Everybody loves a backstage pass. We want to know secrets. We want the inside scoop. We adore gossip columns because they give us an inside glimpse … to whatever. There’s a hit television show called ‘Secrets of a Restaurant Chef.’ It’s filled with tips and tricks to help you cook just like a great chef, but most people just want to get dinner on the table and discover the best and easiest ways to do that. And if you thinking about going plant-based, your confusion may grow. What do you eat once you decide to take a pass on animal foods? What does a meal look like? And how long will it take to master techniques and get a delicious meal on the table?
Take a deep breath. I hear these questions all the time. So here you go — here are my top five cooking secrets that will make adopting a plant-based diet a breeze … and a delicious one at that!
1. It’s All About the Knife
Regardless of what you decide to cook, it’s all about the knife. For you to be successful in the kitchen on any level, you need a knife that serves the purpose of your cooking. For most people that I train, I see that knife skills are the single most important thing holding them back from being geniuses in the kitchen. It’s not a lack of creative thinking or even desire to cook (okay, sometimes it’s a lack of desire) but a lack of skill with and fear of a kitchen knife.
Buying your knife is like a first date. You need to fall in love to have a successful relationship. If you’re preparing dinner with a paring or steak knife, a serrated knife or the multi-piece set you received as a wedding or going away to college gift (and you haven’t sharpened them since), it’s time to invest in your cooking.
A good chef knife will range in price from $35 to, well, the sky is the limit. The knives I use each and every day cost about $200 each but I bought them…once…and I am all set. I am completely monogamous when it comes to knives so my ceramic babies (and I do baby them…) are all I need. But if you’re not ready to invest quite that much yet, you can get a great knife for under $100. Choose a stainless steel or carbon steel blade for the greatest durability. When buying, look for a store where you can hold the knives before purchase. I know this will sound weird but when the knife that suits you is in your hand, you’ll know it. Like a first date; you know.
When you buy your knife, buy a steel, a diamond steel — you’ll need it! Each day, before you begin cooking, sharpen your blade; hone it lightly on the steel so your knife is always sharp. When your knife is dull or chipped, you’ll be working too hard and grow weary and frustrated … and are more likely to get cut than if your knife is clean and sharp.
And you need to learn to use your knife, which leads us to…
2. Understanding through Study
Lots of people like to read about plant-based eating and that’s a great thing. We have cookbooks, resources, recipes galore (around 46,300,000 websites for recipes at last count) and information (about 11,000,000 sites alone). We have food blogs and videos to learn how to cook various recipes.
That’s a great start.
But in my experience, I would advise you take a cooking class (or two or two hundred). As a cooking teacher, I admit to being a tad biased but my vegan cooking had its start with books and when I took my first cooking class, my eyes were opened to the ease of prep if you watched how the pros did it. I also think it’s essential to study about plant-based eating before jumping in with both feet. If you decide to forego animal foods (and I hope you do), you need to figure out how to make up for those nutrients which you can easily do with plants. Remember that cows naturally eat grass. You can get all you need from plants (even protein), but you need to develop your understanding of food so you maintain your vitality once you go vegan. I love pcrm.org (as well as my site and One Green Planet) for finding great information and staying motivated.
I also recommend reading and educating yourself on what it means to be vegan besides a love of animals and compassion for all living things and then get to cooking class!
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Mix It Up
Don’t you just love diced, roasted sweet potatoes in a raw salad in cooler weather? Or fresh orange slices tossed with lightly steamed greens? Combining raw and cooked ingredients bring a meal to life. Sure, this technique creates some interesting textures and flavors, but what it really does is alter the energy of the dish. Mixing cooked ingredients with raw gives a dish foundation and mixing raw ingredients into cooked makes a dish feel lighter in our bodies. It elevates the dish by creating antagonistic temperatures (cold oranges stirred into warm greens) which can, along with texture differences, make a dish really sparkle. It’s a great and completely simple way to keep things from getting boring!
4. Keep It Simple, Seasonal…and Fresh
As much as possible, always use fresh, seasonal produce (organic where you can). I have been cooking a plant-based macrobiotic diet for a very long time now, but when I decided to join a CSA years ago, it changed everything. There’s nothing quite like the taste of freshly harvested veggies and fruit … nothing. Berries are more intense, kale more tender, leeks, peas and asparagus more mild, lettuce more tender, tomatoes sexier, and squash sweeter. And since many of the farmers involved in CSA or markets grow organically (or at least without spraying), you know you are getting the best quality at the best price. Join a CSA or hang out the local farm market to take advantage of the freshest food, to connect with the people who grow it, and to do your part to support rural economic stability. Find a market near you at localharvest.org.
5. Season It
When I was a child, I learned to cook from my mother. She always said that if you had fresh ingredients, all you needed to make delicious food was olive oil, garlic, lemon and salt. I used to roll my eyes in exasperation that she could think cooking was so simple. All these years later, as I teach cooking, I find myself saying that if your ingredients are fresh, all you need to make a delicious meal is olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and salt.
In short, you need to learn to season.
Salt has the job of making our food taste delicious. The goal is to taste no salt, but to have the flavors of your food burst on your tongue. And while there are guidelines and measurements in most foods, the key is to smell your food as you season. Yes, smell, not taste. We taste with our sense of smell first so if food smells delicious, it very likely will taste delicious. Let your nose guide your hand and use the best quality sea salt you can find … and afford. Sea salt can enhance your health when used properly, because it’s lower in sodium chloride than table salt that’s more refined.
A splash of citrus juice or vinegar can turn a mild-mannered dish into a dish whose flavors soar. Fresh lemon or lime juice or zest, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, brown rice vinegar or champagne vinegar can really bring a dish to life. And there’s an added bonus. Adding an acid to your dish helps you to digest it more efficiently, so it’s much more than just a flavor boost.
Ah, spices. I am asked about them time and again. Do I use them? How do I use them? Why don’t I use them more? I tend to have a very light hand with spices in my cooking. I love fresh herbs and the delicate flavors they bring to food, but I even use those lightly. I see them as optional. Maybe it’s my Italian upbringing. My Nonna used to ask why people put the whole herb garden in their food. Don’t they cook well? Don’t they know herbs are medicine? And that’s true. Herbs and spices were once considered to be powerful medicine. Basil was to help purify blood, cinnamon helps stabilize blood sugar to give a couple of examples. And so while I use them in my cooking, I use them prudently. Some people believe they create the flavors in a meal and while I can’t condemn that as wrong (there is no right or wrong with spices), I am of the mind that I let the flavors of the food shine through with use herbs and spices as needed to bring out certain qualities or to help balance a dish or to honor a cultural influence. For instance, I use hot spice when there’s a bit more oil in a dish because it aids us in digesting the fat in the oil. I use herbs like basil, thyme or rosemary to balance and enhance the sweetness of a dish or to bring out the flavor of certain veggies. I use curries and turmeric for a warmer spice when I want to create a dish with strong anti-inflammatory properties.
Herbs and spices can be used to help to make a dish seem ‘familiar’ when you are transitioning to a plant-based diet. Refried beans should taste a certain way, regardless of whether they are vegan or not. An Italian dish with tomatoes demands basil to seem authentically Italian. A French dish without thyme, a Thai dish without lemongrass, or an Indian dish without garam masala would all be a food crime. But in truth, all you really need to cook great plant-based food is olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt.
In the end, my secrets are what work for me in my kitchen and in my mission to help people discover the delicious joys of plant-based eating.
I will leave you with one last tip … a bonus, if you will. Have fun with your cooking. Enjoy the process and get caught up in the passion of it. Cooking is sexy and dramatic, calming and nourishing. It is the creation of life and the consummate expression of love.
Lead Image Source: Mild Coconut Carrot Soup With Shitake Cilantro and Spring Onion