It’s easy to make food taste good when meat’s involved. Animal fats in particular are pretty much a guarantee of deliciousness (hence duckaroni!). But if you want to eat vegetarian for any reason—the carbon footprint of meat, say—you can’t pick up that particular crutch. Instead you’ve got to know your seasonings; here are some of my standards.
- What I learned of under the name ‘tarka’ is a standard technique in Indian cooking. It’s a (very) fast way to add a lot of spice flavor to your dish. Just heat up some oil, throw in your spices, let them pop, and dump the whole thing into whatever it is you’re cooking. When I make lentils, I like to do a mixture of mustard seeds and cumin, plus a little bit of fenugreek, fennel, and slices of fresh hot chiles. But the technique is adaptable to whatever you’re doing—there’s no reason, e.g., you couldn’t make a big pot of American-style chili and top it off with a tarka.
- Dried peppers and mushrooms go a long way, and (with the exception of some mushrooms) they’re cheap. The basic idea is the same for all of them; you soak first in hot water, then rinse and employ. For dried peppers, you can scrape the flesh from the skin, or throw in a blender and then use a sieve to separate the pulp from the skin. Chipotles, anchos, and guajillos all do excellent work in sauces and chili, or in savory soups (I like a sweet-potato-and-kidney-bean thing). Dried mushrooms can take soup, gravy, and lentils to new heights. A few porcini or a single morel adds depth, and can be used alongside a bunch of white button mushrooms as a cheap but powerful adjunct.
- Smoked ingredients of all kinds are potent. In addition to chipotles, smoked paprika can add some of the flavor to a soup (like split pea) that usually comes from ham or bacon. Liquid Smoke is also good, although easy to overdo. If you eat cheese, smoked cheeses are also a strong ingredient (try some quesadillas made with smoked gouda, caramelized onions, and wilted chard).
- Beer! Like many fermented ingredients, beer can be complex and exciting. (It can also be Coors Light.) Put beer in beans, chili, some soups, caramelized onions, even ice cream. Reducing is of course effective—one of these days I’d like to make a French onion soup with a beer reduction, instead of champagne.
- Nutritional yeast is something I’ve started using only recently, having thought of it mostly as a vegan dietary supplement. But it’s wonderful stuff—it works great in scrambles, on salads, on popcorn, and pretty much anything savory (pizza sauce, for example).
- Acids are something I generally use sparingly, but to great effect (imagine having a gin & tonic without that squeeze of lime). Although you can find a panoply of special vinegars—most at great expense—I find that I really only need lemon, lime, cider vinegar, and sherry vinegar. Limes will completely elevate even the most humble tacos, lemons work well on salads (and in wheat beers); I like to use cider vinegar in braised greens, and sherry vinegar is good pretty much anywhere you’d use balsamic.
That’s all for this installment. In future food posts, I’d like to address easy ways to localize your food, especially by growing your own. For example, in most parts of the U.S., it’s dead easy to grow chard and collards, which will yield nutritious greens for a whole season, and which greens are versatile enough to be used in all kinds of dishes.