Let’s talk basics.
Adding new plant-based meals to the kitchen repertoire is much simpler if we have some go-to items in the kitchen, some basic ingredients and condiments we can keep on hand to make our meals pleasurable and satisfying.
Here are a few suggestions.
You know that dried beans are economical. You also know they require some forethought. Soaking, long cooking times. Yes. I hear you can shorten cook times with an pressure cooker, so you can give that a try if time is of the essence.
We use dried beans in the café. But canned is convenient, and works for most purposes. Pick a couple varieties and keep them in rotation. We like black beans and chickpeas.
Black beans need no soaking, by the way. Serious Eats says so, and who are we to argue? . Chickpeas, we soak. White beans and limas get ugly during the soaking process, and will often split. We don’t use either very often.
Lentils are great to have around. They cook in 20 minutes and can be subbed into all kinds of recipes calling for ground beef.
Pick your favorites. We like brown rice for its versatility, and quinoa, both red and white. At home we use basmati. It’s fragrant like popcorn. Millet is also good. Quinoa cooks fast, and we like how it looks when we combine the red with the white.
Most grains cook in 40-45 minutes. Quinoa is done in 20. Sweet.
Pasta gets a bad rap, but who doesn’t love it? Couscous, usually made from semolina wheat or barley, is a type of pasta that needs no boiling. You just place equal parts dry couscous and boiling water in a bowl or pan and cover it for ten minutes. That’s pretty much instant.
Old fashioned rolled oats are good in veggie patties and in desserts. Bob’s Red Mill has good-quality gluten-free rolled oats.
Tamari is wheat-free soy sauce. We usually add it to the cooking water when we make brown rice for extra flavor.
We keep a jar of Better Than Boullion vegetable base in the fridge for adding to less-than-robust vegetable stocks or other brothy things that could use a boost. A small tin of tomato paste serves the same purpose.
Apple cider vinegar is our go-to for salad dressings. Red wine vinegar and rice vinegar are also nice to have. We use balsamic sparingly, but it’s absolutely wonderful reduced to a syrup and drizzled over just about anything roasted or pan-seared.
Tahini is a staple in the café kitchen. We use it in salad dressing, hummus, even in our granola bars.
Hot sauce can rescue all kinds of bland dishes. Ditto for lemon juice.
Herbs & Spices
Our cupboard always contains the basic green herbs — thyme, oregano, and basil — and seed spices, some ground, some whole, like cumin, fennel, coriander, cayenne, and paprika, both sweet and smoked. We also keep a curry powder blend on hand, as well as the sweet spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and cloves.
We’ve mentioned beans. We also keep canned tomatoes on the shelf. We like Muir Glen’s fire roasted tomatoes in just about everything.
Canned coconut milk is nice to have. You can add it to soup or stews or use it to thicken a pudding. Yum.
We keep a good olive oil around, and a bottle of safflower oil. Coconut oil is good in baked goods and sesame oil elevates a stir fry. Vegan margarine is nice for making pie crusts.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are expensive and go rancid quickly, so we use them sparingly. We like pumpkin seeds a lot, and sunflower seeds. Sesame seeds are especially nice toasted in a dry pan and used to top vegetable dishes. Chia seeds will thicken a pudding, as will ground flax seeds. Both are relatively inexpensive and easy to find. Ground flax stirred into a bit of water makes a good egg substitute in baked goods like muffins or cakes.
Golden raisins, dates, dried cranberries, and dried apricots get used the most in our cafe meals. Currents are nice for adding a pop of sweet-tartness in vegetable terrines and tomato sauces. Dried coconut is good for quick desserts, like our no-bake date truffles.
We don’t use a lot of it, but some recipes are just better with rice milk or coconut milk in place of water. If you buy it in the shelf-stable container it will last for weeks in your cupboard. Once opened, use it up within a week.
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So you don’t need to go out and buy all this stuff at once, okay? Just know that there are all sorts of simple pantry items that you can use to make plant-based meals more delicious, and maybe you can look for them when you’re out and about. Happy hunting.