When you’re switching to a plant-based way of life, it’s not just your shopping list that changes – it’s your entire way of approaching the kitchen, from which proteins to prepare to what the "main" is when you're used to meat and potatoes. Even when you're well-versed in plant-based cooking, new techniques and ideas can keep you on your toes and make your recipes even more interesting (and delicious).
While there are lots of great online resources that can help, we decided to go even further. We’ve enlisted the help of two plant-based cooking experts to assemble our top seven plant-based cooking hacks – and we’re sharing them with you.
Cooking instructor Terresa Murphy was born and raised in the U.S., but for many years, she has been living and working in Paris. While French cooking is not particularly well known for its love of vegetables, Murphy brings her unique philosophy – and a bit of Italian influence – to lovers of veggies with her market tours and cooking lessons at La Cucina di Terresa.
“Story is extremely important when eating a plant-based dish,” she says. “I want my vegetables ‘undressed.’”
For Murphy, an “undressed” vegetable is one that tastes unequivocally like the best version of itself. To achieve this, she first picks the very best seasonal produce and then prepares it with just a few added ingredients – she never uses cream, milk, or eggs, and she avoids strong-tasting ingredients, like mustard, most spices, and too much onion. “All that covers up flavors.”
Haan Palcu-Chang is a Canadian chef with a Chinese and Romanian background. After several acclaimed experiences cooking throughout Europe and Asia, Palcu-Chang returned to Toronto and opened Mama Flo’s, which focuses on restaurant pop-ups and private dinners around the world.
“We do what we do because we are passionate about making delicious, well-sourced, nourishing, made-from-scratch food,” reads Mama Flo’s mission statement.
While Palcu-Chang does not cook exclusively plant-based meals, he does rely heavily on vegetarian and vegan dishes, each of which focuses, not on lack of meat or dairy, but on the richness of these plant-based ingredients.
“I never try to replace meat or dairy,” he says. “Meat and dairy is for meat and dairy dishes. I am of the mind that a good plant-based meal is just as good as a good meat-based meal, so I don’t see the point of replacing meat with some type of meat replacement.”
When you unite these two unique, plant-based mindsets, you get some of the very best cooking hacks for incredible plant-based meals.
1. Get inspired by the seasons.
Many meat-eaters start their menu planning around the meat – steak with potatoes and mushrooms, chicken with roasted vegetables, pork with applesauce. When it comes to plant-based meals, Murphy recommends starting with the season.
“Then I look at what looks good at the market that day,” she says. “And then I think of a protein: beans or grains or pasta or polenta or such… whatever seems to ring with the vegetables I have.”
2. Embrace plant-based umami.
Many people taking their first foray into plant-based cooking complain about a lack of umami, but that just means they don’t know what’s at their disposal, according to Palcu-Chang.
“People always complain that vegetarian dishes aren’t satisfying or lack umami, especially meat-loving chefs,” he says. “But growing up half-Chinese eating Chinese and other Asian food my whole life, I’ve always wondered what these people are talking about. There are so many amazing tools at your disposal in the Asian pantry to make veggies deeply umami and satisfying it’s ridiculous. Soy sauce, black soy beans, fermented tofu, miso, yellow bean paste, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce—the list can literally go on forever. There is just no reason that vegetarian food can’t be umami if you take the time to educate yourself on how to do it.”
Stock your pantry with these and other sources of umami -- like tomato paste and black garlic -- and your dishes will be moreish and full-flavored.
3. Get to know your seasonings.
When you start with really great ingredients, you don’t need much to send them over the top. “To be quite frank, the best way to add moreishness to any dish is to start with excellent produce and products,” says Murphy.
To make these ingredients sing, Murphy relies on a few key techniques.
First, many of her cooked dishes start with an Italian mirepoix called a soffrito or soffriggere: a tiny dice of celery, carrot, and red or white onion with good extra-virgin olive oil that adds aroma and flavor.
She’s also generous with garlic, red pepper flakes, roasted seeds and nuts, fresh herbs, and citrus zest. Murphy uses a microplane grater to remove only the very outside layer of her citrus fruits, which she then dries at room temperature and sprinkles over the top of the finished dish.
And of course, there’s always salt. Choose a good quality one, like a Maldon sea salt or a grey fleur de sel, and use it sparingly as a finishing salt.
“I never salt until my vegetables are out of the oven,” Murphy says. “It gives a sense of layering.”
4. Think of your body.
Don't just think of flavor when you're creating a plant-based dish -- think of nutrients too. When Palcu-Chang is cooking at home, this is the first thing he considers.
“At home I think more about what it is that I am putting into my body and what types of food give me the energy to live the active lifestyle I lead,” he says. “I work well on tons of green vegetables, whole grains and fruits. So I start there and use that as inspiration to create something tasty for myself.”
5. Compose, don’t mix.
When you’re making a dish with several different elements, be it a salad, a Buddha bowl, or a mix of roasted vegetables, try to prepare and season each element separately and then unite them at the last minute.
“Each flavor is independent,” Murphy says, and this technique allows a lot more depth and diversity in the final dish.
“I think a lot about how to build flavors and layer textures in order to give customers the most satisfying vegetarian dishes possible,” says Palcu-Chang. This technique is a simple way to do just that.
6. Watch your (healthy) fats.
Choose whatever healthy oil you’d like, but don’t overdo it.
“Just enough to coat or a slight drizzle or two in the skillet,” Murphy recommends. “Otherwise things start to get that ‘fried’ taste.”
Instead of relying on pure fat, consider using other ingredients -- such as vinaigrette, salsa verde, or pesto -- to lubricate a dish while also adding flavor.
7. Add creaminess... without cream
Just because you’re not using milk or cream doesn’t mean you can’t make dishes creamy.
Murphy likes to use beans to achieve this texture. “For example, with a dish made with garbanzo beans, I’ll always puree up small portions of them once cooked, with a bit of their cooking water, then add that to the rest.”
Creaminess can also be achieved by adding a bit of olive oil to the cooking juices of your vegetables and reducing it, or by adding some of the starchy cooking water left over from cooking pasta to the final sauce.
“Thin pestos can also add creaminess,” Murphy says. “But I’m not too into ‘creaminess.’ Creaminess to me dresses things, and that’s not what I’m after."
Palcu-Chang, on the other hand, is a fan of traditional creaminess, something that he often achieves using entirely plant-based ingredients.
“I am a big fan of nut creams (cashew in particular), tofu, tahini and vegan mayos,” he says. “They always deliver in terms of that unctuous creamy texture that people love and crave.”
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Plant-based cooking image via Shutterstock