We’re two days into Veganuary 2017 and I’ve received messages from even more friends who are taking the plant-based diet plunge! HELL YES! I’m so excited that so many people are interested in veganism and I can’t wait to see how many of you stick with it once Justin Timberlake’s birthday has passed! I suspect it will be most of you, because like I said in my last Veganuary post, once you go plant-based it’s hard to go back.
So you’ve probably figured out where to get things like protein, calcium and iron. You’ve probably bought tofu and tempeh and maybe some jackfruit. Now what?
I’ll be honest: although I’ve been eating tofu for years, I didn’t really know how to make it taste good until my fiancé said, “I won’t eat that” to almost every tofu dish I offered. I also didn’t realize how to make tempeh taste tender and delicious until a few months ago. (The secret is blanching it.)
Over the course of the last two years, I’ve gotten a lot better at flavors and using spices to make food taste delicious. In that time, I’ve built a small arsenal of secret weapon ingredients that are my go-tos in almost any meal situation, especially when we’re limited on food and have to resort to whatever is in the pantry.
This list could be a lot longer, but these are the things I thought of first. Let me know if you can think of any vegan secret weapons in your arsenal that aren’t listed here — I’d love to compare notes!
1. Nutritional Yeast
NUTRITIONAL YEAST IS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING. Fondly referred to as “nooch” by many, this deactivated yeast packs a ton of cheesy flavor and, if you buy the Red Star brand, it’s packed with Vitamin B-12 as an added bonus. We buy our nooch for $10 per pound at a local co-op because we put it in everything, just because it’s got such good flavor. My favorite thing is combining nooch, salt, freshly ground pepper and Earth Balance vegan butter with hot pasta to make “cheater mac and cheese”. It’s easy, delicious, and filling. Add a side salad or some fresh fruit and you’ve got a perfect lazy lunch.
2. Smoked Paprika
Paprika is a spice that’s made from finely ground red chili peppers and is a staple ingredient in many recipes. It adds color to food and brings a mixture of important vitamins and minerals to the table, including iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin E and Vitamin K. Although there are a variety of paprika types available, my favorite is smoked paprika. We originally bought it for a tempeh bacon marinade and now we put it in almost everything. It packs a subtly sweet, spicy punch and works really well in sauces, soups, dressings, and even as a topping for popcorn, tortilla chips and french fries. The color is exquisite and the flavor is even better. I highly recommend picking up a jar; it’s not overly expensive and it’s worth every penny. (Our Trader Joe’s carries smoked paprika for about $2 a jar.)
Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family that is dried and finely ground into a yellow powder. It’s what gives curry it’s incredible color and it’s lawded for its health benefits, including its anti-inflammatory ant antioxidant properties. It’s best absorbed when used in conjunction with black pepper. Honestly, small quantities of turmeric can be put in just about anything savory without drastically changing the flavor. Turmeric offers a bright, gorgeous color and has a mild, peppery flavor that’s complemented by other spices like smoked paprika. Also, nutritional yeast! (Are you seeing a theme?)
Thyme has a distinctive, herbal flavor that’s delicious, especially in potato dishes. I honestly don’t know how to describe it other than that, which is useless, I know. But I will say that everything I’ve ever put thyme in has been improved significantly by its presence.We buy it fresh fairly often, because it smells and tastes amazing when it’s freshly chopped, though we always have a jar of dried thyme around. Thyme has prominent antibacterial properties and boosts your immune system! It also smells hella good and can help lower your blood pressure and eliminate coughing. Basically, it’s the best. Add it to mashed potatoes or red sauce for a fresh, savory twist of pure heaven.
Lemon juice may actually be my favorite ingredient. It works in stir fry, in creamy alfredo-style pasta, in baked goods… I infuse it in rice and use it to brighten up roasted vegetables. I put lemon in so many things and its health benefits are many and varied. It’s a great source of Vitamin C, first and foremost, but it reportedly offers a wealth of other stuff, too. You can also use multiple parts of a lemon to achieve different types of flavor! Juice, zest, pulp; there’s so many reasons to have a bowl full of lemons in your kitchen, not least of which that it makes your friends think you have your shit together.
Not only is avocado a protein powerhouse, it’s also THE BEST THING EVER. Avocado tastes amazing and is the base ingredient in guacamole, which is easily the one of the top ten condiments ever. You can puree it in sauces, slice it for toast, toss it in salad, or just eat it with a spoon. It offers healthy fat, Vitamins A, C, E, K, and B6, as well as a ton of potassium. MOVE OVER, BANANAS. Plus, avocado can be used in place of eggs and most of the oil in any cake recipe, meaning you get moist, creamy cake that’s actually nutritious. I love avocado in any form; I pick up at least three every week. Eat. More. Avocado!
7. Maple Syrup
Since honey isn’t vegan and agave may be endangering bats, my fiancé and I prefer to use a different natural sweetener: pure maple syrup. It’s expensive, so I understand not being able or not wanting to shell out for it, but in our opinion, it’s worth it. Pure maple syrup has numerous antioxidants, fights inflamation, and scores lower on the glycemic index than lots of other sweeteners. It’s also tasty and it works well in multiple situations, from counter-balancing too many hot spices in stir fry to making homemade pickle relish taste a little sweet instead of just vinegary. Plus, you don’t need a lot, so that expensive jug at Trader Joe’s will last you a long time. That’s why the price doesn’t stress me out; we only buy maple syrup every few months.
Chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) come canned and cost about $0.89 per pound. They offer protein, potassium and fiber and they’re super cheap. They serve as the base for lots of delicious vegan staples, including hummus! We also puree chickpeas in red sauce for a protein-packed spaghetti sauce that has a creamy, cheesy texture when you mix in nooch or finely-ground cashews (or both!). Isa Chandra has a chickpea cutlet recipe that’s to die for. Minimalist Baker makes sun-dried tomato chickpea “meat”balls that taste incredible with red sauce. But the coolest thing about chickpeas is that you can whip up the water they’re soaked in — called aquafaba — to make mayo or to substitute egg whites in baked goods. Yesssss.