Truth time: I’m not the best recipe follower. I’ve never been the greatest at following directions in general. I prefer to see the pieces and the end result and figure it out myself or take a lot of liberties with the directions printed on the page.

When it comes to cooking, I like to figure out the bones or structure of a dish. There are always key techniques or kinds of ingredients you need to use to make a dish. Once you can see the bones of the recipe, you have the flexibility to adjust the flavors and ingredients to your tastes at that moment.

I enjoy cooking this way because it gives me the confidence and freedom to adapt recipes to my own personal tastes. Recipes are a general guide and don’t have to be followed to the letter. If a recipe calls for cilantro and I don’t have it, if I know the structure of the recipe I can figure out if I need that or if I can swap it out with something else I have.

With a little bit of study and reading a few recipes, you can start to see its’ bones. The main parts of the dish will start to appear and you can see how to tweak them.

If this is a newer concept for you, stick with recipes that aren’t in the baked goods/pastry realm. Those foods have recipe structures, but a lot more math and science are involved in their success. If you learn the science behind them, it’s a lot easier to improvise from there. But if that’s not really your jam, stick to looking for the structures with much less science.

In my Pantry Essentials Quinoa Salad recipe, I shared the structure I use to create that particular recipe and hundreds of quinoa salads. In the spirit of the season, today I’m going to share my structure for my zoodle pasta dish.

Before we dive into the recipe, let’s look at the structure of pasta dishes.

Pasta dishes usually follow the structure of noodles + sauce + vegetables + protein.

For most pasta dishes, this is true, give or take a vegetable. This structure can yield hundreds of combinations and be really enjoyable. There could be some combos that just don’t go well together, but for every one of those, there are many others that work. While I’ve never been a huge pasta fan, but ever since I discovered zoodles, I’m onboard with pasta dishes.

Zoodles are noodles made of zucchini, and people are kinda crazy about them with the explosion of the spiralizer, which can turn a lot of fruit and vegetables into noodle-like ribbons. Why zoodles? Plant-based pasta is less refined and packed with more nutrients than a grain-based pasta.

You don’t need a spiralizer to make zucchini noodles. You can make zucchini noodles with a julienne vegetable peeler or a mandoline with an added blade. You can also just a use a regular vegetable peeler and make wider “noodles.”

So, we’ve got the noodle component covered and healthed up. On to the sauce. I prefer pesto sauces because they’re faster and when zucchinis are in season, so are a lot of great herbs perfect for making pesto. Traditional pesto recipes call for pine nuts and cheese, but I sub those out with other things all the time to make it affordable and more realistic for me (not a big parmesan cheese person, so I don’t buy it regularly).

For my vegetable, I went with eggplant because they’re in season and their meaty texture makes any dish feel more substantial and filling. You can swap this out with any of your favorite seasonal vegetables.

The protein part is pretty wide open. You can go the classic route and make meatballs (or “meatballs” out of vegetables, grains or beans), add another protein like chicken, or you can throw in some meatless ingredients like a fried egg, seitan, or tempeh. I like tempeh because it cooks easily and I can add it to any dish when I’m missing some protein.


Eggplant Pesto Zoodles with Crumbled Tempeh

  • 2-3 medium zucchinis1 block of tempeh, cut into strips
  • 1 block of tempeh, cut into strips
  • 1 large eggplant
  • 1 tsp paprika
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Olive oil for roasting
  • 1-2 tbsp soy sauce


  • 1 cup fresh basil
  • ⅓ cup walnuts
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Slice eggplant into quarter inch rounds and then slice into small triangles (like a tiny pizza)
Arrange them in a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet and add salt, pepper and paprika. Lightly spray or brush olive oil over the tops. Roast for 15-20 minutes or until fork tender.

Put walnuts in a food processor and pulse until in small chunks. Add in basil, lemon and olive oil and run until smooth, pouring in olive oil as the machine is running. Once you’ve reached a consistency you like, add salt and pepper to taste.

With a spiralizer, mandoline, or julienne peeler, make zucchini noodles. If you’re using a spiralizer, cut the noodles so they’re easier to eat.

Heat a saute pan to medium heat with 1-2 teaspoons of olive oil. In batches (especially if you have a lot of zoodles), cook the zoodles for 2-5 minutes. Any longer and they’ll get a little too soggy. Transfer to a mixing bowl and repeat the process until all zoodles are cooked.

Rinse out the pan and bring back to medium heat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Once hot, arrange the tempeh logs in the pan and lightly drizzle soy sauce over them. Cook for 2-4 minutes, then turn and cook for another 2-4 minutes. When done, take the pan off the heat and break up the logs with a wooden spoon and add to mixing bowl with zoodles.

Add the eggplant and half of the pesto mixture and stir to thoroughly combine. Add more salt, pepper, or lemon juice, or pesto to your taste.

Plate and top with a little more pesto to enjoy.

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I hope this has helped you start to see the structures of dishes and given you ideas for how to make food that’s more catered to your tastes. What are you favorite dishes you give your own personal touches to? I’d love to hear your ideas & tips in the comments!


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