I believe I am the queen of homemade healthy fast food. Being my own weekend “sous chef” and prepping pretty well all my veggies on one weekend morning means I can whip up varied delicious meals super fast through the week. Yesterday, for instance, I chopped and roasted several large trays full of different vegetables (onions, carrots, peppers, potatoes). After using what I needed for last night’s recipe, I cooled and mixed the others into a very large bowl which I will use to top my salads, toss into noodles for dinners, or add to soups this week.
But, someone recently asked me how I can keep everything from tasting the same if I am using so many of the same ingredients. The answer is that I have a basic set of “enhancers” that I combine to add different flavours and styles to my meals. Here are some of my favourites:
Mushroom powder– You can buy this from some health food stores, but it is usually expensive. Instead, I get packages of dried mushrooms (any kind you want to try- they all give a slightly different flavour) from the ethnic foods area of my town for a few dollars, and blend them into a powder in my bullet blender. If you toss a few spoonfuls of mushroom powder into soups or stews, it gives them a hearty earthy “umame” taste that is so comforting- great for winter. If you use the powder in seitan, it gives it a much meatier taste too.
- Salsa- You can make your own, or look for a brand with low sugar, salt, and carbs. I use a chunky version, which can be used as is (to add more veggies and another hit of flavour to your own homemade stews, chilis, curries, or sauces), or blended down to a sauce to enhance or replace the less healthy commercial spaghetti or barbecue sauces. It can even be added to hummus or other dips.
- Nutritional Yeast- Yes, the old standby that all vegans seem to have around- it adds a cheesy flavour to all sorts of things (like popcorn), and can be sprinkled directly onto your hot veggies for a quick flavour boost. My favourite way to use it, though, is when I make a batch of “the best dressing in the world“. This can be used as a salad dressing, or poured over hot veggies. It is also a delicious marinade/stirfry sauce for fake meats and tofu. Hint: freeze your extra firm tofu, then thaw and press it. It will be meatier and more porous to soak up the marinade.
- Tamari/Soy Sauce/Aminos- Another salty, earthy flavour that can be mixed with all kinds of things to create different sauces. Try it with wasabi paste/powder to remind you of sushi. With maple syrup it becomes a delicious glaze for salmon, tofu, chicken, veggies, etc. With chili peppers it gives a “Thai-like” flavour and can be used to flavour veggies, nuts, or seeds as you are roasting them. It adds an extra dimension to anything you’d like to mix it with (mustard, BBQ sauce, TVP, etc).
- Miso- Different types add different flavours, so get whichever type you like, and experiment putting it into whatever you want, to add a salty and savory punch.
- Pepper Jelly- Any type- mild, red pepper, jalapeno, habanero, whatever! This adds a hit of sweet along with some heat, and helps to layer flavours in the foods you make. It can be used as a glaze for veggies all by itself, or it can make a savory sauce glossy and multi-dimensional in taste.
There you have a few of my go-to flavour enhancers. Having them on hand means that you can create whatever flavour profile you fancy within minutes (especially if you also have a few spices, vinegars, and salts on hand as well). The trick is to identify broadly what you are going for. Western “meat and potatoes” type heartiness, or something reminiscent of any other culture you can think of can all be made with the layers of sweet, sour, salty, hot, or umame provided in the ingredients.
If you are nervous about experimenting on the fly, just go online and search whatever combination of ingredients you are thinking of along with “recipe” (ie- “miso, pepper jelly recipe”) and you will see that likely someone has been down that thought path before and left you the recipe to prove it. If you do this, you will soon have the experience and confidence to make all of your cooking more delicious and adventurous at the same time.
So, what are your secret flavour tricks? I’d love to add a few new ones to my repertoire.