The curious omnivore’s guide to vegan cooking
Plant-based eating need not be boring — just follow these pro pointers
One of the most viral food TikToks in recent memory turns just two ingredients — water and flour — into incredibly convincing-looking chicken. (If you can’t envision such a feat, search #seitanrecipe, a hashtag with 15 million views and counting.) Many of us, it seems, are intrigued by vegan cooking, even if we’re not committed to the 100 per cent plant life.
It’s undeniable that eating more vegetables is the virtuous thing to do, for both personal and planetary health. On Earth Day, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention meat and dairy, especially from cows, have a particularly egregious carbon footprint, with livestock responsible for around 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases annually, says the UN. Only fossil fuels rank worse for the environment.
The main counterargument (one I use myself ) is that steak is delicious. But what if — hear me out — veggies could be just as appetizing? I called up three Toronto food experts to pick up techniques that’ll make consuming plants feel like less of a bland chore. Read on for ideas, whether you’re a curious omnivore, casual Meatless Monday dabbler or new vegan convert.
Don’t blame the veggies. Allow chef Matthew Ravenscroft, known for his vegan Mexican fare at Rosalinda, to serve up some (non-judgey) real talk: “When people say, ‘Vegetables don’t taste good,’ it just sounds like they’re not doing something right,” he explains. “It’s not the components. Something happened along the way.”
For starters, people tend to overcook and under-season, he notes. Broccoli need not be a bore, but if plain boiling is all you do, it will be. To embolden people to experiment, Ravenscroft started up his own site for plant-based recipes, thedirtyraven.com.
Treat plants like meat. The same techniques — marinating, seasoning, grilling — can still apply. “You can roast a piece of celeriac in salt, like you would with fish,” says Ravenscroft. “You can grill a head of cabbage or a carrot like it’s meat, and it’s amazing.” He’ll treat an eggplant wholeheartedly like a steak, throwing it on a flame and covering it in a mushroom Bordelaise.
If you want to intensify the flavour of a vegetable, coat and rub it in a bit of salt, he suggests, then let it sit out for an hour to pull out excess moisture, rinse off and reseason. Ravenscroft is also fond of slow roasting, which you can do with an entire pineapple. “Just take the green off and pop it in the oven for an hour or two at 325 degrees. It’ll be the most pineapple-y pineapple you’ve ever had.”
Procure your pantry essentials. Sam Turnbull, the recipe blogger behind “It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken,” was once an avid meat eater turned reluctant vegan (from a family of chefs, butchers and hunters, no less). When she made the switch to be true to her animallover ethics, she wasn’t stoked to subsist on sprouts and kale — so she learned to veganize comfort foods instead.
“One of the biggest things for me was really building up my spice and condiments cabinet,” says Turnbull, who just released her second cookbook, “Fast Easy Cheap Vegan.” Among her staples: nutritional yeast, a “secret weapon” for cheesy nuttiness; soy sauce for a dash of umami on broccoli, tofu or beans; and white miso paste, a go-to in dishes such as her no-dairy mac and cheese.
Chef Nick Liu of the popular New Asian restaurant DaiLo, which recently introduced a plant-based tasting menu on select days, also counts smoked paprika and cumin as essential enhancers. “When you’re working with just vegetables, the smokiness kind of makes your dish more three-dimensional and gives it layers of flavour, which is what your palate craves,” he explains. Try either spice with garlic and olive oil to give a lift to ordinary potatoes.
Consider the copycats. The idea of mock beef or pork made of peas may be polarizing, but for those who want straight substitutes for their favourite recipes, more off-the-shelf options are popping up. You could do as Liu does, for instance, and make your usual potstickers and just swap in PC Plant Based sweet Italian sausages — an ingredient he says cooks up the same way. (Full disclosure: the self-described flexitarian is a spokesperson for the line.)
For Turnbull, the more meat alternatives we have, the better. “It makes eating more plantbased really easy and familiar. It doesn’t have to be leaps and bounds different — you could go from a meat burger and fries to a vegan burger and fries,” she says.
Play with contrasting flavours.
Some vegetables are high in sugar, so they lean sweet. Once you understand the character of an ingredient, however, you can push against it with contrasting flavours, explains Ravenscroft. If you’re working with squash, say, blend some tangy, sour kimchi into a paste and brush it on. Take your root vegetables and braise them in a savoury mushroom stock. When he’s charring a head of broccoli on a grill, which brings out an unctuousness smokiness, he’ll want to add something bright, such as lemony herb salsa. If you’re looking for the kitchen equivalent of training wheels in this area, “The Flavor Bible” is a great straightforward guide, Ravenscroft recommends.
Don’t fret about being a plants-only purist. If you’re ready to quit meat cold turkey, cool. If you simply want to eat a little less meat in a low-key way, also cool. After all, a small change multiplied by many of us still equals a big impact. “I became really interested in asking the question, ‘How can we get people to eat the damn veggies?’ Just a little bit, maybe like one more dish a week,” says Ravenscroft. The answer isn’t guilt; it’s making the choice irresistibly delicious.
“You can grill a head of cabbage or a carrot like it’s meat, and it’s amazing.”
CHEF MATTHEW RAVENSCROFT