I grew up in an immigrant household in which my parents not only worked full-time but often made it home well past dinner. Their busy work schedules meant I had to fend for myself in the kitchen, using whatever ingredients we had in the cupboard while cooking shows on the Food Network provided background guidance. When I was feeling adventurous, I would challenge my best friend to secret ingredient cookoffs (usually ketchup), experiment with creating meals in less than 30 minutes, and try to master the art of morning muffins without blowing up the kitchen.
In my vegan adult life, my passion for cooking has only grown. The added benefit of being able to buy my own groceries, peruse the internet for recipes, and understand the difference between baking soda and powder (just kidding, still have no idea) has fueled my curiosity in the kitchen. Through trial and error, I have learned to feed myself and others while developing what I like to think are some serious chops in the kitchen. Based on my self-taught experiences, here are my five top culinary tips to create praiseworthy (or at the least edible) vegan food.
1. DO batch cook
While following an entire recipe can be difficult for a first-timer, cooking separate ingredients and then pulling them together with an easy topping or sauce takes less know-how. For instance, put on a pot of quinoa while roasting a tray of lightly salted sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower. I also like to cut off the top of a whole head of garlic, drizzle a bit of oil, and throw that on the tray before tossing the softened roasted cloves into my one-bowl roasted vegetable meal. Finish this dish with a drizzle of prepared tahini dressing (try the one from Trader Joe’s), and you’ve got yourself a meal.
2. DON’T skimp on tools
When I was 13, I thought a spoon and a spatula were the same thing, but I’ve since discovered that I was wrong. I’ve also learned that my grandmother’s Sunbeam blender does not equal a Vitamix. Nor does a George Forman Grill compare to a real grill. So, learn from my mistakes, and invest in the essentials: a good set of measuring cups and spoons, a decent mixing bowl, a sharp chef’s knife, a high-speed blender, and a spiralizer. I promise, you won’t regret it.
3. DON’T let prickly pears scare you
… or any other unfamiliar ingredient for that matter. In a world where you can Google any intimidating food and learn how to prepare it, nobody should be afraid to cook with sunchokes, bitter melon, celeriac, lemon verbena, mustard greens, or prickly pears. I find the best approach to adding variety is zeroing in on one “strange” plant at a time and figuring out how to incorporate it into meals with which you’re already familiar. Slice a prickly pear atop of your oatmeal, and throw some mustard greens into the skillet with your kale. Before you know it, your repertoire will expand, and not even a Buddha’s hand will throw off your cooking game.
4. DO make friends with your freezer
I used to look at my freezer as an endless abyss of half-filled ice cube trays, but I have learned to use it to my advantage. Now, I like to think of my freezer as a time capsule that preserves the hard work I put into past meals. I’ll make a bigger batch of pasta sauce or double-up a soup recipe, then freeze leftovers for a day when cooking isn’t on the agenda. That way, I feel like I’m still active in the kitchen without spending much time cooking.
5. DON’T obsess over presentation
When sharing vegan food with friends, I always feel like I need to impress them with both flavor and presentation. Because of this, I imagine myself as a Michelin-starred chef when plating my finished dishes, with an orchestra accompanying my careful placement of glazed carrots atop a brightly colored purée smeared artfully across a pristine plate. The truth, however, is that often I’m just struggling to make things look less brown. Fresh green herbs, halved cherry tomatoes, and a bit of citrus zest can add a visual accent to a dish, while colorful plates in different shapes and sizes also create the illusion of interesting presentation. In the end, vegan cooking (and food sharing) is supposed to be both nourishing and fun. If all else fails, just put some nooch on it.
VegNews Editorial Assistant Anna Starostinetskaya likes to experiment in the kitchen and sings Russian folk songs while she’s cooking.
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