One of the most challenging things about vegan cooking is achieving depth or intensity of flavor.
If you were brought up in an omnivorous household like me, you developed a taste early in life for foods laced with animal fat in the form of bacon, butter, ham hocks, chicken bones and all sorts of other things that make me flinch now. While it is certainly possible to transcend your “need” for flavors like these, you may, like me, still crave foods that have that richness and that hearty kick.
I’ve noticed a few cooking techniques that seem to satisfy both my taste buds and my ethics. Try them yourself and see if that meat demon doesn’t crawl away into its dirty lair once and for all.
1) Add alcohol.
Wine, red or white, beer and even vodka, can elevate a vegan dish instantly. You needn’t use much, and most of the actual alcohol will evaporate during cooking, leaving behind a sophisticated and distinctive flavor.
Try adding 1 cup of white wine to soups and stews, 1 tbsp of red or white wine to sauteed veggies (1tbsp of soy sauce in addition to the wine is genius too, topped with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, yum!), or 1tbsp to 1/4 cup vodka in any tomato based sauce. You can also try dark beers. Use them to braise tofu, mix one cup beer and one cup veggie broth and pour into baking pans filled with squash and apples, or give warmth to marinades of all kinds with just a few tablespoons.
2) Saute aromatics in oil.
Aromatics are the “stinky” veggies like onions, garlic, shallots, scallions and green onions. I always begin any soup or stew by sautéing some kind of aromatic in some kind of oil. Which you choose will be determined by the other flavors you intend to use. For example, if I’m going for an Asian flavor, I’ll grab garlic cloves and sesame or coconut oil. If I’m going Italian, I’ll use onions and garlic with olive oil. There are so many beautiful oils widely available these days that you have dozens of ways to experiment here. Try truffle oil, peanut oil, hot sesame oil—or, for a neutral taste, grape seed oil.
All you have to do is chop or mince your aromatics, add anywhere from 1 tsp to 1 tbsp oil to a pan or pot, heat to sizzling, add veggies with a dash of salt (this helps to pull the liquid out from them) and cook, stirring frequently from one to five minutes. Garlic, green onions and scallions will cook very quickly, while regular onions and shallots can be cooked until translucent. The longer you cook an onion, the sweeter it becomes, the final destination being caramelization, which is a great sweet and savory layer in any dish.
You may also add chopped carrots and celery to your aromatics, a traditional French cooking technique to create flavor foundations, and if you’re feeling adventurous, try other veggies too. Any color pepper, parsnip, or celery root are all nice choices, but there really is nothing off limits. This is a good place to play with your food and make your own discoveries.
3) Use super spices
There are some spices which are soft and mellow, and others that demand attention. Of course, both have their place in cooking, but when I want to dial up the impact of a dish these are my trusty secret weapons. I add them one by one as needed when I cook, beginning with 1/2 tsp and working my way to a tbsp or more.
Ground ancho chili pepper. This is a spicy spice, but more importantly, it has character. It brings smokiness and sophistication to any dish you toss it in.
Garlic powder. Yes, you probably already have raw garlic working in your pot, but garlic powder takes things to the next level. The two in conjunction make magic .
Red pepper flakes. A dash of these will wake up food instantly. You don’t need much, and people will generally not even know they are there, but they add a brightness and liveliness that everyone will taste.
Smoked paprika. This spice brings a primitive, meaty flavor to your vegan dishes.
Curry powder. There is nothing in the world like curry, and it transforms anything it touches into an exotic delicacy. Use with coconut milk for extreme deliciousness.
Cinnamon. A classic mystery ingredient, a dash of cinnamon is a palate pleaser and works with other spices beautifully to create unique flavor notes.
One of the things I love the most about vegan cooking is that it encourages creativity. Also, because veggies and grains are cheap, if you make a bad cooking call, you can toss out the whole thing and move on with minimal guilt. Don’t be afraid to try new things, even if they seem like odd choices. Over time, you’ll build up a repertoire of one of a kind creations steeped in luscious, healthy, kind hearted mystery.
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Ed: Sara Crolick