It seems only yesterday that the very idea of phasing out meat was met with skepticism or derision from our friends, who thought we’d gone all crunchy-granola on them. While we’re all about granola (especially our homemade granola with peanut butter), plant-based eating is totally mainstream now, and we've gotta say... it's a relief. No matter where we turn, these days, we have options at our disposal, be it for takeout, a Michelin-starred restaurant, or simply a quick-and-easy dinner at home. Whether you’re a full-time vegan or a flexitarian with occasional forays into a delicious baked wild salmon recipe, a wealth of options are now at your disposal. And that’s awesome!
And yet… there remain a few skeptics. A few people who don't just wonder “Where do you get your protein?” (ugh...) but who also claim that “Vegetarian food just isn’t filling/flavorful/consistent enough.”
Of course, we all know that that’s ridiculous, but in an effort to help you decisively prove your friends wrong (or simply add some more flavor and moreishness to your regular meatless concoctions), we’re profiling five of our all-time favorite ingredients that make meatless meals even more filling and flavorful.
1. Nutritional Yeast
Nutritional yeast has become a mainstay of many of our pantries, but it bears repeating: this flaky substance (which, yes, kind of resembles fish food) is an essential tool in the tool kit of any plant loving person looking to add a rich, umami flavor to their meals.
Nutritional yeast is a form of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (try saying that five times fast). While incapable of making your bread rise or your beer ferment due to its deactivated nature, many of nutritional yeast's health benefits are linked to its plentiful essential B vitamins, which are often lacking in the diets of vegans and vegetarians. Some brands are even fortified with even more vitamins and minerals 1.
Flavor-wise, nutritional yeast has a nutty, savory, tangy flavor that resembles that of Parmesan cheese. It’s no surprise that it’s an essential ingredient in vegan béchamel sauces or vegan mac and cheese. Try it in our creamy, cheesy potato soup or vegan mac and cheese recipe bolstered with sweet, orange butternut squash, or shake up our four-ingredient vegan Parmesan recipe to sprinkle over everything from pasta to homemade pizza and more.
Long-time vegetarians know that nine times out of ten, if you attend a wedding reception or even just go to a restaurant, the veg option is gonna be eggplant. And that’s no surprise! Eggplant has the toothsomeness most associate with meat without the, well, meat. And when it’s perfectly cooked, it also takes on a lovely creaminess that makes it the perfect star of any dish.
The secret to cooking eggplant well is first to season it generously with salt, to draw out any excess moisture. Pat it dry, brushing off any visible salt, and then it's ready to cook. Whether you choose to bake or sauté it, just take care not to add it to cold oil – eggplant is a sponge and will quickly soak it up, becoming greasy rather than soft and tender.
Given eggplant's natural marriage of bitter and sweet flavors, it's a no-brainer on the grill (see our guide to grilling eggplant perfectly every time); top it with tomatoes and feta (see our grilled eggplant, tomato and goat cheese recipe) for even more flavor. It's also lovely in a traditional French (make our plant-based ratatouille recipe) or simply cubed, fried, and stirred into your favorite pasta sauce.
From the Organic Authority Files
Lentils are definitely one of those ingredients that feel stereotypically vegetarian, forming the base of many a veggie burger. And why not? Rich and minerally – not to mention chock-a-block with protein – lentils are a phenomenal choice to add bulk and nutrients to your plant-based meals. And there are so many different kinds to choose from!
Yellow and red lentils, plentiful in Indian dals, for example, tend to cook up creamy and tender, forming a sauce more than the chew of the meal. Use them in a five-lentil dal, where they'll provide creaminess to coat the more toothsome chickpeas, or simmer them in a creamy-yet-cream-free red lentil dal.
Brown and green French lentils, on the other hand, are much more likely to hold their shape once cooked, making them the ideal choice if you want a bit more chew to your recipe. Sample them in a salad paired with other veggies like radicchio and carrots, or use them as the base of a plant-based shepherd's pie brimming with nutrients. You can also simply top them with a flavorful minted yogurt – plant-based or otherwise – for a hearty vegetarian main that's easy to throw together on a weeknight.
Another classic of vegetarian and vegan recipes from time immemorial, seitan, aka wheat gluten, is an awesome meat substitute. With its mild yet savory flavor and chewy texture, it’s no surprise that it’s a base ingredient for store-bought meat replacements from turkey to bacon to hot dogs.
At home, you can use seitan in a variety of recipes from curry to “chicken” wings to stir fry. Since it doesn’t have much flavor of its own, it’s the perfect vehicle for soaking up spices, sauces, and more. We love it as a base for plant-based tacos or taco salad, and for a dinner party, particularly around the holidays, it's the ideal centerpiece thanks to this vegan seitan roast with chestnut stuffing.
5. Sun Dried Tomatoes
Sun dried tomatoes are one of the most naturally umami-rich ingredients out there. Tomatoes themselves already have a moreish quality that keeps you eating them all summer long, but when sun dried, this flavor intensifies, becoming a sweet-and-savory marvel that adds heaps of flavor to your favorite recipes.
Their concentrated flavor makes sun dried tomatoes the perfect base for a raw marinara sauce, served over your favorite spiralized noodle. They also add loads of flavor to homemade veggie burger patties, lending depth and richness to the lentil base. And of course, thinly sliced sun dried tomatoes are particularly welcome in any salad you like.
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