I transitioned to eating only plant-based food almost two years ago. At that time, I was not aware of the richness of plant-based cooking landscape and that this decision will be a major boost for my culinary creativity. Switching to vegan (plant-based) eating has been revolutionary!
How to transition to vegan (plant-based) eating?
Everyone has their own individual transition path, and it may take some time to recalibrate your taste buds to enjoy all the different flavors of vegan food. Also: it does take some time to learn some basic cooking strategies that elevate your plant-based home cooked meals to a status of scrumptious feast.
My personal mental transition took about two years. I’m a scientist so I looked at data based arguments that have been collecting around the scientific literature, and finally came to a conclusion that the best thing I can do for the health of the planet and my own health is to start eating a plant-based diet. Once I was mentally ready, the actual transition from eating non-vegan to eating vegan happened overnight.
How to maximize the deliciousness of your plant-based cooking?
No matter which path you take to get here, and no matter if you practice plant-based eating once a week, or 24-7-365, one key cooking skill that you should try to acquire is working with spices. Fruits and vegetables are delicious on their own, of course, but if you are cooking for picky eaters, or omni family and friends, or simply enjoy multidimensional flavors yourself, spices are your secret weapon. They become even more important if you want to minimize the amount of salt, fat (oil) and sugar (sweeteners of any kind) that you use in your cooking.
The selection below includes couple of items that are technically herbs (dried basil, and dried oregano) and liquids (vanilla and liquid smoke), but for every day simplicity (and against culinary books and schools), I call “spice” everything I can find in the spices isle in the supermarket. Also note that I actually have and use more spice than this and continue to discover new flooring agents all the time, but these are some of my favorites that I always have on hand for my everyday cooking as well as entertaining and holidays.
Finding the best deals on spices
Spices can be expensive, so here is a pro-tip: get your spices like cumin, curry powder, Garam Masala, turmeric, and cinnamon in an Indian store if you have one close by. If not, look for store brand, or the international isle in your supermarket. Spices that you can find there are usually half the price as those in the spice isle while being just as good. Trader Joe’s (if you have one in your neck of the woods) also has excellent prices, including on things like saffron. Having said all this, sometimes you will just have to be prepared to pay the premium price. My most expensive spice purchase was a batch of rubbed sage at the height of Thanksgiving shopping when all the cheaper options were gone!
Without further ado, let’s dive in into some essential spices and how to use them:
- Dried basil and oregano
Fresh basil and oregano are great to have on hand, and if you are into gardening you can easily grow them, even indoors. But if you are like me – not born with a green thumb – then your next best thing is to have dried basil and oregano on hand at all times. Plus, there are some recipes where fresh herbs just don’t work, like these Roasted Tofu Steak Tips. The recipe I make almost weekly and which in turn uses lots of dried basil and oregano is a very basic marinara sauce (canned crushed tomatoes, garlic, dried oregano and basil, and olive oil – done in 10-15 minutes). Some other yummy food featuring dried oregano and basil are things like Basic Lentil Bolognese and Lentil and Pumpkin Meatloaf. One tip when using dried basic and oregano is to rub the herbs with the palms of your hands before using – that releases more of their fragrancy.
- Garlic powder and onion powder
There are many recipes that can’t be made without some good garlic powder and onion powder. And, in the same way dried oregano and basil go hand in hand, so do garlic powder and onion powder. These two powders are essential ingredients for any recipe that at the end of the day needs all the flavor but none of the chunkiness that even the finest mincing will not produce if you start from actual garlic and onion. Also, both garlic and especially onion have lots of moisture, and the powders are ideal for adding all the flavor without any added moisture. Recipes you often find these two powders in are many marinades, where they help transform a thing like plain old carrot into a Carrot Dog. Additionally, onion powder and garlic powder add a bit of their power to many mind bending recipes like Vegan Nacho Cheese, and Ground Beef Substitute!
It is said that the best paprika comes from Hungary, and that may very well be true because, although peppers that are ground up to make paprika have originated from the area now known as Mexico, they have been cultivated into their sweet variety in Hungary. Having said all that you do not need to hunt for paprika labeled as “Hungarian” – all you need to pay attention to when picking paprika is to get the one that does not say HOT as paprika does come in a hot (very hot) version as well! Paprika you want is sweet and subtle, and you will love it in rich dishes like these Hungarian Lentils from a new The Vegan 8 cookbook, or this Jackfruit Barbacoa. Any time you want deep, rich flavor without the heat you would reach for some paprika!
- Ground cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika
Cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika are three very different things, and you experiment and use them individually. But, their combined effect is much more than a simple sum of their parts especially for adding depth to veggie burgers. You can often find them in things like spice rubs as well, so if you are looking to add extra flavor to your grilled corn or other veggies I recommend you try brushing some of the cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika mix (1:1:1 works well, but you can play around and adjust to your taste). In a way this is a universally applicable spice combo for whenever you want that nice tex-mex flavor, like in these great stuffed zucchinis or for breakfast in this tofu scramble, or whenever you are craving a great bowl of chili.
- Curry powder, garam masala and turmeric
Unlike cumin, chili powder and smoked paprika above, I combined curry powder, garam masala and turmeric into a single bullet point not because I recommend you use them all at the same time (although that could be done!), but rather because the three spices are essential for anyone interested in exploring Indian cuisine. Indian cuisine and flavors are varied and rich, and the number of spices the traditional Indian dishes use is much, much broader than just the three I mention. However, curry powder, garam masala and turmeric (together with already mentioned cumin) are the basics that go a long way towards dishes like Chicken-less Tikka Masala, “Chicken” in Nut Sauce, and Vegan Saag Paneer. Turmeric has another special role it sometimes play – it gives things a bright yellow color and can be used to give an appearance of eggs, like in these popovers.
- Old Bay seasoning
Old Bay seasoning is a must-have for anyone craving fish and sea food. The seasoning is off-the-shelf blend that is quite salty so if you are watching salt intake or you can’t find this seasoning where you live, here is a great recipe for a homemade blend (LINK EDITED Sept-13-2020 as the old one stopped working) that comes very close to the original. Add Old Bay seasoning to your Crab-less Crab Cakes, New England “Clam” Chowder, Faux Lobster Rolls, and Tofu Fish Cakes or any other time you want to recreate that special flavor of the coastal cooking.
- Liquid smoke
Liquid smoke is definitely not something that I ever thought I would be using, let alone recommending. However, it is essential when you are making recipes like BBQ Ribs, Grilled Tofu, or different kinds of smoked cheese, like this gouda. And: no bacon can ever be imagined without the liquid smoke, and there are many bacons out there. If you have not made “bacon” before, I recommend that you start with tofu bacon, tempeh bacon or coconut bacon, and if you are a bit more adventurous, rice paper bacon. Many also enjoy adding liquid smoke to their vegetable marinades or to things like meatloaf!
- Ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, and ground cloves
Not everything vegans eat is savory – there are lots of vegan sweets and treats out there as well! I kick my dessert making into high gear around the end of the year holidays, so for me ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and ground cloves are essential. I usually use all three of them at the same time and usually in 1 teaspoon: 1/2 teaspoon : 1/4 teaspoon amounts from cinnamon (the most) to cloves (the least). This trends with the intensity of their flavor as well. To me nutmeg and cloves extend and expand the cozy flavor of cinnamon, so next time when you are baking a pie or making cookies that ask for cinnamon try adding the other two as well. Looking for inspiration? This zucchini fruitcake and these pumpkin truffles can be a good starting point.
- Vanilla extract (and vanilla bean)
Of course no baking or other dessert making can be imagined without vanilla. When buying vanilla extract, look for “pure” on the label and stay away from imitation stuff. If you have a bit more funds to invest, then do get some vanilla bean. But: unless you plan to make things like nice cream, or raw cheesecake, vanilla extract is all you need because in my experience baking really removes the edge from vanilla beans and the uniqueness of their flavor gets completely lost.
No matter where you start with your spices, remember that spices are supposed to be experimented with, mixed and matched and that more often then not it is the mix of spices that creates an amazing flavor rather than a single spice alone. Enjoy!
Copyright © Eat the Vegan Rainbow, 2018