Note: For the four weeks between January 14th and February 11th, I'm adopting a completely vegan lifestyle. Every weekday I'll be updating my progress with a diary entry and a recipe. For past posts, check here!
Days 24: Monday
Breakfast: Toast with Flax Seeds, Tomato Sauce, and Baked Beans
Lunch: Chickpea, Potato, and Spinach Jalfrezi (recipe coming), basmati rice, a clementine.
Dinner: Beet and Citrus Salad with Pinenut Vinaigrette, Polenta (flavored with miso), with olive-y, caper-y, pickle-y tomato sauce (kinda like a puttanesca).
As an omnivore, I always had a few staples on hand in my pantry that I used primarily as flavor enhancing ingredients. A range of fridge-stable stuff of which I could add a dollop or two to any dish to instantly amp it up.
It ranged from things like various compound butters kept in the freezer to blocks of stock or homemade demi-glace for glazing. Guanciale or chorizo or duck fat. Really great Parmigiano-Reggiano or frozen cured foie for grating. Anchovies or fish sauce.
You get the idea—simple, intensely flavored things in a wide variety of genres—enough of them that no matter what I was cooking, I could find something that would complement the flavor profile.
As a vegan of three and a half weeks, I've discovered that there's a whole new set of these ingredients,and I've gradually been honing my pantry, stocking up on my favorite ones so that eventually, I hope to have just as large a selection to choose from. Here are a few of my go-to's thus far:
Basic Store-Bought Sauces
Soy sauce and marmite are two of my favorite seasonings for the massive amount of umami-factor they can bring to soups, stews, and sauces, but I've recently been turning to Maggi Seasoning as well. Like marmite, it's main flavor comes from glutamate-rich yeast extract and salt, and it brings a nice savoriness to any dish while still blending into the background. It's the classic sauce for a Vietnamese sandwich.
Miso paste is another great savoriness-inducer. Again, soups and stews will benefit from its presence, but so will things like marinades, stir fry sauces, and (as I recently found out), polenta or risotto.
I keep a variety of East Asian sauces on hand to use as a drizzle over many dishes. My go-to's are Lee Kum Kee brand's Chiu Chow Chili Oil (sweet, hot, and oily), a jar of "Street Vendor's Noodle Sauce" I found at the local Chinese grocer (it's also hot and oily with a bit of Sichuan peppercorn in it), fermented chili bean paste, a couple types of ready-to-use Thai curry paste (I'll make it homemade for special occasions), and Huy Fung brand's Sambal Oelek (much better than their Sriracha), amongst others.
There's a big jar of Frank's RedHot in my fridge, though if our recent taste test has anything to say about it, I should probably keep a bottle of Tabasco Buffalo Style in there as well (I keep a small bottle of regular tabasco). I recently got a bottle of Bone Lee's Gourmet Hot Sauce which is somewhat like Frank's in heat and consistency, but with a bit more going on in the background. Good stuff.
My consumption of good extra virgin olive oil has gone up about fourfold since going vegan, as has my appreciation of the different varieties available. I have a can of walnut oil now that I use in various dressing or to drizzle on soup, as well as a jar of sesame oil and argan oil.
Acidity is something folks often forget about when seasoning food, but you won't if you keep a supply of various vinegars. Everybody loves good balsamic, but I usually end up reaching for the Chinese Chinkiang black vinegar or the Japanese brown rice vinegar (lemons and limes are good to have on hand as well).
Some Easy Homemade Sauces
Vinaigrettes are an absolute essential in a veg-heavy kitchen. With no pre-made vinaigrette, I find it tough to get myself to eat fresh green leafy vegetables (nutritional powerhouses that are the backbone of a good vegan diet). They're just so much work, measuring, whisking, tossing, seasoning, etc. On the other hand, with a vinaigrette or two on hand, putting a salad on the table is as simple as tossing and serving. If you've got some squeeze bottles with the recipes written on the side (check out the method here), then your life is even easier. I always have soy vinaiagrette on hand, along with one or two others.
Roasted Chili Oil has always been a staple in my pantry, even when I ate meat. Roasting dried chiles before steeping them in oil adds smokiness and complexity to the heat. To make it, I toast a large handful of small dried red Chinese chiles in a hot wok until fragrant, then pour oil over them and heat it until they start to bubble. Transfer the mixture to a sealed container, refrigerate it, and let it steep for at least a few days before using. As the levels drop down, you can simply add more roasted chilis and oil, using the same jar indefinitely. I've had mine now for several years and it's still going strong.
Mayonnaise is an amazing sauce, able to take on the flavor of anything it comes in contact with and spread it in a smooth, fatty wash over your tongue. Miso, hot sauce, coffee, chipotle peppers, you name it, it'll go well in mayo. Bad news is that the commercial stuff is not vegan. Good news is you can easily make it yourself at home.
Tare is a sweet Japanese sauce that's the backbone of many dishes like yakitori (grilled chicken), unagi (broiled eel), and teriyaki. The simplest is made by simmering equal parts by volume of sake, mirin, shoyu, and sugar (say, a cup of each) until a thick, glossy consistency is reached, but I like to add a bit of flavor by tossing in some carrot chunks, scallions, garlic, onions, and a tiny bit of ginger. Drizzle over roasted or grilled vegetables.
Cilantro Chutney: A simple sauce made from pureeing a couple handfuls of cilantro leaves with lime juice, a clove of garlic, plenty of salt, and enough water to get it going, it's best on its first day, but I add enough salt to give it at least a couple week's worth of life. It's equally at home on Mexican dishes (check out the recipe here), or drizzled over curries. I like stirring some into my beans, rice, or soup.
This is obviously just a start and doesn't touch on many of the other greats. Tahini, gochujang, spice mixes like five spice or za'atar, to name a few.
Point is, if you want to lead an interesting life in the kitchen, whether you're a vegan, an omnivore, or a meativore, you've got to stop living recipe-to-recipe and instead invest a bit of time and effort into building out your pantry. In the end it'll not only save you time in the kitchen, but it'll make all of your food taste better as well.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.