spinach and stir fry it for a bit. I can see just boiling the rice in with the lentils, or using small chunks of potato instead, or eschewing the carbohydrate altogether, and either mixing in some shredded spinach to a bowl of steaming lentils right before serving to let the spinach wilt somewhat or just eating it on the side as a salad. That would reduce the time spent tending rice and veggies and washing dishes. Instant med school meal.
And now, by a total lack of popular demand, here are my tips about How to Eat Vegetarian Cheaply and Well that I intend to take during the year and that you, fellow cheapskate and aspiring vegetarian/less-meat-than-usualitarian, can take as well.
Step 1: Keep a constant supply of your favorite beans and legumes in the house. For us, that means lentils. Buying in bulk lowers the cost, and it's not like they rot.
Step 2: On the same note, keep a constant supply of carrots, onions, and garlic in the house. We never get tired of some combination of those three plus some sort of bean, plus other spices or veggies to liven things up (cumiiiiiin). It's not that variety is hard to achieve, but everybody needs a go-to. Plus, carrots, onions, and garlic are some of the most versatile and most baseline ingredients around.
Step 3: Remember that cheese is, if not the most healthful protein, at least the quickest to incorporate. Got a meal all set up but for the protein? Add Parmesan (the real stuff, not the Kraft Kanned Krap). Tofu can be a quick addition as well, but it's not as universally liked as cheese.
Step 4: Lead with your veggies. They're the most flavorful aspect of the meal and usually the most nutrient dense. A meal involving some tenuously healthful carbohydrate, like plain old cheapo pasta, isn't too bad if the bulk of the dish consists of vegetables. That leads me into...
Step 5: Stay approximately seasonal. Finding a good brand of canned tomatoes (and good god is this difficult sometimes) will save you from using mealy wintertime tomatoes. Avoid stone fruits unless it's summertime, and avoid asparagus unless it's springtime. And so on. This will keep your ingredient quality higher and your grocery bill lower.
Step 6: This I've mentioned before: Attempt to plan a menu, even an approximate one, for the week. Reducing the number of grocery runs you make will give you a realistic perspective on how much you're spending (which will be less than if meat was on the menu. I almost guarantee it.).
There you have it. Keeping good vegetable stock on hand (or making your own, which is a perfect destination for vegetables that are still edible but not quite fresh enough to eat raw or to be the best when cooked, actually; the stock doesn't seem to suffer from limp celery), baking your own bread, and finding your personal favorite flavors for dressings and quick spice combinations also help.
Oh, and buy Mark Bittman's book How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.