Must-Have Spices for Your Vegan Kitchen

Supermarket Spice Offering
Supermarket Spice Offering, Image via Pixabay

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.

Basic spice collection
Basic Spice Collection, Image via Pixabay

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
Summer’s hottest trend: Carrot Dogs, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow

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!

  • Paprika

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
Vegan “Chicken” in a Nut Sauce, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow

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
Jackfruit “Crab” Cake, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow

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
Pumpkin Truffles, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow

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

Zucchini Lasagna with Walnut and Brown Lentil Ragù

Zucchini Lasagna with Walnut and Brown Lentil Ragù, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow

Let’s cut to the chase and be honest here – although we can pretend otherwise, we are all as obsessed with lasagnas as Garfield is! The layers of soft noodles, amazing sauce, fresh herbs, and most commonly lots and lots of ground meat and soft cheese. All this means that lasagnas are not the healthiest thing on the menu. Having said that, there is no reason to ban lasagnas from your plate; you just need to learn how to keep it healthy and plant-based, and I think I can help you to troubleshoot both of those problems.

Keeping lasagnas meat-free seems to be the problem many have tackled, usually by overloading lasagna with cheese, cheese and eggs, or cheese and a selection of vegetables, like mushrooms, and increasing the amount of tomato sauce and making it chunkier. But, really the most prominent ingredient in majority of meatless lasagna recipes is the cheese. When I was developing this lasagna recipe I did not want to give up on idea of “meat”, so what I came up with is a hearty, meaty, and flavorful walnut and brown lentil “meat” ragù base. My thinking was inspired by my previous, wildly successful Meatless Shepherd’s Pie, which I served for Easter this year as a substitute for a more traditional, lamb-based dish. In that recipe, lentils, mixed with ground mushrooms and cooked with rosemary and thyme, made for an amazing feast.

Here, I wanted to recreate the traditional meat ragù and went for a combination of chopped walnuts and dark lentils. The trick is too cook the lentils separately and add them to the rest of the ragù when they are fully cooked. Also, chop your walnuts into pieces that are about the size of what ground meat pieces may look like. I chopped the walnuts by hand, just by going over walnut pieces with a knife few times, back and forth. You can buy whole walnuts, or walnut halves in store and start from there, but for this a bag of walnut pieces will make your life easier and make the dish cheaper. Walnuts work really well in this lasagna, because they add some of their natural crunchy texture, protein, and a bit of fattiness to the otherwise very lean recipe. Worried about this extra fat? Walnuts are known for having a lot of unsaturated fat, which is the good kind, so don’t skip it! The meatiness of the ragù is further enhanced by a good amount of tomato paste and crushed tomatoes and letting the ragù simmer for a while.

Walnut and Brown Lentil Ragù, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow

The preparation of any lasagna happens in several stages and this one is no different. In order to make the process more efficient I recommend that you start roasting the zucchini at the same time you start making the ragù, and then start boiling the lasagna noodles when zucchini is just about done. In that way you don’t even need to turn the oven off, you can just lower the temperature from roasting to baking and be ready for lasagna to go in immediately. Please note that I don’t use zucchini as a complete lasagna noodle replacement. I suppose you could, but then you’ll end up in a more of a Zucchini Mousaka territory than lasagna paradise. If you are concerned about gluten, there are now many gluten-free lasagna noodle options for you to choose from and most of them work perfectly.

The final touch on this lasagna is the Béchamel sauce (besciamella), which is a white sauce traditionally made with milk, butter and flour. In this case, the quick white sauce I put together requires only a blender, some soft, silken tofu, a squeeze of a lemon, and a bit of nutritional yeast. It is very much the blend-and-pour type of sauce, so you can do it a in a blink of an eye. The sauce adds a nice, slightly cheesy flavor to this very rich lasagna, and makes for a nice, almost golden glaze.

Zucchini Lasagna with Walnut and Brown Lentil Ragù

What you’ll need (for 9 x 13 in (23 x 33 cm) baking dish):

8-10 lasagna noodles, gluten-free if preferred

1 lbs (450 g) brown lentils

3 zucchinis, cut lengthwise into long strips

2 large carrots, diced

3 stalks celery, diced

1 cup raw walnut pieces, chopped

1/2 yellow onion, diced

1 can (28 oz, 800 g) crushed tomatoes

2 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon crushed garlic

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon dried basil

3 tablespoons fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley

1 lbs (450 g) silken tofu

2 tablespoons lemon juice, freshly squeezed

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

Cooking oil spray

What you’ll do:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 F (220 C).
  2. Prepare the lentils according to the instructions on the bag. Basically, bring 4 cups of water to boil and add the lentils that have been washed and picked over to remove any impurities that may have made their way to the lentils. Bring the lentils back to boil than lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook for 20 minutes or so, until lentils are completely cooked. Drain the lentils from excess water and set aside to cool.
  3. While the oven is preheating, and lentils are cooking, prep your veggies. Peel, wash, and dice the onions and carrots, and wash and dice the celery. Wash the zucchini well, remove the ends, then cut into long, thin strips. You can use a mandolin slicer for this, but cutting by hand also works. The zucchini slices should be as close to the thickness of the lasagna noodles as possible, but you don’t need to go crazy here – just keep in mind that a bit thinner is better.
  4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, place the zucchini slices on and spray with cooking spray. You may need to use two baking sheets, since you may discover that you can’t manage to have all your zucchini slices arranged in a single layer. Don’t pile the zucchini on top of each other and do roast in batches if needed. Place the zucchini “lasagna noodles” into the oven to roast. The roasting will take anywhere between 15 and 25 minutes and will depend on the thickness of your zucchini. Keep an eye on the oven and if you are roasting two pans of the zucchini at the same time do rotate the pans mid way through the roasting. You will know that the zucchini is done when the edges are slightly brown and the middle is golden. Once you take the zucchini out, decrease the oven temperature to 350 F (175 C).
  5. While the zucchini is roasting, start your the ragù. Spray the bottom of a Dutch oven, or another type of heavy pan, with cooking spray and heat up over the medium to medium high heat. Add carrots, onions and celery and let them brown for 10 minutes. Add chopped walnuts and let them pan roast for about 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic, oregano, and basil, and let the flavors develop for a minute. Next comes tomato paste – add it to the pan, mix well and let brown just slightly. This takes about 2 minutes or so. Add the cooked lentils and the crushed tomatoes, and mix well. Let the ragù simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Turn the heat off, add the fresh parsley and mix well to combine.
  6. Once the ragù is simmering, it’s time to start cooking your lasagna noodles. Most varieties ask for a large pot of boiling water and about 10 minutes of boiling time. The noodles don’t need to be cooked all the way through as they will continue to cook in the oven but they do need to soften quite a bit, so 8 to 10 minutes should be enough to achieve that. Drain the noodles and use immediately.
  7. Combine tofu, lemon juice and nutritional yeast in a blender and blend until smooth. Set the besciamella to the side.
  8. Spray the bottom and sides of your 9 x 13 in (23 x 33 cm) pan with some cooking spray. Cover the bottom liberally with the ragù (use about a half of the amount you made), layer the first set of noodles (for me that came to about 5 noodles per layer), then layer the zucchini in a single layer, pour the rest of the ragù, and top with the remaining noodles. Pour the besciamella over and cover with foil.
  9. Place the covered lasagna into the 350 F (175 C) oven and let bake for 30 minutes covered and then about 10 minutes uncovered. Let the lasagna sit for about 10 minutes before serving. I like to add some freshly ground black pepper or a mix of black pepper and red pepper flakes to my lasagna just before enjoying, but you can also sprinkle some fresh parsley, or fresh basil. Have fun!

Copyright © Eat the Vegan Rainbow, 2017

5 Must-try Recipes for Beginner Vegans

Rainbow of Fruits and Veggies
Rainbow of Fruits and Veggies, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow
Half a year ago I made a decision to ditch meat, and dairy, and eggs, and honey, and fish, and seafood. What I was left with was a whole bunch of plants that all of a sudden went from being a side dish to being the star ingredients of everything I was cooking.

Six months in I have to admit that cooking have never been more fun. Every single recipe is still an adventure because it offers an opportunity to experiment and challenge my preconceived views of what a dish should look and taste like. Additionally I have also discovered that many others are curious about plant-based eating and interested in learning more how to replace meat and cheese in their diets. I never expected that sharing my experiences and cooking tips and tricks would be so enjoyable but it is! I love blogging about the recipes I develop and I love engaging with those interested in vegan cooking techniques and strategies.

So, in observation of World Meat Free Day today, I wanted to help anyone who is still thinking whether to take the plunge into plant-based cuisine waters and share five recipes that will make your transition much smoother. These are the recipes that changed my views of what plants can do, and I hope they’ll help you as well!!!

  1. Tofu Bacon – this recipe is so fantastic that you may want to make a double batch as one will not last long. Shared by The Buddhist Chef, this recipe not only tought me how to make crispy tofu, but introduced me to liquid smoke, an ingredient that I know use all the time, especially when grilling as it gives grilled food, like this Grilled Eggplant, an extra edge.
  2. Cashew Cheeses – I approached cashew cheese with disbelief but recipes like this Easy Garlic & Herb Vegan Cheese, developed by Minimalist Baker, and this Cashew Ricotta Cheese, by Simple Veganista, completely changed my mind and my pallet. They also introduced me to nutritional yeast, something I know use pretty regularly for that pleasant cheese flavor.
  3. Jackfruit Carnitas Tacos (Pulled Pork Tacos) – this recipe by The Edgy Veg opened my eyes to the world of jackfruit, a fruit (or a vegetable, not sure which) that I’ve never heard of before. It turns out jackfruit is an absolute must have ingredient for vegan cooking and my crab-less Jackfruit “Crab” Cakes remains one of my favorite things to make and eat!
  4. Vegan Substitute for Ground Beef – this recipe by Glow Kitchen has been truly transformative as it convinced me that homemade meat substitutes are feasible, tasty, and super affordable, thus definitely worth an effort.
  5. Healthy Chocolate Pudding – this was the first vegan dessert I made and I am still amazed that some brave soul at some point said to themselves: “Enough is enough – I am putting avocados and bananas together and lets see what happens!”. Credit for this recipe goes to Whole Foods Market.

All in all, the most important thing you should do in order to be a great vegan cooking success is to keep an open mind. As these five examples show vegan recipes combine unexpected ingredients so don’t talk yourself from trying just because you were not raised eating jackfruit or combining bananas and avocados. For example, my most unexpected recipe is Vegan Popovers – who knew popovers don’t need milk or eggs?

Happy World Meat Free Day and enjoy your plant-based existence!!!


Copyright © Eat the Vegan Rainbow, 2017

Clams-free “Clam” Sauce

Jackfruit Clam Sauce with Black Bean Pasta
Jackfruit Clam Sauce with Black Bean Pasta, via Eat the Vegan Rainbow

Cooking is in many ways similar to doing experiments in a research lab. In a lab we start from a protocol, or a recipe (oh, yes… we use recipes in science big time!), and more often than not we change things up to see what happens to our experimental results under a new set of parameters or conditions. We make observations and jot them down. The main and the biggest, actually a life and death, difference between cooking and science is that you don’t taste results of your science experiments, while tasting cooking experiments is recommended.

Why do I mention experiments? Well, although seldom talked about most experiments actually give negative results or even fail. Now this happens in cooking too, but I have to say at this point in my life not very often. So, it is with a bag of mixed emotions that I am jotting down this recipe – the Clam-free Clam Sauce with Black Bean Pasta – as this did not turn out the way I was hoping it would.

The sauce itself is actually spot on, creamy and delicious. It uses jackfruit as a stand in for clams, similar to what I’ve done in my New England “Clam” Chowder, and a batch of homemade vegan mozzarella, recipe for which I found on a fun vegan cooking blog site it doesn’t taste like chicken. This vegan mozzarella, combined with the jackfruit, some almond milk, lemon juice, and a dash of Old Bay Seasoning gave a beautiful, rich, and creamy sauce.

The main problem was that I decided to pair this delicious sauce with black bean pasta, instead of more traditional linguine pasta, and this DID NOT work at all. The black bean pasta had a strong flavor that interfered with the subtle flavors of the Clam-free Clam Sauce so the final dish was definitely very far from authentic pasta with the clam sauce.

Conclusion of this experiment? When in possession of the clam sauce, even if it is a vegan version of it, just go with linguini, which is exactly what I’ll do next time!

Clam-free Clam Sauce

What you’ll need:

1 can (10 oz, 280 g) young green jackfruit in brine

1 tablespoon Old Bay Seasoning

2 tablespoons garlic, crushed

1/2 cup vegan mozzarella

1 cup almond milk

1 tablespoon corn starch

2 tablespoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon dry basil

1 teaspoon dry oregano

Cooking spray

Fresh flat leave (Italian) parsley

What you’ll do:

    1. Prepare the vegan mozzarella according to instructions on it doesn’t taste like chicken site.
    2. Prepare the jackfruit by draining the brine out and washing the jackfruit off from access brain to make sure that most of the salt is washed off. Pull jackfruit apart into smaller pieces, about the size of clam “meat”.
    3. Spray the bottom of your pot with cooking spray and turn the heat on medium-high. Add jackfruit and sauté for 3-4 minutes.
    4. Add Old Bay seasoning, mix well and sauté for 1-2 minutes.
    5. Add garlic and sauté for another minute, until the garlic releases its aroma.
    6. Next add the vegan mozzarella and mix everything together. Let it simmer for 2-3 minutes.
    7. Add almond milk and decrease the heat to medium to medium-low. Let the sauce come to simmer.
    8. In a small bowl, mix corn starch and couple of tablespoons of sauce to temper the corn starch. Then add it to the sauce and mix well. Let the sauce simmer for 10-15 minutes.
    9. Add lemon juice, oregano and basil. That ought to do it. But remember: no matter what don’t pair this sauce with the black bean pasta, it’s not worth it!

Copyright © Eat the Vegan Rainbow, 2017