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Once I have a QT widget made, say with a couple of buttons and a text label, how do I actually add ROS functions to those? I thought I'd just add the ROS-related code to my QT project

Your right. You just have to add "interface" between your Qt widgets and rqt plugin framework. For rqt plugin in C++, only the class that extends rqt_gui_cpp::Plugin is rqt specific. So create it, and use your custom Qt classes from there.

but it keeps telling me it can't find the ros/ros.h header file that it needs when I try to build, and I can't find that file anywhere on my ros install.

Please provide more info; e.g. command you ran and its full (or sufficient amount of ) output.

There may be only a handful of plugins written in C++. One good example is rqt_image_view. See its code as a reference (note that this plugin, however, is written all-in-one style of Plugin class and Qt widget).