Diego's Natasha Kwan

Natasha Kwan co-owns Frida's and Diego's in University City with her husband, Rick Roloff.

While doing their part to maintain social distance, home cooks everywhere are honing their skills in the kitchen. Feast consulted with some of St. Louis' finest chefs and business owners for their best advice on how to make easy, wholesome meals using simple pantry staples. Find out how to make the most of your groceries in this Q&A series, which outlines some pro tips for creating nutritious and comforting from-scratch meals, snacks and more.

Natasha Kwan co-owns Frida’s and the newly opened Diego’s with her husband, Rick Roloff. Both restaurants are currently open for curbside pickup via online ordering, delivery and patio dining. Frida’s Christmas menu is coming soon, while Diego’s is currently offering meal deals including a date night for two and dinner for four including sides and drinks.

What are some essential plant-based, whole-food ingredients you always like to keep on hand? Seasoning is so essential to all cooking, not just plant-based. Items that are always in my kitchen: fresh onion, tomato, lemon, lime, orange, red bell peppers, basil, jalapeño, cilantro, coconut milk, ginger, cashews, beans (canned and dry), frozen greens, nutritional yeast, powdered onion, garlic, paprika (smoked and Hungarian sweet), thyme, cumin, cumin seed, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, madras curry, lemon pepper, rosemary, sage, Himalayan sea salt, chile flake, a quality black pepper, lentils, fun imported pastas from HomeGoods or TJ Maxx, salsa and hot sauce.

In my personal and restaurant kitchen, I don’t use a lot of packaged items. I like to keep things fresh. Simple dishes include beans and/or lentils with fresh tomato, coconut milk, maybe some curry and cilantro. The wonderful thing about seasoning is making slight changes to your blend can change the entire dish. For instance, start with cumin, onion, garlic, cilantro and black beans and you have a dish from Mexico. Change the beans to chickpeas and it's Moroccan. When someone enters the plant-based world of cooking, they will soon realize that they can create pretty much anything.

Rule: spend the money on quality seasonings and vinegars – they will go further than the competition. I am an avid customer at Penzey’s and Olive Ovation in Ladue Crossing. If you don’t know anything, ask and learn; don’t ever be scared to try things!

Do you have a secret weapon spice or ingredient? If it was a secret, I wouldn’t be writing it (haha) but I’ll give you this: Regardless of what you are making, keep it simple. Adding too many ingredients or spices doesn’t make anything better. Oftentimes, you won’t be able to detect actual flavors because everything is in competition. You want to be able to taste the flavors! Seek out what you want the dish to offer: spicy, savory, sweet, etc. 

In my plant-based cooking, I use a lot of different types of seasoning as well as blends that I create at the restaurant. I always start my soups with the holy trinity, adding my spices when the onions start to become transparent. This activates the spices.

What advice can you give home cooks on how to lighten up meals during the typically heavy eating winter months? What are some of your go-to meals this time of the year? This is such a great question! So many people follow what they have learned from others in their household and/or cookbooks. Stop with the excessive amount of oil and butter. Try no oil or no butter. When you cook vegetables, they contain water, meaning there is a lubricant in the pan. Meat has fat, meaning when it heats up, it will eventually be in its own oil. There are natural fats that are so much better for you, such as avocado, nuts, maple syrup (it has a butter quality), and your body will reap the benefits. 

If you are preparing fish, I highly recommend poaching or grilling. Chicken can be braised and shredded. These are all simple ways to eliminate unnecessary fat. Use the right seasonings and you won’t feel like you are missing out or pissed that it’s “healthy.” Enjoy the flavors. Also, stay away from fried foods. Simple enough. 

Winter is hard on everyone and I wish I was as dedicated to healthy eating every single day, but I’m not. Since there is less fruit in season, I gravitate to heavier foods, creamy soups (white bean- or potato-based) and lentils with vegetables. I prefer stews and soups over anything else. They are easy to make and get better by the day. 

Can you share a recipe for a snack or meal idea that incorporates some of the ideas you've discussed? I love soups and stews and these days it’s so much easier to make since there are InstantPots, and so many people are working from home. Here’s a simple recipe of a creamy broccoli “Cheddar” soup. The nutritional yeast gives this dish the cheesy flavor. This is great if you have leftover potatoes – please leave the skin on; they give you nutrients! It’s a stick-to-your-ribs kind of soup but won’t leave you feeling heavy (you should feel great after eating).