Preparing tasty vegan food need not be daunting or perplexing.
Following is an alphabetical list of common vegan ingredients to get cozy with.
AGAR (or AGAR – AGAR) – Gelatin Substitute
Agar, which means “jelly”, is derived from red algae and is available in powder or flake form. When boiled in a liquid it magically transforms into a tasteless, odorless, gelatin with no crazy collagen extraction from animal bones necessary. The powder is preferable both in ease and concentration; the flakes need to soak in the liquid pre-boil for 10 minutes. The tide has turned if you thought being vegan meant a life without key lime pie, lemon squares, jello, and the like. You will definitely find it in Asian markets and in some natural and health food stores in the bulk bins or Asian section.
AGAVE NECTAR - Honey Substitute
Agave nectar is the distilled sap from the Agave tequiliana plant, the same wonderful cactus used to make tequila. Slightly sweeter than sugar with a much lower glycemic index, it is an ultra-versatile, natural sweetener available in light, amber, and dark varieties. Light agave has a very neutral taste whereas the amber and dark nectar impart a more caramel undertone. All varieties work anywhere a liquid sweetener is preferable, the light agave being especially agreeable when no added flavor is the goal. I use agave often; in coffee, oatmeal, dressings and marinades, baked goods…you get the idea. If you can’t find it along with the honey and maple syrup at your grocer try a health food store.
EARTH BALANCE – Butter Substitute
Earth Balance is a buttery tasting non-hydrogenated margarine and the only way to go in the world of butter substitutes. Although they try their damnedest, others just don’t taste or behave like butter all the while wreaking havoc on your insides with their crazy hydrogenation. The only caveat with Earth Balance is the tablespoon markings on the sticks – they are wacked. Weigh the amounts (what I do) or eyeball it by cutting each stick in half. Located among other margarine in the dairy case.
AKA dried kelp. Not as sexy as agar but very practical; when soaked and cooked with beans, kombu increases their digestibility. Used extensively in Japanese cooking as a natural flavor enhancer, it is also high in many vitamins and minerals. Find it in the Asian section or at Asian Markets.
A fermented soybean paste available in several varieties. Another Japanese cooking essential, rich in natural enzymes and an excellent digestive aid. I use the mellow white (also called light or sweet) which is actually light tan in color. Working in tandem with nutritional yeast (below), it is an essential component for creating a cheesy flavor in sauces, fillings and dressings, such as Caesar. Find it in the refrigerated section or at Asian markets.
Basically deactivated yeast, most people either love it or hate it. I use to be in the latter category in my early vegan days but we have become pretty friendly over time. My initial dislike came from trying recipes that added it far to liberally; with a strong umami (savory) quality it requires a delicate balance with other ingredients – straight up nutritional yeast sauces (which abound in the vegan blogosphere) don’t fly in my house. So if you are skeptical or have tried and failed with it, give it a go when you come across it in a VFK recipe - I know where you are coming from. As mentioned above, it is a necessary component in Caesar dressing, cheesy sauces, scrambled tofu, tofu ricotta, and probably something I’m forgetting. If adding a cheesy flavor is not enough to sell you, it is a superior source of protein containing all essential amino acids and also high in many vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. I have found it in the bulk bins and the vitamin aisle so look around; buy it in flake form. Bonus: some brands add B12, the necessary vitamin to a vegan diet and the only B vitamin not naturally occurring in nutritional yeast.
Often referred to as the “wheat meat” because it is made in a long process involving washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch dissolves leaving behind only the protein (gluten). This long, tedious process can be skipped by using vital wheat gluten flour. Seitan makes a great chewy meat substitute and finds it’s way into many of my dishes either straight up or ground up. You can buy it already made, usually in the same place as the tofu and tempeh. Less salty and way cheaper to make your own, here is how it’s done:
Homemade Seitan: Mix together with a whisk in a large bowl the following: 1 c. vital wheat gluten flour with 3 Tbsp. nutritional yeast and 1/4 tsp. black pepper. In a large measuring cup combine 1/2 c. water and 1/4 c. tamari sauce (or soy sauce). Stir the wet into the dry until it clumps into a big mass. Kneed the whole thing a few times until nice and elastic. Add a few shakes of wheat gluten if too doughy and wet. Cut it into 3 equal size pieces.
In a 3.5 qt. sauce pot or larger, combine 8 cups of water with 1/3 cup tamari. Add seitan, cover and bring to a simmer. Cook covered at a simmer for an hour. A nice, light bubbling is good; a rolling boil will make the seitan too spongy. It will double in size, I like to cut a piece off to check that it is nice and tender. Store covered in the cooled simmering liquid in the refrigerator (you must let hot things cool to room temp. before transferring to the fridge).
Tahini is the paste made from hulled sesame seeds; toasted is tastiest, raw tahini is a little blah. Necessary ingredient for hummus and babaganoush, it also finds its way into some of my other recipes as a binder and flavor enhancer. Usually located with other nut butters.
Shoyu and tamari are both soy sauce, the only difference being in preparation and all are interchangeable. Tamari is the wheat-free version, available organic and reduced-sodium. Being that soy sauce is naturally high in sodium and soybeans are un-doubtebly GMO if not organic, this is the only way I go.
A nutty, chewy, fermented soybean patty. That may have you swear off trying it, but when prepared properly and in the right context, it is super fantastic. My whole family has grown to love it. It is heartier and “meatier” than tofu. Tempeh usually lives among the tofu in the refrigerated section of the market.
Basically a conglomerate of coagulated soy milk curds, tofu is a great source of calcium, protein and the most versatile of the protein trio. It’s available in extra-firm, firm, and silken. Silken is great for smoothies, dressings, and in desserts. I barely find use for the firm, but the extra-firm is always stocked in my fridge. The secret to success with tofu is to press out the excess liquid before any application where it needs to absorb flavors. All varieties are available in the refrigerated section of the market which is what I use.
To Press Tofu: wrap it in a clean cloth napkin or dishtowel and place it on the counter on top of another cloth. Top with a brick (or other heavy object) and let drain for 30 minutes to an hour. Firm needs at least an hour and will not retain it’s shape, extra-firm is good after 30 minutes with it’s shape intact.
VEGENAISE – Mayonaise Substitute
Again, the leg work has been done for you on this one, this is the best vegan mayo hands down. Available in original, organic, high-omega (my favorite), and if you have been a mayo-phobe because of fat, a reduced fat version! I don’t need to tell you what to do with mayo, get it in the refrigerated section of your market or a natural foods store.
VITAL WHEAT GLUTEN
The remarkable protein in wheat flour that causes some delight and others displeasure. I use VWG to make seitan and as a binder in other things, such as sans meat hot dogs. As mentioned under seitan, it is much cheaper and less salty to make your own seitan. Find it with the other flours, usually in a thin box or in the bulk bins.