The secret ingredients of happy vegetable eaters
Whether your new year’s resolution is to eat more veg or fewer cute fluffy animals, you’ll have that much more success if you continue to keep your tastebuds happy. That’s where this post comes in. Over the last five years, I’ve learnt a lot about cooking vegetables, especially for those who are much warier of them. I don’t blame them – many have been brought up on sorry excuses for vegetables (that have usually been boiled beyond recognition), but chefs like Yotam Ottolenghi, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and a host of others are finally giving them the loving attention they deserve. Surprisingly, the best part about eating more veges is that it isn’t always easy, especially if it’s a massive change for you. Suddenly, you find yourself discovering tricks and ingredients that you would have otherwise not bothered with, and they end up enriching your cooking for the better.
Here are my personal favourites and a little about them, but I’ll leave the creative application up to you. Is one of your favourites missing from the list? A go-to brand you love and trust? Please share :)
*s mean you might have to visit a health store – otherwise most supermarkets should stock the following, or an Asian supermarket.
- Smoked paprika – the real Spanish stuff – make sure the smell makes you salivate before buying it. This is like bacon spice but I think much nicer (although I am a little biased as I’m not a huge pork fan). Easier to find the best stuff at delis or upmarket supermarkets. I’ve heard liquid smoke is great too, but haven’t tried it.
- *Nutritional yeast/savoury yeast flakes – great at soaking up extra wetness in any burger or fritter, sauce or dip, and adding a mild toasty cheese-like flavour. Especially good at heightening cheesy flavour without making dishes too rich.
- Miso paste – even great in cookies if you use a smidgen and only unsalted butter or marg, to give the cookies a salted caramel, richer flavour. A simple dip of
- Seaweed/kelp/wakame – there’s a reason the Japanese use it so much! Especially yummy with toasted sesame, good soy sauce, and a little mirin if you have it. Daikon radish is also a happy partner.
- Soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or tamari etc – adds caramelly colour and deliciousness. I use Yamasa, but Kikkoman or light Chinese soy sauces are also good. The dark Chinese soy sauces are more for colour – they aren’t really salty, more molasses-y.
- Tomatoes, as passata especially, although passata often needs a sidekick, whether with herbs, onion or garlic, lemon juice or vinegar, a pinch of extra sugar, good olive oil…
- *Truffles/truffle salt/oil – especially good with fatty dishes, butter, avocado.
- Molasses or treacle – molasses is what makes brown sugar brown, and delicious. I don’t buy brown sugar anymore, I just add as much molasses as I want for the darkness I desire. A nice space saver for those of you with limited kitchen cupboards! Usually in the baking aisle or health food aisle/store.
- Dark soy sauce (the Chinese brands) for savoury dishes – use sparingly.
- Honey or maple syrup – The clear golden stuff and Grade B respectively will give you more intense caramel notes.
- Hoisin or Cha(r) Siu – especially in combination with some sort of booze like mirin or wine.
- Frozen tofu, defrosted – goes spongy and therefore sucks up sauce wonderfully. I like to just tear it up into chunks. Depp fried tofu is good too but obviously doesn’t keep as long.
- *Seitan – made of vital wheat gluten, plus whatever your heart desires. You can make your own into steaks and schnitzels.
- *Crusty bread, or breadcrumbs – for things like panzanella, or as a bulking ingredient for making vege patties. Poor man’s parmesan is also made using crusty bread crumbs.
- Aubergine/eggplant and mushrooms – roasted or sauteed until golden brown on multiple sides. Both work especially well with soy sauce, miso, garlic, or tomato.
- Nuts, but especially peanut or cashew butter – even if it’s not the dominant flavour or ingredient, this can be a miracle worker. I especially love it in these tofu balls which I make into patties with smoked paprika. Peanut butter, garlic, soy sauce, honey and/or lemon or lime makes a delicious sauce for dipping or drizzling.
- Avocado – you’re missing out if you’ve never had avocado, good sea salt and freshly ground black pepper on good home made or proper bakery bread. Even more amazing with a pinch of smoked paprika.
- *Coconut oil – a great alternative to butter and great for baking, curries, stir fries and icing.
- Chickpeas – out of all the beans and lentilly things, chickpeas usually taste the most satisfying, and in flour form, make delicious fritters, especially with curry powder or other spices.
- Sesame oil (or other nut oils, like walnut & hazelnut) – admittedly this one’s a love-or-hate ingredient, but my noodles will rarely make it past a drizzle of sesame oil! Other nuts oils are a bit pricier but well worth it if you’re eating a lot of salads and making your own dressings.
- Mirin – if I don’t have wine, I’ll often substitute mirin, or stock/bouillon and mirin.
- Mirepoix (carrot, onion, celery), in stock or bouillon/cube (here’s my favourite home made method for bouillon). Especially good with garlic, roasted or sauteed, and wine or mirin. Pretty fantastic in small doses in tomato sauces, lasagne, bakes.
Binders (like egg)
Note: I wouldn’t use these instead of all of the eggs in a recipe, but maybe about a 1/3. If you’re only using an egg as a binder, like in a pattie, a “chia egg” will work fine.
- *Chia – mix just under 1 tsp ground chia with about 1/4-1/3c water for a “chia egg,” useful for things like patties or, in the case of baking, banana breads where there are other binders to help out. Depending on how rural/suburban your supermarket is, you might have to go to a health food store for this one. Flaxseed works too.
- Mashed bananas and other fleshy fruits – if you’re using baking soda, pureed fleshy fruits will help your baked goodies rise too, especially applesauce. Canned apricots/peaches/pears, soaked prunes (maybe in brandy…!) – pureed these all make great binders in cakes and add a delightful aroma. Leftovers are great in breakfast and desserts, and are easily frozen.
- Thou shalt not boil vegetables - Boiling is spoiling! Here’s a quicker alternative – add a little splash of water to a large frying pan, pop your veg in, cover with a lid, and bang up the heat until your veges are almost done. They may want a little more water. Turn off the heat and let sit for a maximum of five extra minutes (if longer, transfer them to a plate). Boiling is ok if you’re making a soup, or boiling potatoes for salad, but otherwise you’re effectively wasting time, energy and water heating up a pot of water, and then pouring out a lot of the flavour and nutrients. If you do have to, use the cooled down cooking water on the garden.
- Thou shall treat vegetables with the respect they deserve – you wouldn’t expect an unseasoned boiled piece of meat to taste very good. More often than not, meat is stuffed, marinated, sauteed, roasted, basted and generally given more flavouring. Treat your veges the same way and you’ll be surprised at how amazing they can taste.
- Thou shall try to buy and eat fresh – this can be easier and cheaper if you’re shopping locally and seasonally, but basically, don’t expect two-week-old veges to taste great. They may need a little help in the flavour department. Storing has a major effect on how long your veges keep – it’s a bit complicated to properly address here, but generally, don’t just chuck them on a shelf in your fridge, as they will dry and shrivel up very quickly.
PS. I did not get paid or given anything to feature any of the ingredients photographed, they just happen to be the ones I had on hand. I’m not actually very fond of the brand of passata pictured, but I happened to have it. Otherwise I’m pretty happy with all the other brands featured.