Avoiding meat doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice flavor. Everyone has his or her own reason for choosing a vegetarian diet, and health is a common one. When you design a meal, of course you need to make sure it’s going to be full of nutrients, good proteins, and fats. But you need to make sure it’s going to taste good, too.
Through years of cooking and designing recipes, here are my 10 favourite tricks for making vegetarian meals more interesting so that no one ever feels slighted on taste.
Spices add character to any vegetable-centric meal. Explore ones that may be unfamiliar to you, such as sumac (my personal favourite), a dried Middle Eastern berry that gives a tart, citrus zippiness to rich root vegetables. Take the time to toast spices, it really opens up the flavor and gives them greater depth.
Shop seasonally to enjoy produce at its peak. Tomatoes are at their sweetest in late summer, while butternut squash is nutty and lush in mid-winter. With a little effort you can freeze or can fresh tomatoes to enjoy them all year long. Opt for fresh herbs when available and use them generously.
Build a Strong Foundation
Aromatics such as garlic, onions, leeks, and ginger make a great base for soups, braised greens, and stews. Save the odds and ends from your plant-based meals and master a good vegetable broth. It will be better than anything you can buy. Freeze stock in ice cube trays, and add the cubes to the cooking liquid for a batch of grains, or to kick up the flavor of braised greens.
You can even tailor your stock to a specific dish. For example, use stripped corn cobs to make a simple stock for corn soup. Or combine fresh and dried mushrooms for an easy stock for mushroom risotto. Parmesan rinds take a standard vegetable stock to a whole new level of added richness.
Add Salt As You Go
Foods develop more flavour if you season throughout the cooking process, as opposed to all at once at the beginning. Every time you add a new ingredient to the pot, season it. Holding your hand about 10 inches over whatever you’re seasoning will help distribute the salt granules evenly over the food’s surface. Experiment with flavoured salts, which you can easily make on your own. Mix paprika, cumin, or fresh herbs with salt, or look for finishing salts that add an additional layer of flavor and crunch to a finished dish like a smoked or flaky sea salt.
Discover the World of Sauces
Use fresh herbs to make condiments like chermoula, salsa verde, and chimichurri as finishing elements to just about any meal. Stir a little olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice into your favourite sauce to turn it into a salad dressing. Try these five sauces to get started.
Taste What Brown Can Do for You
Don’t be afraid of high heat when roasting or grilling vegetables, you’ll get great caramelisation, which translates to lots of flavor. If you have a grill, try adding wood chips to the fire, or use a hardwood charcoal such as mesquite. Cut vegetables in cross-sections rather than a traditional dice or chop. More surface area means more browned flavor—and they’ll look better, too.
Add Umami for Richness
Along with sweet, salty, bitter, and sour, umami is one of the essential tastes that form the foundation of flavor. It’s sometimes described as “meaty” and is found in savoury foods like miso, mushrooms, cheese, and nutritional yeast.
Adding an umami-rich ingredient to a dish can deepen the flavor and make it more satisfying. Fermented foods, like kimchi, sauerkraut, and yogurt are rich in umami and have the added benefit of being good for your gut.
Go for the Crunch
Toasted nuts and puffed grains add texture and protein to vegetarian dishes. Toast cooked farro and quinoa in a dry pan or quick-roasting nuts in the oven. Turn leftover bread into croutons, and spread grated Parmesan on a baking sheet and toast it to make Parmesan crisps that will add umami and crunch to soups and salads. I’m also a fan of dukkah, an Egyptian spice blend that combines hazelnuts, sesame seeds, coriander, and cumin. Use it to make a crust for baked tofu, or sprinkle it as additional seasoning on pastas and salads.
Make Fat Your friend
Good-for-you fats like olive, avocado, and coconut oil make a delicious garnish for soups and braised vegetables. Drizzle a little on top just before eating for added richness and flavour.
Don’t Forget the Protein
You’ll want to make sure that your plant-based diet includes plenty of protein. Legumes like lentils and chickpeas are excellent sources of protein. Vegetables like spinach, edamame, and broccoli—and grains like quinoa and buckwheat—add flavour, texture, and essential nutrients.
And remember, there are very few vegetarian dishes from pastas, soups, salads, and pizzas that can’t be improved by the addition of a well-cooked egg.