A vegetarian's pantry contains all sorts of products for making meat-free dishes taste full of flavor. Trust me, being vegetarian does not mean you're resigned to a lifetime of salads and pasta primavera! I've been vegetarian for over 14 years so I definitely have some tricks up my sleeve. I promise you that I NEVER crave the meat that I once used to eat and that's because I've learned to adapt virtually any recipe to be flavor-full and meat-free. Below are the essential items in my pantry that make those recipes possible. I'm including items that are more specialty or unusual in nature, and not the basics like common herbs, spices, or condiments.
If there's a "cheat" in my fridge, then it's got to be Better Than Bouillon's line of vegetarian seasoning bases. These MSG-free bases pack a ton of flavor, especially in those recipes that call for chicken broth or beef bouillon. Oh yes, vegetarians can most definitely still eat "chicken" soup when they have a cold, thanks to Better Than Bouillon. We keep the vegetable, mushroom, chicken, and beef versions on hand at all times.
Vegetarian or not, one of the skills of any cook is learning how to infuse the taste of umami into a dish. Umami gives food its savory flavor, one of the five basic food flavors including sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, and sourness. Although we tend to think of soy sauce as a primarily Asian condiment, it can be used universally to bring umami and saltiness to a dish. Soy sauce, or in the case of my next pantry staple, Liquid Aminos, derives its umami savoriness from the natural glutamate produced by fermented soybeans.
One might associate glutamate with the MSG commonly used in Asian restaurants to boost flavor. However, glutamate is naturally produced in the production of soy sauce and Bragg's Liquid Aminos, a tremendous flavor booster. Liquid Aminos differs from soy sauce in that it's gluten free, contains no added salt, and no preservatives.
Most vegans are very familiar with my next staple seasoning. When I first discovered nutritional yeast I sprinkled it on everything! It's a vegetarian miracle. Like the other items I listed, nutritional yeast brings umami to a dish, especially those recipes calling for cheese. In fact, many cheese replacement products, such as vegan grated Parmesan "cheese", is flavored with nutritional yeast.
It is amazing sprinkled on baked potatoes and popcorn. In our kitchen it's a main ingredient in our vegetarian chicken noodle soup, paired with the chicken bouillon above.
Although I'm not entirely vegan (we'll soon be raising chickens for eggs), I try to keep dairy consumption to a minimum. So when it comes to butter, my favorite alternative is Earth Balance vegan buttery sticks or soy-free sticks. It works great in most recipes calling for butter or margarine. When I make one of my all-time favorite recipes, "Seafood" File Gumbo, real butter does not work properly and Earth Balance makes a perfect gumbo base every time.
Earth Balance is made from plant protein and vegetable oils, including palm oil. I try to avoid palm oil-containing products because of the terrible impact on the environment in palm-growing regions. However, this company claims to be "leading change for responsible palm oil" and I'm hopeful the demand for wildlife-friendly production will find a true Earth balance.
Speaking of dairy-free, a relatively recent newcomer to the market has quickly become a favorite in our fridge. Like the butter alternative above, Hampton Creek's Just Mayo is dairy-free and made from plant oil and plant protein. And its flavor is perfection!
Add a squeeze of sriracha and it makes the best spicy mayo for accompanying veggie sushi rolls. Or, add the mayo to a food processor with a handful of cooked Quorn Chik'n Nuggets, celery, and onion. Makes for a simple but impressive "chicken" salad sandwich.
Back when I ate meat I particularly enjoyed seafood. I've since found a way to enjoy certain fish and seafood recipes without using any animal products. By using my next secret weapon(s) I still get to eat "tuna" macaroni salad, Thai food with "fish" sauce, "seafood" gumbo, and spicy "tuna" sushi. The flavoring for all of these dishes derives from seaweed.
We use Emerald Cove brand kombu, nori, and wakame. In future posts I'll share our recipes for the above mentioned dishes. In short, we use kombu sheets to make seafood stocks, stews, and gumbos. Wakame comes in thin strips, perfect for adding delicate flavor and texture to seafood salads. And nori, commonly known as the wrap for sushi rolls, can be blended into any number of vegetarian proteins along with Just Mayo and sriracha sauce to make an impressive spicy "tuna" for sushi rolls and rice bowls.
Additionally, when making "seafood" recipes that need an extra boost of flavor, we love using kelp powder. Start with small amounts, as it is very strong. Perfect for stocks and dishes that call for seafood flavor without the texture of sea vegetables.
Moving from surf to turf, the next two vegan products bring a rich smokiness and robust tanginess to meals more often associated with steakhouses. Liquid smoke is campfire in a bottle and vegan Worcestershire sauce tastes just like that classic, all-purpose, albeit anchovy-less condiment we all know.
Lazy Kettle brand liquid smoke contains no artificial colors or flavors. It's just water that's been infused with hickory wood smoke. From there let your imagination run wild. Seitan jerky? Barbecued pulled "pork" jackfruit? Smoky split pea soup sans ham hock?
Speaking of bringing smokiness to food, I'll get sidetracked a moment to mention two more kitchen essentials. First, smoked paprika has an incredible flavor and I use it liberally in soups and casseroles. The second item is the only non food product on the list. When we saw a food torch being used to impart a smoky flavor to sushi rolls at a fine vegan Japanese restaurant, we were hooked. It's so fun to torch your food and they're simple to use.
Back to the sauces... Annie's Naturals vegan Worcestershire sauce is made from all sorts of interesting ingredients like apple cider vinegar, molasses, soy sauce, tamarind, and clove. It pairs well with the liquid smoke above for making marinades, bbq sauce, and hearty stews. But I think we all know its most important application: Bloody Marys.
We've arrived at the Asian aisle of the Province pantry. One of the reasons I wanted to introduce recipes to the Province blog in the first place was to share vegetarianized recipes from around the world that are difficult to find in restaurants. While it may seem easy to ask for "no meat" when dining out, that doesn't mean the dish will be truly free from animal products. For example, Thai restaurants typically offer tofu instead of meat. However, most curry sauces contain shrimp paste and most stir fries contain fish sauce. At Chinese restaurants, picking a dish from the "vegetable" section of the menu doesn't mean it won't contain oyster sauce or chicken broth. The solution, of course, was to learn how to make these dishes myself. And that meant learning about the many different sauces commonly used by various cultures. I still have a ton to learn but here are a few of our favorites...
Topping the list is oyster sauce. It's ubiquitous in Chinese cooking because it can stand on its own. Like soy sauce, you can stir fry noodles or veggies in nothing buy oyster sauce and have a delicious dish in a matter of minutes. Thankfully, it comes in a vegetarian version that's available in virtually any Asian grocery. If you've never tried oyster sauce, it's like a thick soy sauce that's on the sweeter side, and in this case flavored with mushroom extract rather than oyster extract. Our favorite brand is the Taiwanese Wan Ja Shan.
Next is one of my all-time favorites and, wouldn't you know it, happens to impart a smoky umami flavor to food like so many other items on this list. Chiu chow chili oil gets its intoxicating smoky aroma from preserved chili peppers and garlic. When you open the jar, you'll see a layer of reddish-orange oil on top of a thick sauce of ground chili peppers and garlic. Use it as a condiment, a soup flavoring, or simply toss with noodles, a dash of sugar, and a splash of soy sauce. Heck, if you plan on being alone for the next 24 hours, just eat a spicy spoonful.
Lee Kum Kee is a reliable brand for chiu chow as well as for another versatile sauce, black bean garlic sauce. Fermented black beans and garlic give this sauce a pungent but pleasant aroma. It can be used as a simple stir-fry sauce for your preferred protein or added to the base of more complex sauces like my absolute favorite, Sichuan ma po tofu. If you're experimenting with Chinese recipes, you'll inevitably come across black bean sauce in many of them.
My last plug for Lee Kum Kee is char siu sauce. Thick, sticky, and sweet, this sauce is also known as Chinese barbecue sauce. It's typically made with honey, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and five spice powder. Try marinating strips of seitan or tempeh in char siu sauce and then frying/grilling until the protein has a nice char. O-M-G it's candy.
Moving on from the thick soy-based sauces, we come to our last three Chinese staples: black vinegar, sichuan pepper oil, and fermented tofu. While they might sound the most uncommon, there's a good chance you've tasted one or more already.
Chinkiang "Chinese black" vinegar is the special ingredient in two recipes I'm excited to feature in upcoming blogs: the BEST authentic hot & sour soup and Chinese "spareribs" with onions. Chinese black vinegar is reminiscent of balsamic vinegar, but instead of grapes is made from fermented rice and wheat. It lacks the fruity tone and sweetness of balsamic and it's usually cheaper.
I'll be honest, fermented tofu really stinks. When you open a jar of this gooey stuff you'll think you've bought a jar of botulism. The first thing you should NOT do when you buy it is eat a spoonful. People have died from lesser follies. And yet, it's indispensable in our kitchen.
Fermented tofu has a pungent, salty and, obviously, fermented flavor. A little goes a long way. In fact, your jar will probably last you well past its expiration date...which you'll be convinced was thirteen years ago. But damn if this stuff isn't strangely delicious! Traditionally, you would add a dab to your bowl of rice porridge. In more authentic Chinese restaurants, you may find it imparting the saltiness in vegetables like steamed spinach or steamed pea shoots. In our house we toss it in all kinds of things just to see what will happen...and we've lived to tell about it. It's also essential for my secret "fish sauce" recipe. Shhhh....
In much Sichuan cuisine, there exists a common flavor sensation referred to as ma la. Ma la is the spicy numbing sensation left in one's mouth after consuming the oil of the Sichuan peppercorn. It's a peculiar but enjoyable mouthfeel that is quite addicting.
Ma la dishes can be punishingly spicy, but a judicious drizzle of Sichuan pepper oil can infuse a dish like mapo tofu or hot pot with the floral fragrance of the peppercorns without the atomic fury. If you're shopping in an Asian market you might also see the oil called prickly oil or prickly ash oil. It's a special flavor-experience and you should try it. Anybody who thinks vegetarian food is boring should especially try it.
I will be writing a future blog specifically about vegetarian Chinese hot pot, which often contains Sichuan pepper oil. For now, if you'd like to try hot pot at home, you can't go wrong with Little Sheep brand.
From China to Korea we go, for more spicy food. Korean red pepper paste, aka gochujang, is the base for one of the best stews you've ever tasted. Made from red chilis, glutinous rice, and fermented soybeans, it has a balance of everything you could want in a singular flavor profile: saltiness, sweetness, savoriness, and spiciness. Mix your favorite vegetables and your favorite protein in a broth with a couple spoonfuls of this sticky red paste and you have a flavor-packed healthy meal that warms a cold day or a cold heart. Not that I'd know anything about the latter.
I hate to rush through Korea, but at the risk of this blog getting long in the tooth (I think we can all agree I've surpassed that point already) I want to fly across the Strait of Korea for a stopover in Japan. Here I feel obliged to mention Kikkoman unagi sushi sauce and Otafuku okonomiyaki sauce, both vegetarian. Sweet and delicious on rice? Absolutely. Free from high fructose corn syrup, MSG, and artificial color? Not so much. Whatevs ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
More importantly, I want to share the citrus flavor explosion that is yuzukosho, or spicy yuzu paste. In a future blog I'll be sharing my recipe for yuzukosho soy salad dressing so I thought I'd give readers time to order a jar. It's crazy good and, if you haven't tasted it before, then I guarantee it will taste like something you've never tasted before. Now that's quite a guarantee.
A little bit spicy, a little bit bitter, and a whole lot citrusy, this curious little jar of sass will make the insides of your mouth giggle. Try a little dab on yakitori (grilled) vegetables and I'm pretty sure you'll decide you don't need anything else in life.
Except white miso. You need white miso in your fridge at all times.
Earlier I mentioned Thai food and the difficulty getting true vegetarian dishes that don't contain shrimp paste or fish sauce. A select few Thai curry pastes on the market are meat-free. Specifically, the Aroy-D brand makes my favorite green curry and red curry pastes and they're surprisingly inexpensive. Don't bother buying the more common and more expensive Thai Kitchen brand curry pastes. In my opinion they don't pack the intense curry punch that they should. Mae Ploy is probably the most common brand of Thai curry in Asian markets but it contains shrimp paste.
If you're making red, green, or panang curry you'll need coconut milk. Aroy-D actually sells that too. It's good, but I prefer Chaokoh brand. Avoid "lite" or reduced fat coconut milk because they are diluted with water and completely pointless. Coconut milk is fatty, decadent, and good for us. Lite coconut milk is stupid.
Okay, so I said Mae Ploy is to be avoided, but only when it comes to their curry. Over the past 16 years, ever since I lived with a Thai family during college, there has been at least one product I've never lived without: Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce. It has far too much sugar to be considered anything close to healthy. I used to slather it on top of white rice on those days when I only had a short break in between classes and couldn't decide if I wanted something salty or something diabetes.
Sometimes it's referred to as "chicken sauce" because it's commonly used as a dipping sauce or basting sauce for chicken. And that's exactly how we use it, slathered on Quorn Chik'n nuggets or baked on faux chicken drumsticks.
So that's it for now. I won't write about every single mundane item in my fridge and pantry, but these are a few of the more interesting products we use. This page will serve as the ever-expanding master list of ingredients that I use in my recipes.
I recognize that some of these products are all-natural and contain wholesome ingredients, whereas others are processed and loaded with salt, sugar, soy, wheat, and all those other things we love to hate and hate to love. Used occasionally and sparingly, in dishes that are loaded with fresh veggies, we feel pretty damn good about our meals most of the time. We share the philosophy of the great gastronomist Curnonsky who famously said, "La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu'elles sont." = Good cuisine is when things taste of what they are. And yet, sometimes, it's amazing what a little kitchen chemistry can do ;)
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